by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)

Kobe Bryant sits before a group of journalists in L.A.—on the Forum floor, no less—and he’s talking about SLAM covers. Not this cover of this issue that you’re looking at now, seeing that we hadn’t shot it (or even set up the time to shoot it) yet, but a SLAM cover for that other guy who has had more covers than him, the one who retired but didn’t. No, the other one. “Y’all gotta do one with him in Philly now,” he says. “It’s a good look.”

What’s that? Is Kobe Bryant sounding…content? A little while later, someone Kobe Bryant, SLAM 136asks him straight-up about his competitiveness. Does it carry over off the court? His answer is exaggerated, delivered with that familiar half-smirk: “Noooooo, why would I do that? Not at all.” The laughter comes from everyone, most of all Kobe himself. It’s pushed further—someone suggests the original questioner challenge Kobe to a game of NBA 2K10. And just like that, playtime is over: “Yeah, you talk to Melo,” Kobe fires back, “ask him what happened with that game.” Well, that about covers that.

Last night Kobe passed mentor and friend Jerry West to become the Lakers’s all-time leading scorer, dropping 44 points on the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s reaching new milestones daily, at the point in his career where each accomplishment is something else for the Hall of Fame plaque. When he laces them up on February 8th to take on the San Antonio Spurs, he’ll play in his thousandth regular-season game. Sure, it might not happen on that night. He could miss a game between now and then to rest his fractured fingers and sprained right ankle. But that’s not what Kobe does. That’s not who Kobe is.

A long time ago, some idiot wrote the following words in the pages of this very magazine: “I’m not sure if anyone really understands Kobe Bryant. In fact, I’m not even sure if Kobe Bryant really understands Kobe Bryant.” We ran them twice, actually—the second time in our 10th Anniversary issue—and went so far as to dub him “The Enigma,” like he wore a question mark instead of a number eight. Yes, some things about Kobe were hard to understand. But his center, his essence, that should have been clear even then: Kobe Bryant wanted to be the best player to ever play the game of basketball. We were missing the tree for the forest. What idiot, what moron, what brainless hack would even suggest that Kobe didn’t even understand himself? Yep, that would be me.

If anything, Kobe can be too easy to read sometimes. Like Mike, he’s polished and prepared in interview settings, but also like Mike, he can’t keep that competitive fire tamped all the way down. He just can’t help himself. It’s funny too—the first time I sat down with Kobe for an extended interview, he insisted he was nothing like Michael Jordan. I believe the words he used were “totally different.” He was 21, just coming off his first championship, and it was clearly untrue even then, but the way he said it left no room for arguing.

Now, 10 years later, he seems not only willing to accept the comparison, but he’ll even be the one to bring it up. Near the end Kobe Bryant, SLAM 136of our Q&A session in New York, which took place after we did get him shot (by world-renowned photographer Martin Schoeller, no less) I ask him whether there are inherent conflicts between the career-long goal of becoming the best player ever and the year-to-year goal of winning championships. He doesn’t even hesitate:

“No, I think the trick is to win. For all of Michael’s individual brilliance, he never would have been considered arguably the greatest of all time had he not won. It’s just as simple as that. And to do that, you have to have some kind of luck, because you have to have teammates around you. I mean, he played with one of the all-time greats in Scottie Pippen. So you have to have a support system around you to help you accomplish those things. So I don’t think those lines are blurred at all. You have to win. There’s been a lot of great individual players in the past—Dominique Wilkins, Bernard King—these guys were talented individuals. But they couldn’t get over that hump.”

Kobe’s been over that hump four times now, placing him neatly between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and tied with Shaquille O’Neal. The championship question has been answered. He’s won. But he’s still two behind Jordan and he’s only been named Finals MVP once and despite all the accomplishments there’s so much left to do. After the cover discussion dies down in L.A., I ask whether winning the title last year refreshed him:

“It made me hungrier. It made me hungrier, if that makes any sense. It’s like, OK, we’ve got it. I’m in the party now—before I was outside in the street, like begging Phoenix and them to let me in. Now we got in, kicked them out, now you can’t come in. We gonna hold our house down.”

Kobe Bryant, SLAM 136