There’s something different about you. You seem so ... calm.
Because I am. That’s just the maturation. That’s 17 years of seeing everything the game can dish out. I’ve seen it all before. There’s no need to get too crazy or bent out of shape. There are still challenges everyday. But I’m still having fun. I was born to play this game. I still love it.
So you’re not a ticking time bomb?
[Laughs.] No, not at all. This is all stuff we’re going to work through. I know I don’t have much longer to do this so I’m going to enjoy it. I’m still going to find those challenges.
Are you still adding to your game?
At the end of 2003, my game was complete. Shooting, defense, using the dribble, transition, midrange stuff was all there. Then it was about fine-tuning and trying to improve in each area. People think the footwork stuff is new but I’ve always had great footwork. If you go back and look at film from 10 years ago, it’s all there: up-and-unders, spin moves, everything. I’ve been interested in footwork and how it benefits you since I was 8 or 9 years old. That’s just the way I was taught the game. The technical parts of the game always interested me.
You think you’ll ever score 50 again?
Yeah, it’ll happen.
Why have you only won one MVP?
Because I played with Shaq. It’s that simple. A lot of the time we cancelled each other out. I sacrificed a lot playing with him. I really did. I did it for the success of the team. If I never played with him my numbers would have been ridiculous.
Do you ever look back and marvel at some of the things you’ve accomplished like, say, the 81-point game?
To this day I’ve never seen that game. I don’t feel the need to watch it. What am I going to learn? I don’t watch those tapes. If I’m watching film it’s usually for an upcoming opponent.
When was the last time you watched Michael Jordan tapes?
Wow, it’s been a while. Probably not since 1999. I used to watch a bunch but that was a long time ago.
What was it like dropping 33 on him as a 19-year-old in your second year?
I wasn’t scared or nervous back then when I played Jordan. He looked at me like he was going to f--- me up but I had to let him know that I wasn’t that guy. I let him know that I’m not like all those other guys he played against. That’s not what I was there for. I was there to compete and I did.
Did you let him know that verbally?
More so by the way I played and competed.
Early on you got tired of the MJ comparisons but a part of you had to be flattered, right?
I appreciated them but after a while it just got old. They eventually faded away because I was putting together my own identity. But I’ll never forget how much I learned from MJ. I got so much from him. I knew what he did, I knew his moves and I used them. But for me the comparisons didn’t work because our situations were totally different. I came straight out of high school and played with a dominant big in Shaquille. Man, I was so young when I got to the NBA. What was I like 17? I mean, 17! The more you think about it, my situation was completely different than MJ’s so the comparisons were just, you know, I stopped paying attention to them.
Ironically towards the end of your career those comparisons are starting to return.
I don’t mind that now. It’s different now that I’m at the end of my career and I can look back. Fans will always want to know who’s better and like to compare players and I love that. That’s what I used to do. That’s why people are into basketball because it’s fun to debate those kinds of things.
React to this statement: A 17-year-old picked No. 13 in the draft will finish his career as one of the 10 best players ever.
If you would have told me that back then, I’d say you were nuts. Just nuts. It’s hard to believe.
Are you a Top 5 player all-time?
I don’t know. I hope so. I’ve still got a little time left, but honestly I haven’t thought a whole bunch about legacy and that kind of stuff. I just feel like there will be plenty of time for that.
Have you ever been intimidated on the basketball court?
Never. Not at all. My mind doesn’t work that way. It’s something that’s never even entered my thought process. The last time I was intimidated was when I was 6 years old in karate class. I was an orange belt and the instructor ordered me to fight a black belt who was a couple years older and a lot bigger. I was scared [expletive]less. I mean I was terrified and he kicked my a--. But then I realized he didn’t kick my a-- as bad as I thought he was going to and that there was nothing really to be afraid of. That was around the time I realized that intimidation didn’t really exist if you’re in the right frame of mind.
How did you feel when Magic called you the greatest Laker ever?
Words can’t describe it. He was my favorite player growing up and coming from him it couldn’t have meant more. At first I was praying I would grow to be 6-9 so I could pattern my game after his but I didn’t quite make it so I knew I wasn’t going to be like Magic. But he’s someone I’ve always admired and think highly of. That’s the greatest compliment.
Does it feel like the last 17 years have gone by fast?
It feels like the blink of an eye. I just think about how different I was back then. There are so many specific days that I can remember like they happened yesterday. When I was a rookie in my first training camp in Hawaii I ordered a bowl of cereal from room service. They were Frosted Flakes with a little thing of milk that came to $80! In 1996! I said "hell no" and told them to take it back. I got dressed and walked down to the corner store and bought a jug of milk and a big box of Frosted Flakes for like $10.
You were a young brash rookie that many vets weren’t too fond of. I can’t imagine people didn’t try to test you.
Oh yeah, they tried. During my rookie year we were in Portland and I drove the lane and Rasheed Wallace knocked me to the ground and stared at me. He tried to f--- me up but I wasn’t going to have it. I got right back up and drove even harder the next time. I really let people know early that I wasn’t the guy you could do that to.
Ever had a run-in with Kevin Garnett?
No, actually me and KG have been cool for a long time so he never tried anything with me. Being two of the first guys who came straight out of high school, we were kind of in the same boat. When I was a senior in high school I used to seek his counsel and ask him what I should do. He’d tell me what life was like on the road and how to deal with not playing that much. He really helped me quite a bit with my decision.
Is it hard to be your teammate?
No. That’s so overrated. If you come in ready to work then we’re good. Then we don’t have a problem.
Who is your best friend in the NBA that’s not a former teammate?
[Long pause.] There’s nobody I’m really hanging out with and going out with every night. But I’d probably say Carmelo Anthony. We’re pretty close. A lot of the guys from Team USA I get along with really well. I really respect those guys.
Usually self-appointed nicknames don’t really stick but Black Mamba has had real staying power.
Well, actually I didn’t come up with it. I think I was playing ball in the park in New York and they just started calling me that and it just stuck.
Who would you most like to play one-on-one, either active or retired?
Jordan. No question.
What would happen?
I’m not sure, but he would win some and I would win some in a seven-game series. It would probably come down to the last few shots.
You versus LeBron? Who wins?
Me. No question. As far as one-on-one, I’m the best to ever do it.
Damn. That’s pretty confident.
LeBron is a terrific all-around, five-on-five basketball player who’s an all-time great. But I’d get him.
Who could get you?
Kevin Durant is the guy that would give me the most trouble. With his length and ability to use the dribble he’d be tough.
I always wanted to see you play Tracy McGrady.
I played T-Mac. I cooked him. Roasted him. Wasn’t even close. Ask him, he’ll tell you. When I was about 20, we were in Germany doing some promotional stuff for that other sneaker company and we played basketball everyday. We were in the gym all the time. We played three games of one-on-one to 11. I won all three games. One game I won 11-2. After the third game he said he had back spasms and couldn’t play anymore.
His back bothered him for most of his career.
Well, now you know.
What about Kyrie Irving?
[Huge smile, laugh.] Kyrie’s my boy, but he knows he doesn’t have anything for me. He doesn’t want to see me. But it would be fun. I’ve beaten a lot of guys one-on-one, like Reggie Miller and Grant Hill. I used to play Caron Butler all the time in practice when he was with the Lakers. When I was a rookie I used to get Nick van Exel and Eddie Jones. They know. They’ll tell you. They used to come at me hard but I wasn’t having that. I love going one-on-one with someone. That’s what I do. I’ve never lost. It’s a whole different game, just to have them right in front you and be able to do whatever you want.