Several years ago, Brooklyn native and longtime NBA scout Jerry Powell, who shares a close relationship with Kobe Bryant and his father, Joe Bryant, said to this reporter: “Basketball is Kobe’s wife and his mistress. He lives to play. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing in front of 20,000 people or an empty gym, he’s going to play the same way. The cat just loves the game.”

Powell went to say that only a relatively small percentage of NBA players unconditionally “love to play. They enjoy the money, the lifestyle and everything else that comes with being in the league, but they don’t really love to play.”

Bryant is a rare athlete urgently driven first and foremost by his unmatched desire to be the best of all time. His career has been measured against Michael Jordan’s, who is widely considered the greatest. Bryant has been consumed with being better than his boyhood idol. He hasn’t reached that goal, but it’s certainly an interesting argument.

The skinny 17-year-old from the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion, who was the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft, will turn 33 on Aug. 23. With 15 years in the league behind him, Bryant is in the final act of his remarkable career. He has won five titles and is sixth on the all-time scoring list with 27, 868 points. He will likely pass Jordan, who is third (32, 292 points in 15 seasons), but will be hard pressed to catch Karl Malone at No. 2 (36, 928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabar (38, 387). However, anything is possible with Bryant.

However, the NBA lockout, which seems to be headed for a long impasse, will knock some valuable games off of his remaining time. Bryant is still in excellent condition, but the wear and tear on his body, along with age, has taken their toll. Still, he won’t be idle during the lockout.

“I’m just waiting for my phone to ring,” he recently said. “I’ll play anywhere. I grew up overseas [in Italy] so I’m very comfortable with being overseas.”

Bryant has a new coach with the Lakers, Mike Brown, formerly of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and roughly three years left playing at an all-star level. He wants at least two more titles, which would give him one more than Jordan’s six.

Don’t bet against him.