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NBA still can’t keep up with Kobe Bryant

I was never a Kobe Bryant fan. He shot too much. Imagine the career Smush Parker (a Los Angeles Laker from 2005 to 2007) could have had if Kobe had shared the ball.

I respect Kobe, though. What he has, he gives. He ruptured his Achilles April 12 against Golden State and limped off the court and into the sunset, or at least into limbo. Recovery usually requires nine months to a year.

Kobe, 35, returned Dec. 9 against Toronto. That’s eight months. He’ll be at Time Warner Cable Arena Saturday night when his Lakers play the Charlotte Bobcats. The Boston Celtics were in town earlier this season and, except for winning, nothing about the team reminded you of who they were. As long as 24 plays for the Lakers, we’ll remember.

The game will be the fifth of Kobe’s comeback tour, and the first after playing the previous night. On Friday the Lakers played Oklahoma City, which means Kobe presumably spent part of his evening trying to keep up with Russell Westbrook.

You’ll recall that Kobe once was one of us, although we were merely pretending. The Charlotte Hornets selected Kobe with the 13th pick in the 1996 draft. Charlotte, however, had already cut a deal with the Lakers. Los Angeles would send center Vlade Divac to the Hornets and the Hornets would take Kobe for the Lakers.

Charlotte received a genuine center, albeit one who smoked. Los Angeles received a guard who had grown up in Italy and graduated from high school in suburban Philadelphia.

I’m not aware of anybody in Charlotte objecting.

Who would remember if they did? Here’s how long ago 1996 was.

On the all-rookie second team were Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Kerry Kittles, Travis Knight and Matt Mahoney.

Keeping Bryant and Garnett off the first team were rookie of the year Allen Iverson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury and Antoine Walker.

(Two-time MVP Steve Nash also was a rookie. Now a Laker, Nash is injured.)

Kobe has played 18 seasons, scored more than 31,000 points and played in 14 All-Star games.

In a superb Sports Illustrated story Kobe talked about the similarities between him and undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Mayweather, 36, is 18 months older than Kobe. As fast as Mayweather is, he’s not as fast as he was. But it’s as if he controls time.

He’ll throw a few punches at half speed, then three-quarters speed. An opponent will figure, ah, I got him. He can’t hit me. When Mayweather throws full speed, it’s as if he’s a kid again.

Like Mayweather, Kobe has made his living with his intensity and intelligence (except for his reluctance to pass to Smush), as well as his quickness and athleticism.

That quickness and athleticism won’t be there all the time. It will be special-occasion quickness now. He’ll have to harness it before he unleashes it, the way Mayweather does.

Kobe signed a two-year contract extension last month, and he’s too driven to allow his career to become a farewell tour, a once great player on a once great team.

The challenge is compelling. How does Kobe keep up with gifted players 10 and 15 years younger?

Or maybe the challenge is to compel those players to find a way to keep up with him.