Jerry West says this may not be Kobe’s last season

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JOLIET, Ill. – He may work now for the rival Golden State Warriors, but NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West still keeps up with the team that meant so much for him for over four decades, the Los Angeles Lakers.

He’s especially interested in the status of arguably the top player he acquired via trade as Lakers’ general manager, Kobe Bryant.

West, who will serve as co-grand marshal with tennis legend Billie Jean King for this Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway, had quite a bit to say when asked about the Lakers and especially Kobe Bryant’s status.

“He’s been an incredible player, done some wonderful things in his life, is one of the most competitive players I’ve ever seen, one of the most skilled players I’ve ever seen,” West said of Bryant. “I think as you’re moving along in your life, certainly you remember when.

“I remember when he was a young kid and we couldn’t even sign him as a player. I watched him grow up as a player and then I watched him become the player that he did.”

Whether Bryant will retire or try to make it through one more season concerns West.

“In many ways, it’s sad to see an athlete whose time is near the end of his career,” West said. “But depending on how he plays, you never know, he might play more.

“He’s said he’s not going to play any more, but I think he’s so competitive, I don’t know how he would say no and goodbye to the sport.”

But there’s a balancing act for Bryant from both his own standpoint, as well as the Lakers’, West said. Will Bryant go out on his own terms, or will the Lakers eventually be forced to cut ties with him to rebuild without him?

“I hope they don’t have to drag him out because I want him to leave as every incredible athlete like him,” West said. “I want him to leave when he feels it’s the time it’s to leave. But he won’t be forced out, trust me.”

When asked how the Lakers will rebuild post-Kobe, West demurred.

“I’m with the Warriors,” he said. “Whatever the Lakers do is fine. I have a son who works for the Lakers and I have a son who works for the Warriors.

“I had a great time when I was there as a player, 14 incredible years, watched the franchise grow from nothing to where a while it was the most popular sports team in Los Angeles. It was a great thrill to be a big part of that.”

Jerry Bonkowski is part of the team at NBCSports.com’s NASCARTalk. You can follow him @JerryBonkowski.