Don't be surprised as Lakers improve; Bryant still a driving force
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com
The drifting Mike Brown era abruptly ended five games into this season after a Kobe Bryant death stare set off alarms. His surprise replacement, Mike D'Antoni? He arrived after Bryant assured reporters that as much as he yearned for one last ride with Phil Jackson, he did not tell Lakers management that D'Antoni was a "no go." As if that settled that.
Just Wednesday, Bryant got into a first-quarter shouting match with fellow superstar Dwight Howard over a missed defensive rotation against New Orleans. So much for Kobe coddling Howard so he doesn't sign elsewhere next year. Three days before that, Bryant had publicly ordered teammate Pau Gasol to put his "big-boy pants on" and quit griping about his diminished post-up opportunities in D'Antoni's system, and he had warned the other slow-starting Lakers if they didn't adjust their attitudes and outlay of effort, too, a righteous [Swearing is not permitted at Clublakers. You must edit this post prior to submitting.]-kicking was coming.
But from whom? Oklahoma City on Friday night?
"I'll kick everybody's [Swearing is not permitted at Clublakers. You must edit this post prior to submitting.] in this locker room if it doesn't happen," Bryant fumed after Sunday's 113-103 home loss to the Orlando Magic, Howard's first game against his former team, kept the Lakers stuck under .500.
Even at 34, with occasionally creaking knees, Bryant's reinvigorated lack of remorse about flexing his power can make him seem like the most fascinating, even dangerous, player in the NBA. But explaining why that's true? That requires understanding what's making him behave like a mad man.
Bryant is not the best player in the world anymore, or even the most clutch, though he good-naturedly took issue with that too during the London Olympics when asked who the Dream Team's end-game closer should be. But he is still the NBA player you'd least want to hack off whether you play with him or against him because he will not let anything get in the way of what he wants. And if he's willing to keep taking charge this season like he has been, you just get the feeling that the Lakers are not destined to remain the patience-shredding mess they've been so far. You'll see.
"This is just the way I lead," Bryant said this week.
It is also what makes him unique. Not just great.
With 50,000-plus NBA minutes on his legs now and 17 seasons -- or nearly half of his entire life -- spent in the league, Bryant is accurate when he says people have become a little "bored" with him. That's a shame, because that's a mistake. No one in American sports, save perhaps Peyton Manning, exerts such a top-to-bottom, day-in/day-out influence over his franchise as Kobe does. Failing to apprehend the updated details of what's going on with Bryant now means missing why this is the most fascinating Lakers team in years, not just the potentially most irritating.
Bryant is hardly the first great athlete constantly checking his watch in the gloaming of his career because he's in a hurry to win more championships. He figures he has only two or three seasons left. He has also never pretended that he's unconcerned about his cementing all-time stature, and adding to his five rings to break his tie with Magic Johnson and wedge himself somewhere between Michael Jordan's six and Bill Russell's total of 11.
But few current athletes have been as expansive and brutally honest about explaining themselves as it's happening in real time as Bryant has been the past few years. He has given a handful of interviews -- most notably to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski on this and that -- that sound as though he's consciously talking for posterity.
Better yet, Bryant doesn't seem to give a damn if what he reveals about himself is occasionally unflattering.
An example: Bryant's bottom-line take on his earlier career feuds that drove Shaquille O'Neal away from L.A. is essentially that mistakes were made -- and so the hell what? Does history remember sidekicks, Bryant has asked, or the guys who indisputably establish themselves as The Man? Was it important for Bryant to prove he could win without O'Neal? You're damn right, Bryant has said.
"And I'm going to keep coming," he promised.
This is not just how Bryant leads. It is who Bryant is.
Oklahoma City and Miami may yet remain better than the revamped Lakers ever become this season. But the way Bryant is cracking the whip and exerting himself so far makes the Lakers look far more interesting to follow day in, day out. No player in the league -- not LeBron, not Durant -- is a more potent mix of talent and ego, incinerating will and ambition than Bryant. And no one else can wed all that to the amalgam of experience and intelligence, heady influences and crucible-forged accomplishments like Bryant. A bridge to a lot of history will be lost when he's gone.
Bryant has been both the kid phenom lucky enough to grow up in Jerry West's and Magic Johnson's presence, and the midcareer vet who doggedly sought out advice from other greats as disparate as the Celtics' Bill Russell and pop star Michael Jackson, believe it or not. Bryant told Wojnarowski that he credits the King of Pop for teaching him about the burden of honoring true genius, and the grinding work it takes, after Jackson reached out to him when he was an 18-year-old kid prodigy struggling to fit in with the Lakers. "He noticed I was getting a lot of [expletive] for being different," Bryant said.
Howard actually seemed a bit stunned last summer when a recruiting call from Bryant disintegrated into a terse chat in which Bryant made it clear he could take or leave him if he didn't come to L.A. with his mind right about defense and rebounding. But that Howard was taken aback is the only real surprise.
Bryant has always behaved a little like all he needs to win is himself and four guys named Joe. "By any means necessary," he likes to say. Even Jackson called him "uncoachable" at one point. Right now, Bryant is again fighting for the league lead in scoring and, as usual, it's being debated whether that's a good or bad thing for the team. The Lakers are 9-10 overall but only 1-7 when he scores 30 or more points.
Still, Bryant's bigger message is the same one contained in his good-cop/bad-cop critiques of his team. He has taken over the departed Jackson's role as the Lakers' resident psychoanalyst and dispenser of koans, conferring support when he wants to apply a tourniquet to the torrent of criticism about something like Howard's awful free throw shooting as often he rips somebody. But Bryant is also not waiting around for everyone else to feel the same urgency or buy-in that he has.
The Lakers' current mix of talent remains imperfect for D'Antoni's system and D'Antoni himself remains an imperfect mishmash of a coach. He's too cavalier about some things (such as blowing off years of advice that he should emphasize defense more), and he's too strident about others (refusing to tweak his beloved system for Gasol even as he keeps acknowledging Gasol has two rings to his none). Nor has it helped D'Antoni that the Knicks have taken off without him.
But Bryant is not interested in hearing any excuses, including how just 19 games into the season the Lakers have already had to adjust on the fly to playing for three head coaches, installing two offenses, and playing without injured Steve Nash at point guard.
In that same smoking rant in which he said Gasol needed to put his big-boy pants on, Bryant said with a hint of disgust, "You have to adjust … You can't whine about it or complain about it. Heck, I'm 34 years old and I'm running screen-and-rolls out there because Steve is out, and my [Swearing is not permitted at Clublakers. You must edit this post prior to submitting.] is running up and down the court more than I ever have in my entire career ... I stay after practice and work on my ballhandling and screen-and-rolls."
Of course, within 24 hours of torching Gasol, Bryant sat down with his close friend Monday for a heart-to-heart at the Lakers' Houston hotel and emerged Tuesday sounding supportive again. But that didn't stop Bryant from tearing into Howard the next night in New Orleans. Friday in Oklahoma City, it might be someone else.
All these unexpected challenges and uncertainties have made the Lakers the NBA's most interesting story.
They also help explain why Kobe Bryant is a mad man.
For nearly 17 seasons he has been the surest thing the NBA has had. One turmoil-filled month is not going to deter him now. Another title is all that counts. His time is running out. This is how he leads, all right.
"Come hell or high water," he growled this week, "this has to get done."
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