Brian Shaw knows all about high-powered locker rooms populated by huge egos.
The Lakers assistant coach was once a Boston Celtics rookie, back in the day when Larry Bird and Kevin McHale still ruled the NBA.
“When I first came in the league, I walked in the Boston Celtics locker room and saw Larry Bird and all these guys,” Shaw recalled. “They were mythical characters for me. Guys that I’d seen and watched growing up. Now I’m sitting in the locker room next to them, talking with them, playing with them every day. There’s a period where you see them do things on the court that you never imagined could be done. So you get caught in awe, like that deer in headlights.”
Now that he’s an assistant coach, he’s gotten to revisit those circumstances. Shaw watched last season as a roster of very young Lakers players sat in awe of Kobe Bryant.
It has become the job of the Lakers coaching staff “to get these guys past that.”
This season the team has shown signs of progress in growing beyond the situation. But it hasn’t been easy.
“You have someone like Kobe who is so competitive and so dominant,” Shaw observed. “When he senses that things aren’t going right he does everything in his power to take over and try to right things. In the process sometimes, some of the other guys become an afterthought. So they struggle. It’s difficult for them to figure out how and when to fit in. When they are so young, it’s difficult.”
Lakers guru Tex Winter has often expressed admiration for Shaw as a young coach. What makes him so effective for these Lakers is that he remembers clearly those days as a young Celtic trying to find his way playing alongside a fierce competitive nature like Larry Bird.
Larry and Kobe?
“It’s like comparing apples and apples,” Shaw says.
That’s because Bryant and Bird share something special.
“When Larry would maybe miss a shot that would have won the game for us, or something like that, he’d stay after and shoot,” Shaw recalled. “He’d be there first thing the next morning, shooting, working on his game at game speed. Kobe is the same way. He doesn’t want to lose in any thing. Cards, whatever it is he’s playing. Larry had it. Michael had it. Magic had it. All the great ones do. And Kobe’s right there with him.”
Dominique Wilkins once said of Bird: “Look in his eyes and you see a killer.”
Shaw sees the same thing when he looks at Bryant. “Basically, Kobe is a killer,” he said. “I say that, meaning that he’s not going to reach out and embrace you. He’s not going to respect you, if you aren’t true to your craft and you don’t show that killer instinct as well. To him it’s a sign of weakness. As long as you’re out there giving it your all, he’ll respect you, because he is, he’s giving it his all.”
Hearing Shaw talk about the two stars brings to mind the question, does Bird’s nasty streak run deeper than Bryant’s?
“Larry was nasty, and Kobe is nasty,” Shaw says. “Kobe’s only 28 years old, and he’s 10 years in the league already. He’s accomplished some things that most players haven’t been able to accomplish.”
Still, as Shaw himself pointed out, Larry Legend is, was and always will be a mythical figure in American basketball. Bryant’s never quite been allowed mythical status, despite his many accomplishments.
“Larry and Kobe came into the league under different circumstances,” Shaw said. “Kobe was 17 when he entered the NBA, playing amongst grown men, so there were a lot of things he couldn’t do. He couldn’t go out after a game and have a beer and hang out with the guys because he was too young. That isolated him from the rest of the guys in terms of the some of the social things they did off the court. I think you have to take that into account when comparing him to different people.
“Larry was more embraced by the public. He was more outgoing. Some of the reasons that Kobe still isn’t outgoing may stem from the fact that he was almost forced to be isolated because of his age.”
Age and status always made it easy for the fans and players of the NBA to accept Bird’s arrogance and super star confidence. Shaw concedes as much.
“Larry played three years in college, so people got to know him through his exploits and travels at Indiana State and get familiar with him before he got to the NBA,” Shaw said. “They got to see his run through the NCAA tournament and see him playing against Magic in the NCAA championship game. Larry had to overcome some other obstacles that Kobe didn’t have to. Being from Terra Haute, being poor from a small town and then coming into a sophisticated business world that he may not have been accustomed to. People made fun of the country twang he had when he spoke and his country mentality. That’s a different hurdle that he had to overcome.”
Bird has always had the toughness of a poor kid who came up the hard way with a father left alcoholic after serving his country in combat during the Korean War. Kobe, on the other hand, is a child of privilege, the son of a millionaire, able to enjoy wonderful opportunity.
How can a little rich kid like Kobe possibly have the same hard, hungry edge that poverty burnished into Larry Bird.
“He is a student of the game,” Shaw says of Bryant, without hesitation. “And it’s no accident he’s as good as he is. He’s the first person, when we get on the plane tonight after the game, he’ll want a copy, a DVD, of tonight’s game, as well as a copy of the tape on our upcoming opponent, so he can watch it and prepare for who he has to play next. He’ll watch what he did tonight. Not everybody in this league puts in that kind of dedication, that kind of effort. That’s what separates him from even the other superstars of the game, in my opinion, the Tracy McGradys, the Vince Carters, whoever else you want to name.
“Then there’s the time.” Shaw added, “that he takes tuning his body up, not just in the weight room, but working with our physical therapy guys to make sure everything’s adjusted, in alignment. The time that he takes stretching, the time that he takes studying his opponent, the time that he takes watching film of himself and studying how he can improve. That takes a lot of time. That takes a lot of discipline. That takes a lot of focus. Not everybody else has that discipline.”
What’s the chance of Bryant’s intense competitiveness rubbing off on his young Lakers teammates? Not much, according to Shaw. “His teammates, I know they see him doing this. But most people aren’t willing to dedicate themselves to putting in that type of time.”
If you ever got the opportunity to watch Bird work through his shootaround before each game, you get the picture of Bryant’s focus.
For a young team, such a leader is a blessing and a curse, perhaps.
Strong personalities need someone equally strong to stand up to them. “You have to discuss it with Kobe,” Shaw said of the challenge a coach faces in correcting Bryant. “And you have to tell him when he’s doing things wrong or things that you don’t like. Even if those things are sometimes miraculous. He respects those who will speak up, even if it’s against what he wants to do. He respects you more if you tell him about it.
“Kobe’s an alpha male.”
So are coach Phil Jackson and center Shaquille O’Neal, Shaw pointed out. That’s what it was so difficult having the three of them on the same team.
“That’s a lot of alpha males on one roster,” Shaw said. “When you have that, at some point, there’s a gotta be a breaking up.”
Bryant and O’Neal won three championships together but that run came to an end with an acrimonious parting after the 2004 NBA season. The Lakers traded O’Neal to Miami and decided to build their new team around Bryant.
“Even in my three years in Boston I don’t remember Kevin McHale and Larry Bird hanging out together,” Shaw said, acknowledging a well-known fact that despite winning three NBA titles together, the Celtic superstars weren’t close.
“The difference was, they respected each other and what they did on the court,” Shaw said. “So when they stepped between the lines, all that other peripheral stuff, it was on the outside. They said, ‘We’re going for the same goal between these lines. I’m gonna help you achieve what you want to achieve. You’re gonna help me. I’m gonna help you. Then when the game is over, you’re gonna go your separate way and I’m gonna go mine. And that’s okay.’”
With Kobe and Shaq “a lot of times some little trivial things are what caused problems,” Shaw said.
Because there seemed to be no basic respect, the trivial stuff grew into big problems.
After playing with the Celtics early in his career, Shaw got into a contract dispute with the team and retreated to Italy to play for a season. That’s where he met a pesky little adolescent named Kobe, whose father Joe Bryant also happened to be an NBA expatriate playing in the Italian League.
“I played against his father that year I went to Italy in ’89,” Shaw recalled. “That’s when I first met Kobe. I’ve known him for a long time.”
The fact that he goes way back with Bryant has given Shaw the confidence to address issues with the superstar that others might seek to avoid.
Their relationship is based on Shaw “knowing him for that long, but more than important than that, standing up to him when I know he’s wrong if he’s taking bad shots. He’s the kind of guy, he can take a bad shot and make it. It doesn’t matter if there are four or five guys on him, he feels like he can score on them. So as a teammate, I love to have somebody on my team like that, who thinks that way and feels that way and that no matter if we’re down 20 and there’s a minute left in the game he’s still thinking there’s maybe a way we can win. As a teammate you love to have somebody with that mentality on your team.”
Yet Shaw acknowledges it’s not a perfect world. Not every teammate appreciates the alpha male nature of a Kobe Bryant.
“If you’re a weak-minded individual, you look at it as if, ‘He’s taking all the shots, and I’m not getting to shoot.’ Well, that’s where you’re not gonna appreciate being on a team with a guy like that,” Shaw said. “You should look at it like, I know he’s gonna shoot the ball a lot, so I better go get rebounds and do these other things because I got to find another way to get my shot. Some guys he’s played with have understood that pecking order, like a Horace Grant.”
Now, Bryant is leading the Lakers through a third straight season without O’Neal, who went on to win a fourth championship with the Miami Heat last season. O’Neal’s success can only spur the hypercompetitive Bryant.
“He’s crossing ground that hasn’t been crossed before,” Shaw said. “With his competitive spirit, I’m sure he wants to show people that maybe he doesn’t need that 1-2 punch in order to succeed and win a championship. I think we have some pieces in place. It’s a matter of patience, waiting for a guy like Andrew Bynum to mature. I think he’s gonna be really good. Waiting for Lamar (Odom) to be more consistent. I think those things are on the way, as they get more familiar with Phil and the system.”
Maybe when that happens, Bryant will finally be accorded the mythical status that fans, teammates and opponents have given to Bird.
Until then, Bryant remains where he was as a young player trying to relate to his older teammates — a solitary figure left on the outside looking in.
Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of the Lakers published by McGraw-Hill.