Blood In The Water
We were in Houston. I was writing a book called Mad Game, The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant.
There was no question that Bryant had huge blind spots about himself and his relationships with older teammates. What 20-year-old doesn’t have blind spots? Bryant, though, had huge ambition, thus huge blind spots. He didn’t see that his ambition itself, his over-the-top work ethic, immensely irritated the veterans around him.
Anyway, we were chatting on the phone before the Lakers played the Rockets that night. Bryant had awakened from a good nap and was willing to continue our running conversation about his unusual life.
He had scored his first 50-point game in January 1996 as a senior leading his Lower Merion, Penn., high school team to a 95-64 win over Marple Newtown.
As we talked, he recalled the absolute exhilaration, the complete sense of domination, that scoring 50 points brought him.
That night in high school had helped him articulate the goal in his basketball life. “I just want to be the man,” he told me. “I just want to dominate.”
It wasn’t idle boasting by some punked-out kid. Bryant was earnestly expressing his destiny.
Scoring 50 points was a feeling that he wanted to experience again and again. He was sure he could do it in the NBA if he could only get people to understand. His frustration was that no one saw what he saw. He knew he could do it. Knew he could find a way, if someone would just let him. He didn’t know how that would happen.
“I just want to be the man,” he repeated.
It wasn’t a statement he made around his teammates and coaches. He didn’t have to. His every action spoke it. Every little thing he did declared “I’m on my way to greatness.”
Every little thing he did was a match that torched the anger of the people around him.
As a response, nearly everyone he encountered in the NBA sought to harness his game. Even as a young player he could produce 26-point halves, but it was as if no one wanted to see them. Instead of seeing them as things of beauty, his coaches and teammates saw his scoring outbursts as unbridled acts of vanity.
They sought to bridle him.
“I will not let them change me,” he told me. “I will find a way. I don’t know how, but I will find a way.”
Over the years, Bryant has endured much pain trying to establish that destiny.
His ambition has been blamed for wrecking a Lakers dynasty. He has battled himself, his teammates, his coaches, the game itself. He has done so fearlessly, relentlessly, with little sign of regret or doubt, only the dogged pursuit of his vision of what he is supposed to be.
There was no question that Bryant could on any given night be blinded by his own brilliance, just as his teammates could be mesmerized by it.
Soon many fans came to equate his every action with selfishness, so that no matter what he did, or how brilliantly he did it, his accomplishments were met with derision.
The realization of this first drove Bryant to despair; then it drove him to compromise.
I like to hammer Phil Jackson in this column, almost as much as I like to extol the virtues of Tex Winter. Both men deserve much credit for their work with Bryant. Winter guided and nurtured him through the harsh phases of his career.
And after being Bryant’s uncommunicative enemy for several seasons, Jackson has become his ally, the man responsible for guiding him toward a team mind-set.
Often Jackson and Winter have differed in their opinions on how to handle Bryant. Now, though, they seem to agree that the Lakers absolutely need Bryant and the full firepower of his arsenal to push the team out of its doldrums and back on track toward the playoffs.
As a result, Bryant is now realizing his vision of 50 point games, of dominating, of “being the man.”
After Bryant scored 60 in a road win over the Memphis Grizzlies recently, Jackson told reporters, “At one point, we got the offensive rebound and (had) a whole new 24-second (shot clock) left. Lamar (Odom) gave the ball right back to him and Kobe went right back at them. He just smells blood in the water and he’s going to go after you.”
I interviewed Jackson many times during his years as coach of the Chicago Bulls. The “blood in the water” quote was the sort of commentary he frequently offered about the incomparable Michael Jordan.
In Bryant’s career with the Lakers, I can’t recall Jackson offering a truly Jordanesque quote about Bryant. Oh, Jackson has had plenty of nice things to say, some of them genuine.
But I perceive this quote as different. Kobe Bryant has finally achieved the status he has sought so long.
He finally has neared the level of respect, even reverence, that Jackson accorded Jordan.
It has taken him a long time to earn that status. Fans still withhold from him the respect they gave to Jordan, the sense that Jordan was bullet-proof, that he could do no wrong in their eyes.
Because of the criminal allegations in his past, because of the perception of his selfishness, Bryant may never be accorded that level of respect by the fans.
But there’s no question this is a new day. Bryant has arrived at his moment, able to use his full arsenal truly for the first time. His three big scoring games in a row all resulted in Lakers wins. He is the man at last, the dominance he sought in his youthful vision.
There’s only a sense, that as the team charges down the schedule toward the playoffs, there are more big performances to come, each of them to be prized the way Phil Jackson once prized Jordan’s every move.
As the Rolling Stones would say, Let It Bleed.
Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of the Lakers. His biography of Phil Jackson, Mindgames, was recently released by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books in a special paperback edition.