Mystery, Irony, All That Good Stuff
Ditto for the team’s coaches.
Bryant’s unpredictability has often left triangle offense guru Tex Winter fussing about his “impetuousness.”
Head coach Phil Jackson figured that Bryant’s nature would wreck his team headed into the 2001 playoffs. The coach was so sure of it, in fact, he attempted to have Bryant traded and even joked about it on national TV. But a stunningly mature Bryant came back from injury that year and played nearly perfect basketball in sending the Lakers on a blistering championship run.
In 2006, he wowed the NBA with an 81-point game but later befuddled Lakers fans with a strangely quiet second half as Los Angeles lost to Phoenix in Game 7 of their first-round playoff battle.
This season, when Lakers forward Lamar Odom went out with a knee injury, many observers expected Bryant to veer off on one scoring binge after another. Instead he sat back and smiled while doling out assists and guiding his young teammates to a series of surprising victories. Unfortunately, those injuries continued to mount for the Lakers and their good start to the season soon melted into frustration. Even then, Bryant offered a restrained approach, until finally his frustration boiled over in recent games against Portland and Minnesota.
His scoring outburst of 65 and 50 points was just what the team needed to leave behind a seven-game losing streak.
Now, with a promising season dangerously close to slipping away, both Jackson and Winter have given their approval to Bryant unleashing his full scoring power.
“We need him,” Winter said recently. “Let’s hope he can turn it on like he did a couple of years ago when he ran off that string of 40 point games.”
Both Jackson and Winter have found themselves in these circumstances before — having to rely on the superhuman abilities of one superstar. They did it year in and year out with the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan.
Winter used to watch Jordan on game nights and marvel. Jordan was the biggest mystery he ever coached, Winter would confide. “On many nights, Michael was a mystery, even to himself.”
Asked recently if Bryant’s mystery had become as big as Jordan’s, Winter scoffed and replied, “Oh, heaven’s yes. Kobe is much more of a mystery than Michael. So many nights you don’t know how he’s going to respond to events.”
Asked about Winter’s statement, Bryant replied with a smile, “Considering the company, I’ll take that as a compliment. That’s good company to keep (with Jordan).”
However, like many of Winter’s statements, this one was neither compliment or criticism, just observation.
Bryant’s critics are quick to point out that his mystery has a dark side. What really happened in Colorado in 2003, many have asked. Or how about his spate of suspensions this season for blows delivered to opposing defenders as Bryant has tried to draw fouls and get to the line?
Those closest to Bryant scoff at such questions. They draw their fascination from his absolute dedication and his unique approach to the game.
“It’s hard to know what Kobe is thinking, particularly in regards to basketball,” Winter explained. “He’s a very quick learner. He picks up things and he knows how to do things right. He knows the offense better than anyone. Because he is astute he spends a lot of time directing his teammates.
“Still a lot of times he goes off on tangents,” Winter said, echoing a complaint he has made over the years. “He’s impetuous. That’s one of the mysteries about him. Sometimes the way he likes to play is a mystery. He’s pretty aggressive in whatever he does. If he elects to not take shots, then he spends time getting the ball to his teammates.
“Or, if he elects to ignore his teammates and take a lot of shots, he’ll do that.”
That unpredictable nature has sometimes left his teammates unsure of how to respond.
“Kobe is a big talent,” explained Lakers forward Luke Walton. “You have to adjust your game to learn to play with him. It’s always a learning process.”
On the nights that Bryant elects to take over a game, his teammates seem to enjoy his talent and power. But that leads to criticism that they tend to become passive and content just to watch him work, something that isn’t always good for team play.
At the end of a six-game road trip in December, Bryant came out aggressively against the Charlotte Bobcats (and produced another 50-point game in a losing effort), and he later explained that he simply didn’t want to let his team get off to another slow start before a sell-out crowd on the road.
“He can score,” says Winter, Bryant’s mentor who doesn’t hesitate to criticize him. “That’s not the problem. The problem is, how are we going to play as a team?”
That’s a question that Bryant seemed more and more concerned with this season. He and Jackson have spent much of the past two seasons building a strong player/coach relationship. Jackson’s goal was to improve Bryant’s “team” game, to develop his leadership abilities, to control that “impetuousness.”
As several journalists have noted this season, Bryant has clearly enjoyed changing his own approach and watching his young teammates grow into their roles.
“I’d much rather not do that,” Bryant said of his big scoring nights. “It’s too tiring. Sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to keep the team together and get a win. Then you move on and hope you don’t have to do that the next time.”
Under Jackson’s tutelage, Bryant’s big concern became teaching his teammates how to carry their share of the burden, and how to be confident doing it.
“We’re learning how to close out games,” Bryant said of the team earlier in the season. “That’s a big thing for us. We’re getting better at it.”
Bryant’s confidence became critical to the team itself, Walton said.
So did lessons about Bryant’s own unique perspective on the game. Failure doesn’t weigh heavily on Bryant, and that’s another lesson he has tried to impart to his teammates. You have to compete very hard, then accept the results without dwelling on them.
“You can’t make a loss any bigger than what it is,” he says. “You can’t over-dramatize the situation. It is what it is. A loss is a loss. It’s not going to make or break our season. So you just move on from it. You don’t want to over-dramatize it. A loss is a loss. Hats off to the other team and move on. It’s just one game.”
This mental approach is all part of the unique package that is Kobe Bryant, says longtime Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz, who has observed Bryant up close since he came into the league in 1996. “His own expectations are huge. I don’t think anyone else could possibly have bigger expectations than those that Kobe has for himself. I’ve been around a lot of players, first as a player and now as an announcer all these years, and I don’t think I’ve been around anybody that has the internal drive to be the best that Kobe has. There’s all this pressure that he puts on himself. How he copes with all that is a mystery to me. Maybe sometimes when people think he’s aloof or mysterious or whatever he is, it’s just him dealing with all the things that he has to deal with, with all the things that he puts on himself. The guy plays hurt, he plays sick. It doesn’t matter to him. He doesn’t make excuses. He loves to play, as all the great ones do.”
Winter says that part of the mystery earlier this season was Bryant’s health. He had off-season knee surgery but came back early from the injury because the team needed him.
Bryant predicted that he would be fully healthy by February, just in time to make other teams truly fear the Lakers. The problem with that plan was that as Bryant became healthy other parts of the machine broke down. Odom, Walton and Kwame Brown spent months out with injuries.
So now the Lakers find themselves in a fix as the likely seventh seed in the Western playoffs, likely to face Phoenix again in the first round.
Funny, that Jackson, Winter and the Lakers now find themselves come round again to needing Kobe Bryant, the superstar, more than they need Kobe Bryant, team player.
Actually, his coaches will tell you they want him to be both, to fill that rarest of roles in basketball, a sensational scorer able to move in and out of his own game while helping teammates to find theirs.
It’s a tall challenge, yet it’s one that Bryant has trained for his entire life. Are Lakers fans about to witness something special?
The answer to that is clearly another big part of the Bryant mystery.
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.