Back in the good old days, when he was remarkably mistake free, I used to marvel at Kobe Bryant. How could he be so young and make such good decisions?
I posed that question and he launched into an answer without hesitation: It’s not that you don’t make mistakes, he said. It’s just that you must be very careful, once you make a mistake, not to follow one bad decision with more bad decisions.
The secret, he said, was not to compound your problems.
Obviously, Bryant was quoting someone else’s wisdom, because once he began making those big nasty mistakes that tend to define your life, he began showing a particular talent for compounding them.
Well, it’s time for all that to stop, Tex Winter told me in a recentphone conversation.
It’s time for Bryant to realize that being a Los Angeles Laker is the best possible situation for him, time for him to stop pushing for a trade, offered Winter, who over the years has been a mentor to both Lakers coach Phil Jackson and to Bryant himself.
“He should just play basketball where he is,” Winter said. “Los Angeles is a good spot for Kobe.”
Winter has expressed admiration for the Chicago Bulls and their talented young roster, but he never saw Bryant as a good fit there.
“Frankly, I’m not sure how much he’d be able to help that club,” Winter said.
Winter, of course, is the man who innovated the triangle offense, then nurtured a young assistant named Phil Jackson into a triangle coach (he did much of that nurturing coaching with Phil years ago in the L.A. summer league). Jackson and Winter watched Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen mature into forces in the triangle that won six NBA championships. Then they came to Los Angeles and won three more titles by using the triangle to focus the effectiveness of Bryant and center Shaquille O'Neal.
Winter is now 85 and wracked by the pain of shingles in his chest, but he retains a high enthusiasm for the system of play he has spent decades developing. It remains a dandy offense, Winter says unabashedly.
“We’ve used it so long, that concept. Gosh, look at how many years we’ve relied on that triangle, and the success we’ve had with it.”
Bryant is simply the best triangle player, born for it, with his mix of physical ability, smarts and work ethic.
“And he knows it,” Winter said. “I wish he would concentrate on playing the game and making his teammates better and not worry about all this other stuff.”
In quiet, low-key ways, Bryant has perhaps moved into the mode that Winter hopes he’ll take. He had effusive praise this week for the work ethic of Andrew Bynum, the young Lakers center who just months ago Bryant had targeted as trade bait. And Bryant has certainly played within the offense and in tune with his teammates in the early going this season.
“He’s trying to do what’s right,” Winter said of Bryant. “He’s certainly working at it. Defensively he’s improved. He’s trying to get better at off-the-ball defense. He’s always been very good as an on-ball defender.”
And Bryant certainly retains his titanium grade confidence, Winter said with a chuckle.
“He hasn’t shot the ball well yet, but that’s not a concern with Kobe. He’s not concerned about anything as far as his play is concerned. He thinks he’s fine, thinks he’s the greatest. Phil has made that remark to him, trying to point out things about his game. But Kobe doesn’t worry. He’s something. He’s got tremendous confidence. That confidence is a key part of who he is.”
So, what is the key for Bryant and this young Lakers team in terms of becoming one of those great triangle teams? As always, it’s execution.
And execution also follows the familiar path: Fundamentals, and more fundamentals. That’s why Jordan and Pippen were so dedicated to working on all the little things in each Bulls practice, passing, cutting, running through the numerous drills that Winter has devised over the years for making players into effective triangle components.
It also means the Lakers need to take on more of a retro Bulls look.
“Remember all the third cutter looks we used to get with Horace Grant?” Winter asked. “Or what about the baseline cuts we used to get with Pippen and Jordan?”
The recent Lakers teams have gotten those passes every once in a while, but the key is their big men, Winter said.
“Their game is not passing; it’s trying to score.”
Whereas the Bulls’ centers were great at finding a Jordan or a Pippen along the baseline, the Lakers centers haven’t shown great effectiveness there. The one center who has potential as a passer is the young Bynum, Winter said.
“He does the best job of the three at seeing the cutter. The centers have to recognize that if the cutter’s not open, someone else will be. They need to get the ball back out and keep the offense moving.”
Like Bryant, Winter has been a critic of Bynum. And like Bryant, Winter is starting to see positive signs from the young guy. The key to Bynum’s improvement, Winter said, is learning to hold his position down on the block.
“That’s one of his weaknesses, as big as he is. He’s inclined to get moved off the block too easily. Because he doesn’t hold his position as well on the block, teams don’t front him very much. They play behind him and force him out.”
As he learns to hold his position better, he’ll present more of a problem for defenses. As his passing improves, he’ll compound those problems for opponents.
The Lakers’ potential to reach the next level lies with Bynum’s work ethic and determination. If Bryant stops and thinks about it, he’s actually much closer to getting the competitive team he wants in Los Angeles than he would be anywhere else, Winter says.
Bryant may have his faults, but lack of logic usually isn’t one of them. Perhaps that helps explain why he’s quietly moving back within the team and in the process slowly repairing the relationships around him.
Winter, meanwhile, watches many many basketball games a day from his Oregon home. The basketball helps take his mind off the pain of the shingles. He went to Lakers training camp in Hawaii this season, but he says the pain was so great that he wasn’t of any use to the team.
He’s scheduled to come to Los Angeles this week to serve in his regular role as a consultant to Jackson. That, of course, will depend on how the shingles are treating him. It goes without saying that Bryant’s recent play has gone a long way toward easing Winter’s pain.
Like many Lakers fans, the veteran coach is hoping the relief will be long-term.
Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show: The Inside Story Of The Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released by McGraw-Hill
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