Sorting out Kobe's big day
It’s just too big of a story to even write.
Kobe Bryant scores 81 points, and the world goes nuts. Literally.
Former Chicago Bull and MJ sidekick Scottie Pippen gets a call with the news at 3 a.m. and spends the rest of the night sleepless. And MJ himself? He must be speechless, because he has uttered nary a word about basketball’s big event.
He’s about the only one. Everybody else in the world seems to have an opinion.
Some boob with the San Diego Union Tribune says Kobe scored his points in a “meaningless game.”
Somebody named Greg Couch with the Chicago Sun-Times says Kobe is a “zero as a hero.”
Vince Carter, that paragon of work ethic and team play, suggested Bryant’s performance sent a bad message to easily impressed kids.
In Miami, Shaq sneers when his teammates bring up the subject and says, "Give me 50 shots and see how many I score."
Then there are those who break it down statistically who try to figure if Kobe’s 81 was actually better than Wilt’s 100. Not unless you employ some sort of new math. Chamberlain’s scoring prowess speaks for itself. Even Jordan admitted that no matter what he did, he always bumped up against Wilt’s greatness.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighed in, implying that at least stylistically, Kobe’s game was better than Wilt’s.
"Yes, it was," Kareem told L.A. reporters in the aftermath. "That's because of the wide variety of shots that he used, driving, pulling up, behind the three-point line, it was an incredible feat of versatility."
But style points only count in the slam dunk contest. And besides, Kareem is on the Laker payroll as a special assistant coach, whatever that means.
There was perhaps one truly newsworthy comment. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has spent much of his time in Los Angeles finding ways to trash Bryant, seemed appalled by all of the negative noise shoved Kobe’s way after the big game.
"I think people didn't see the game and just lost context of what the game is about," Jackson said of all the Kobe haters who emerged from the woodwork.
He’s probably right. Most of the people mouthing off about Kobe’s 81 don’t appear to have seen more than a few highlights on ESPN, if that.
But that won’t stop them from talking about it for a long, long time. In fact, that’s probably the best measure of the significance of an athletic feat. How much conversation and debate does it generate? Usually such topics are reserved for the baseball stats nerds, so in that since it’s nice to see hoops get some “historical” respect.
If nothing else, it made the rest of the world suddenly take notice of an NBA regular-season game. When’s the last time that happened? I’m not talking about regular NBA junkies or even sports fans. Kobe scores 81, and suddenly people who have no idea whether the Lakers are in Seattle or Los Angeles (yes, I’ve been asked that question by a media co-worker) are suddenly talking about The Game.
So, what does Kobe’s 81 really mean?
That people are going to be talking about him for a long time.
That it is what it is.
That the Lakers coaching staff will do yet more head-scratching trying to figure out how to merge Kobe’s exceptional skill and talent with a young, inconsistent roster that seems ready to soar some nights, ready to fold others.
It’s a problem that Jackson and Tex Winter, his longtime assistant and mentor, have tackled before, with Jordan in Chicago.
As broadcast analyst and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr pointed out, the team around Jordan was much stronger than the team around Bryant.
But the order is taller for Jackson and Winter, now, at 83, the team’s critical consultant, because the Laker roster is so young and seemingly unsure.
One thing is clear, Winter told me yesterday: The problem is not Kobe.
“The problem here is that the other players have to learn to step up,” Winter said. “The problem is not Kobe.”
Much has been made of Jackson and Winter (who is also Bryant’s close advisor and mentor) getting Bryant to “trust” his teammates with the ball, just as the coaches spent much effort in getting Jordan to trust his teammates.
Lakers forward Brian Cook told me that the players began the year sensing that Bryant didn’t trust them. Ironically, the players began to get a sense of trust in their first game against Toronto in early December when Bryant scored little and seemed eager to get the ball to his teammates who were knocking down shots.
“I don’t think he shot but two or three shots in the first half,” Cook told me. “He just distributed the ball and had like nine assists. Now we’ve gotten the sense from him that he sees we’re gonna help him out. We know Kobe’s capable of doing anything. We just gotta help him out and be in the right spots and run our offense, and I think everything will be fine.”
Laker forward Devean George has played with Bryant for a half dozen seasons now, but this year he sees a change.
“I see him really, really focused,” George explained. “Really, really outspoken and getting his point across verbally now. He used to just lead by example. Now he’s doing a whole lot more talking, letting guys know. ‘Get here. Move there. Move the ball. Step up.’ Whatever. He’s trying to take younger guys under his wing and let them know. I think that’s the biggest difference. He’s definitely taking a different route in trying to pick everybody up, pick everybody’s game up, get everybody on the same page, get the team rolling. I think that’s the difference this year in what he’s doing.”
I asked Bryant recently if he had begun to trust his teammates like Jordan learned to trust John Paxson.
“It’s a process,” he said, shaking his head no. “With us, it’s inconsistent. Some nights the trust is there. Some nights it’s not. It’s a process. Over the course of a year, when you find yourselves in big-time pressure situations, that’s when the trust becomes cemented. I’m sure with Paxson his play in big-time critical situations showed that he could step up. And that’s when the trust became cemented. And that’s how it works with us.”
Winter, who coached Jordan for better than a decade, said he had never seen MJ go off in such a fashion. “Kobe has an incredible sense of when to push for and look for his own shot.”
When he can push things and force things with his will. With his team down 18 points with about eight minutes left in the third quarter against Toronto, that seemed like an obvious time. Thus Kobe turned on the focus and the jets.
His critics return again and again to what they perceive as Bryant’s personal agenda.
And he does have one.
“He’s told me he wants to be the best to ever play the game,” Winter said. “I hope that’s just out of his reach, yet not out of sight.”
Make no mistake, Winter said, above all else Kobe Bryant wants to win.
“He knows what it takes, and he wants it to be as a team,” explained Winter, who constantly pushes team concepts at Bryant. “But it’s really a matter of our other players learning how to step up.”
Winter said Bryant’s big night obviously pleased and disturbed Jackson, who also constantly preaches team play. Likewise, Bryant’s teammates seemed happy to celebrate Kobe’s big night but also bothered “that they were mostly spectators,” Winter said.
Winter has long observed that both Jordan and Bryant, because of their incredible ability and ruthless competitive natures, were not entirely popular with teammates.
“Michael, though, was a lot harder on his teammates than Kobe,” Winter offered. “Michael could come down really hard on them at times.”
Jordan once explained to me that he had to be hard on his teammates, to find out which ones could step up when the pressure hit the high side.
The basketball public seemed to love Jordan’s competitiveness, while that same public seems to begrudge a similar trait in Bryant.
Bryant’s answer to that conundrum is that he doesn’t care. “I’m going to let my play do the talking,” he told me.
For those who know basketball, the message is loud and clear. Even so, there’s another segment who just may never hear.
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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