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For better or for worse
by Roland Lazenby / November 6, 2007

So Phil Jackson and the Lakers find themselves right back where they’ve always been struggling with Bad Kobe and hoping/praying for Good Kobe.

Perhaps the Lakers will find a way to trade Bryant, but they don’t really want to, because they don’t want to give up a superstar and get an odd collection of players in return.

That just doesn’t sell in Los Angeles, where star power seems to trump just about everything.

As badly as Bryant wants to get away from the Buss family that owns the team (except for Jeanie; there appears to be mutual admiration and respect there), he now finds himself coming round to the realization that his contract, his unique nature, heck, even his talent itself have made him very difficult to trade.

Bryant and his representatives have made a giant effort trying to disprove that notion. They’ve dialed up GMs and owners in Chicago and Dallas and elsewhere. They’ve posed every sort of deal.

None of it has floated.

Bryant and the Lakers seem to be stuck with each other.

For better or for worse.

Which means coach Phil Jackson is right back at the same old task trying to get Bryant to play the right way, the team-oriented way.

To “involve his teammates.”

How many times have you heard that phrase?

There are critics who want to take this situation and make something bigger out of it. They project that Kobe Bryant is this metastasizing ego that will suck the life out of any team he plays for.

Tex Winter, Jackson’s longtime assistant, will tell you that the same issues emerged when they coached Michael Jordan in Chicago.

As Jackson told me once, Jordan’s hypercompetitive behavior could be “destructive” to his own teammates. Jordan himself admitted to me that he could be ruthless and unkind, but that he had to find teammates who were mentally strong enough to play with him.

Winter said there is one major difference between Jordan and Bryant in these circumstances: Jordan played system basketball in college for Dean Smith at North Carolina. Bryant came to the Lakers right out of high school and never had benefit of that college experience.

Still, Winter said, it’s a battle each night with those rare superior players to get them to quiet those raging competitive urges, to get them to “include their teammates.”

Bryant, of course, has expressed tremendous frustration with the Lakers and their talent level in recent months.

Some observers find delight in these circumstances because they believe Bryant’s ego set them up in the first place, when he seemed so eager to leave the Lakers in 2004 or force the trading of center Shaquille O’Neal.

The debate and the urban legends spawned by the Lakers in 2004 have been the subject of entire books, so we don’t want to get into that one here.

Let’s just say that the Lakers and Bryant are what they are right now. The coaches and Bryant and his teammates must revisit the issue of how they should play and what they can do to compete in the insanely difficult Western Conference.

It has always been that way with Bryant, just as it was always that way with Jordan. Phil Jackson has always used whatever means necessary to get his star player to walk the fine line to a team victory.

For example, I used to know Bryant a little bit. I wrote a book about him, Mad Game, The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant, in 1999 and used to spend a good deal of time talking to him about his struggles with his then veteran teammates.

I used to have Bryant’s “password” to his hotel phone, where I could call him on the road and chat about what he was going through.

In 2001, when Jackson and the Lakers were struggling to get Bryant to play the way they wanted him to play, I got a phone call from a member of the Lakers staff, who told me, “You better tell your boy to straighten up and play the team game. We need the good Kobe.”

My reply at the time was that Bryant wouldn’t listen to me on that level.

“He doesn’t have to hear what I have to say,” I told the caller.

“He knows what to do, and he’ll do it,” I predicted.

I never told Bryant about the call, never brought up the subject, but sure enough down the stretch of the end of the regular season and through playoffs of 2001, Bryant played masterfully. And the Lakers went on to a second straight title.

Things began to change that spring of 2001. Bryant met Vanessa, who would become his wife. He cut off the access of pests like me. And he was probably the better for it. No longer did he have to take calls from nosy journalists. And he continued to show that when the team was strong and ready to win something, he knew how to trust, how to fit within the team concept, how to win.

Yet trust is not an easy thing for a superior talent. It wasn’t with Jordan. And it hasn’t been with Bryant.

He talked with me about trust with his teammates a while back. “It takes a long time to establish trust,” he said.

And it shifts on a nightly basis, he explained. If his teammates are playing well on a given night, then he’ll shift his game accordingly.

Jordan was much the same way. His teammates had to prove themselves to him. John Paxson once told me about the immense challenge of pleasing Jordan as a teammate.

“If you don’t show him you’re ready to play, he’ll eat you alive,” Paxson said.

Thus, the situation for Bryant has become immensely complicated this fall.

He remains with a team fighting injuries, with numerous young, untested players.

He wants to win. Now.

His frustration and venting of his anger over the team’s roster has led to damaged relationships with his teammates, with the team’s owners, with the fans.

Worse yet, the Lakers face a difficult schedule to start the season.

These are not the circumstances that are conducive to Good Kobe, to a willing-to-fit-in-the-system Kobe.

These are the circumstances for desperate, angry, take-35-shots Kobe.

Clearly, something has got to give.

As fans, this is where we truly get our money’s worth.

Life usually comes around to where men have to confront themselves, where they have to address who they are, where they finally have to answer questions that they’ve spent their entire lives avoiding.

Now we get to see, who is Kobe Bryant?

And we get to find out if Phil Jackson really has all that patience and touch that make him worth $10 mil a season.

For better? Or worse?

One thing I know, Bryant always has a way of surprising people.

There were plenty of critics who said he would be a huge pain in the ass for Team USA this past summer.

Bryant responded by unleashing his full love for the game (and make no mistake, he has the biggest of loves for this game) in a bundle of youthful defensive energy.

Too bad he doesn’t have a better team around him this fall, a team so good that it takes the immense pressure off of him to deliver in an unbelievable way night after night.

The pressure remains very high on Bryant, because he has giant expectations of himself. He always has. Even since he was a 17-year-old kid.

It’s what fascinates me about him. He’ll do whatever it takes to be successful. He’ll rattle cages, and yell at very rich men. He’ll invite public ridicule and dare to be very, very different.

He’s always flown way high. With no net. Balls out and gunning.

For my money, that’s why he’s the most compelling story in sports today.

Nobody else is willing to risk this much.

This is not a game. There is much at stake. We could all witness a disgusting splat, the harshest ending for this cautionary tale.

What’ll it be, Kobe?

What is the answer that you insist on pushing so hard, so insanely, for?

For better? Or for worse?

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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