Kobe’s $100K fine didn’t buy Lakers’ best effort
By JIM LITKE AP Sports Columnist
A chance to play in the Lakers postseason opener instead of a suspension? Probably, plus the warm feeling that accompanies a charitable donation, and a forceful reminder that while speech is still free, it isn’t necessarily cheap, let alone worthy of a hearing.
And yes, it’s still possible that the commissioner’s unprecedented $100,000 fine for the homophobic slur Bryant directed at a referee last week will be cut in half, since the same NBA Constitution that grants David Stern wide-ranging discretion to levy fines against players also stipulates that they “not exceed $50,000.”
Wherever the figure ends up, though, may be less important than whether it eased the frustration with some teammates that likely set off Bryant’s tirade in the first place. Judged on the admittedly slim evidence of the Lakers’ lackluster performance Sunday at home against the Hornets, the answer is probably not.
“I’m very disappointed with the way that we played, with the type of effort that we played with,” Bryant began his postgame interview after New Orleans stole a 109-100 win. “They came out with a lot of energy. We didn’t come out flat, but we came out with not enough energy to match theirs.”
Bryant was smiling and almost eerily calm throughout the news conference. There is no more fierce competitor in the league, yet no matter how many times the “disappointment” question was rephrased, he refused to bite.
“We didn’t do the coverages, defensively, that we were supposed to. I don’t know if we forgot about them, or it was just a lack of effort to execute them, but we didn’t stick to our game plan.
“So it’s not about us making adjustments,” he said of the next game in the series. “It’s about us doing what we were supposed to do in the first place.”
Bryant didn’t provide specifics, but be certain those weren’t left out in the discussions the Lakers have been holding behind closed doors. He’s been very public about what he expects from teammates throughout his career, yet rarely has he seemed more desperate.
Bryant is still just 32, and while few players have accomplished half as much, he came into the NBA as an 18-year-old and has already logged enough minutes to fill out a career. Early on, he could carry a team all by himself. Now, he needs more help than ever, and the way the Lakers finished the regular season and began this postseason suggests his teammates aren’t getting the message.
Bryant can still dominate anytime he wants to, and usually when he has to, most notably in closing out games. But his biggest accomplishment these past few years has been less about displaying individual brilliance than coaxing that same quality from teammates - most notably Pau Gasol(notes) (who deserved the NBA Finals MVP awarded Bryant last season), Andrew Bynum(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes).
Bryant let a question about Gasol pass harmlessly the first time it was asked. But when it came up again a few minutes later - “Will you put pressure on Gasol?” - the answer was vintage Kobe.
“Rightfully so. I put pressure on myself. It’s 1 and 2, it’s me and him, so when you get all the praise when things go your way, you get all of the blame when things don’t,” Bryant said. “It’s part of the seats that we sit in.”
Bryant has gotten plenty of help from coach Phil Jackson in trying to impart a sense of urgency. But in a sense, he’s become a victim of his own greatness. Because no matter how much he and coach Phil Jackson preach about more effort, Bryant’s teammates stubbornly believe he’ll bail them out when the time comes. They’ve seen it happen too often to make contingency plans just yet.
Jackson wasn’t reaching for the panic button yet. After the game, he talked about the Lakers being “late on everything” and resorted to the mind games he delights in playing. He called the loss “a blessing in disguise,” because it will get his players’ attention the way warnings never do.
But Bryant wasn’t so sure. When someone relayed about Phil’s remarks, he laughed and said, “That’s the Zen outlook.”
He is anything but Zen at the moment. Behind that icy facade, Bryant is surely steaming. Every sport and every athlete has their own pressure point and Bryant’s ill-considered eruption last week suggests he may be closer than we think.
It’s been a strange few weeks that way. Manchester United star Wayne Rooney made a point of screaming an obscenity at his critics directly into the camera after scoring a goal, and got suspended for it. Tiger Woods, meanwhile, continues to aim most of his foul language at himself, leaving some lip-readers dismayed about the lack of action by the PGA Tour.
But if the guys around Bryant don’t step up. and soon, they won’t have to wait for the video. One thing he’s never been accused of is being shy.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org.