EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Before delivering a most conciliatory State of Me address, Kobe Bryant made the rounds at media day, posing for photos and grinding out public service announcements. Here was Bryant reading a cue card for a taped game night message to Lakers fans warning, "Do not engage in any fighting or throwing objects."
Kobe Bryant, voice of reason.
Sometime this season, he'll be closing his eyes, biting his lip and listening to those words playing over and over in the Staples Center.
Across the gymnasium and upstairs on Monday, you could see Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak through the glass window of his office that overlooks the court. Sometimes, he was talking on the telephone. Sometimes, he looked like he was staring at his computer. The Lakers GM never made a deal for a superstar running mate with Bryant, but down below, Bryant had come to say that, hey, he thought Kupchak tried and that effort meant so much to him.
All Monday at Lakers Media Day, Bryant played the part of the contrite employee.
"Whatever management decides to do, my role is to get the best out of this team," Bryant said. "I'm a soldier. It's not my decision to say whether we should fight the war."
Let's leave that kind of foolish analogy alone, but rest assured, it's a window into how limited Bryant's perspective on the world is beyond himself. For now, Kobe is trying hard to remember the basketball team that started the season winning 23 of 33 games a year ago, that looked like a contender in the Western Conference until the frontline crumpled to injuries, until Andrew Bynum disappeared as a productive player. The Suns disposed of the Lakers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, and it wouldn't be long until Bryant had lost his patience with a postseason that no longer included him as a story line.
More or less, he called his owner a liar, his general management incompetent, his teammates slugs and demanded a trade out of Los Angeles.
"I was frustrated, so I blew up," Bryant said.
So, Bryant used the rest of the summer with Team USA to rehab his image draped in the red, white and blue. As Kobe has proven again and again, whatever Kobe screws up in his life off the floor, he finds salvation back on it. He'll do it again this season, too. He's dropped 20 pounds and even his U.S. Olympic teammates – the best players in the world – were blown away with his resolve over the summer.
With him, teammate Lamar Odom says, the Lakers are a championship contender. "We've got a guy who on some nights can beat a team all by himself."
Best case, these Lakers won't win a title, but they'll get Kobe believing that they're on the case again. Right now, he needs Bynum to become a player. Bynum said Kobe's criticism of him this summer only made him work harder. (What else could Bynum say? Whatever Bryant dishes, he has to take it.)
As much as anything, the Lakers need to convince coach Phil Jackson to take the ownership's offer of a contract extension beyond this season. Once Jackson goes, there's no telling how Bryant responds to the next one. Beyond Jackson, who has the credibility, the chops, to come here and control this circus?
For now, the drive of passing Red Auerbach for his 10th NBA title still moves Jackson. Yet, he can live without the $10 million a season to coach a mediocre team. "We want to run for a championship," Jackson said. "If we're not going to challenge, I don't want to be a guy that's coaching this team on the salary I'm getting."
The Lakers aren't trading Bryant, and he knows that. Here's what helps the organization over the next year: The Beijing Olympics. As much as anything, Bryant wants to be in the middle of everything. He wants to be celebrated as a champion. For the United States, he has the chance to be considered the savior returning it to its rightful standing on the international stage. The fact that Bryant has a gold medal within reach promises to spare the franchise some of his rage.
"A monster team," Bryant said Monday.
The Olympians, not the Lakers. For now, it was back to reality with the Lakers, beginning with training camp in Hawaii on Tuesday.
So, here's how it started this season: Kobe Bryant, voice of reason.
As you know, with him, it doesn't always end well.
- Kobe Bryant