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After Sunday's 112-96 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, a defeat during which he scored 19 points with three assists and two rebounds despite playing only in the first and third quarters to rest a sore right knee, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant was asked what advice he'd offer to the rookie version of himself — the brash but gifted 18-year-old who'd landed in Hollywood by way of Philadelphia, Italy, Lower Merion and Charlotte, teeming with talent and trying to take those first tenuous steps toward stardom. His answer was, perhaps, somewhat surprising. From Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:
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“It’s hard to tell somebody at that age to understand compassion and empathy,” Bryant said. “That would be my advice. It comes with time.”
At first blush, that sounds a little funny — like, "Of course Kobe, good ol' fanatically competitive and borderline-crazy Kobe, has a hard time with the concept of understanding the suffering and feelings of others." Then you think about it for a second, and you think about how differently you respond to people and their emotions today than you did when you were 18, and it starts to sound like a pretty wonderful lesson, doesn't it?
Bryant — who, it's fair to say, has not necessarily cultivated a public image heavy on outpourings of warm fuzzies over the years — extrapolated on why he'd emphasize those particular qualities, according to Medina:
“The biggest thing about being a leader and winning a championship is understanding how to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” Bryant said. “It’s not necessarily the individual skill you possess. It’s about understanding others and knowing what they may be going through.” [...]
“Bringing the best out of people isn’t passing the ball and giving them open shots,” he said. “It’s about how to connect with them and how to communicate with them so they can navigate whatever issues they may face. That’s a very, very hard thing to do.”
As he thinks back on his younger days, Bryant attributes the lesson in understanding the need to meet teammates where they are and think about what they need as opposed to solely your own game to something a veteran teammate told him years ago, according to ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes:
"It was in a meeting at Southwest College [in Los Angeles], and we were having a team meeting and Rick Fox said, 'Kobe, we just want to feel like you need us,'" Bryant said.
"I was like, 'What the hell is this grown-ass man [saying]? What are you talking [about]?' But then, it kind of caught me, because it was a very vulnerable thing for him to say, and it helped me have perspective on what he may be going through and what he's feeling. And then, from that standpoint, it really changed my mentality and how I kind of looked at it, and I've been working on it ever since."
This isn't the first time that Kobe has attributed his emotional growth as a teammate and leader to introspection sparked by conversation with veteran teammates during his ascent to the rarefied air of the game's very best players. He shared a similar reflection with Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins back in October:
“I had a big transition when I started to understand that my teammates viewed me like some damn machine who didn’t feel anything and was oblivious to pressure,” Bryant says. “They found that very unrelatable. I had to explain that I had the same fears, flaws, vulnerabilities, so they could relate to me.” He is referring to former Lakers such as Lamar Odom and Luke Walton, Shannon Brown and Ronny Turiaf, who came to treasure Bryant for reasons that transcend assists.
“People who have very limited knowledge of sports always say, ‘Passing the ball makes everyone better,’” says Bryant. “No. That’s not it. That’s not making them better. That’s giving them an opportunity to be successful. If you want to make them better, you don’t just hand them the ball. You inspire them to be the best version of themselves, and I do that by sharing things which are very personal to me, things I’ve struggled with, and letting them relate that to their own journey.”
While Bryant has by many accounts worked hard on cultivating that ability to inspire and share, the distance between the young Kobe and his teammates was all too real, as former Laker and current Golden State Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton once told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher as part of an oral history of the 2003-04 Lakers:
Early in my career, Kobe was still the incredible hard worker and natural leader on the floor, but there wasn’t much as far as leadership in bringing guys with you. It was kind of like: "Look, I’m here first, I’m working harder than anyone, I’m obviously more talented than everybody and I’m going to give everything I have in every game I play." So, naturally he’s a leader, you respect that.
It was also a central element of a good piece on Bryant's at-times aloof approach to his job written in June of 2001 by USA TODAY's David Leon Moore:
"When Kobe leaves the floor, who knows what he does? Who knows where he goes?" teammate Ron Harper says. "We don't see him much. Which is not a bad thing. His form of expression is his basketball. His main thing is to be the best basketball player he can be. Once he leaves the floor, he expects you to leave him alone." [...]
Who besides [Jerry] West, Bryant is asked, are important men in his life?
"I don't need anybody to talk to that much, really," he says. "I talk to Jerry about the game. Outside of that, if something upsets me, I talk to my wife."
Does he talk basketball with his father, former NBA and Italian league pro Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant?
"Not much," he says. "I've always been the type that grew up on my own."
As impressive as the fruits of his individual labors were, though, Bryant had to work on that predilection toward solitude and self-reliance in order to reach his ultimate goals, as Fox told Moore back in 2001:
Bryant knows his teammates felt removed from him, but he claims the portrayal of him is not accurate. "People have this idea of me being like a loner, but I was never a loner," he says. "I was never a loner."
Bryant says he feels closer to his teammates as a result of the turmoil this season. "I do, I really do," he says. "I'm enjoying my teammates' company more than ever. We have a good time around one another. We have grown up with one another. And I have opened up a great deal this year."
Teammate Rick Fox confirms that.
"We just wanted the opportunity to get to know him better, and we've gotten that," Fox says. "Obviously Kobe's not the kind of person who just lets everybody in. It could be that, with him, it just takes some time for you to prove to him that you're going to be there for him the way he'd be there for you."
Players like Fox, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and others earned that trust and that respect by stepping up in big moments in the highest-leverage situations for Lakers teams that competed for and won championships. Getting to that more harmonious point, though, required acceptance and change not only in Kobe, who famously bristled at the idea of sublimating his one-on-one gifts to the structure of Phil Jackson and Tex Winter's Triangle offense, but also in the men with whom he shared the floor, as related by longtime Phil friend/journalist Charley Rosen in a 2002 Page 2 piece:
Just how bad was Kobe's resistance that first season? Bad enough for Shaq to say this during a team meeting: "I think that Kobe is playing too selfishly for us to win."
Some of the players then spoke up to support Shaq's opinion and some defended Kobe. Then Kobe spoke in his own behalf, saying he really cared about his teammates and wanted, above all, to be part of a winning team.
The biggest problem was that Kobe was a loner, lifting weights by himself and never hanging out with the other guys. So, as much as Kobe wanted to lead, nobody wanted to follow him. At the same time, Kobe refused to follow anybody else.
Jackson broke the stalemate by convincing Kobe to go along with the program until he matured into a leadership role.
That maturation didn't come overnight, and it's certainly had its ups and downs. Recall the second half of Game 7 of L.A.'s 2006 first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns, during which Bryant — at the peak of his powers and needing to do damn near everything for a post-Shaq club short on elite talent — took just three shots in a surprisingly pass-happy performance that led many to wonder if he was deliberately tanking the game to prove a point that Lakers management needed to improve the roster ... and, of course, the whole Dwight Howard saga.
Kobe did, however, find a way to kind-of-sort-of bring his teammates along with him, as his longtime trainer (and soon-to-be contributor to The Vertical) Tim Grover wrote in his 2013 book, "Relentless":
A lot of gifted people will lower their skills to close the gap between themselves and those around them, so others can feel more confident, involved, and relatively competitive. I've seen Kobe do that briefly when he has to, as a way to bring his teammates into the action and keep them engaged. It can work well depending on the other players, and as soon as Kobe sees his teammates stepping up, he'll revert to his natural game. It's a conscious decision to make the other guys feel as if they were one team, not one superstar surrounded by a second-rate supporting cast.
It would be a fairly charitable read on a number of levels to say that's the situation in which Bryant finds himself now, at age 37, in his 20th NBA season, facing down the retirement he chose last month. For one, while it sure looks like he's going to be an All-Star, he is no longer that superstar. For another, the 2015-16 model of the Lakers — which enters Monday's play at 5-26, the second-worst record in the league and dead last in the Western Conference, ranked 29th in points scored per possession and 30th in points allowed per possession — doesn't feature "a second-rate supporting cast" as much as a mismatched collection of veteran journeymen and young players hoping to make a name for themselves.
And yet — perhaps as a result of a general easing of tension after making his decision to walk away from the game at year's end — Bryant seems more comfortable with showing youngsters like D'Angelo Russell (who, despite some early-season juggling of his role, has praised Bryant for coaching him through late-game situations), Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson how to move in the NBA. From Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com:
“I’ve never seen him this relaxed,” head coach Byron Scott said. “I’ve never seen him this at ease. I think all of that is because he knows this is it. He’s gonna try to enjoy it to the best of his ability. I think that’s what he’s doing. I’ve never seen him talk to players on the floor and smile as much as I’ve seen him smile. I think he’s at peace.”
Bryant's gamedays become much more peaceful when the young Lakers play like they did in Tuesday's win over Milwaukee. Russell finished with 19 points and a career-high seven assists, while Randle piled up 14 points and 14 rebounds.
“These are things that we discuss and talk about prior to the games and at practices,” Bryant said. “Certain strategic adjustments; and when they make them during the game, they see the payoff. You see the excitement. It’s probably more exciting for me than it is for them.”
In other words, as Kobe told SI's Jenkins earlier this year, "The best way to teach isn't by preaching to somebody. It’s by sharing stories." It's kind of fitting that perhaps the most important tale Bryant has to share with his young charges — the one about how he learned that no matter how great you are, it can't be just about how great you are — is one that the young version of himself would probably never have listened to, even if it was coming out of his own mouth.
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