WASHINGTON – Over early season lunches with his trusted sounding board, Kobe Bryant stopped talking about the possibility of what could be for the Los Angeles Lakers, and started immersing himself in the truth of the matter.
This was Derek Fisher’s way of keeping Bryant’s mind right. Tell me about the strengths and weaknesses of these young players, Fisher kept asking. Tell me about who they are, and who they can be, how I can best bear the burden of leadership with you.
“At the time, there wasn’t much being said between he and management anyway,” Fisher said Sunday. “There wasn’t any, ‘Hey, go tell Mitch (Kupchak) this is what we should do.’ ”
As it turned out, Kupchak didn’t need Bryant’s belligerent counsel. Just his patience, just something Bryant has always had a hard time keeping with people: his trust.
What once surely seemed like it would be a season of seething is transforming into an improbable revival. Before this year is out, Bryant could win his fourth title, his first Most Valuable Player award and maybe bring back from Beijing an Olympic gold medal.
Once again, Bryant has it all. He huffed and puffed, but Jerry Buss and Kupchak waited out his tantrums and threats and delivered Bryant the post-Shaquille O’Neal roster that they promised him. Had they panicked the way he did, the Lakers would be a doomed franchise.
Looking back, it’s rare the great players make the best general managers. So, yes, it’s ironic that Jerry West defied that truth because he was responsible for recognizing Bryant, a 1996 high-school senior, as the best player in his draft class. West knew Kobe’s greatness would one day play an immense part in resurrecting the Lakers dynasty.
For an impatient perfectionist, West had the gift of vision that his 50 Greatest playing peers like Michael Jordan, Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas still haven’t found in the front office.
So Sunday, Bryant was standing in the visiting locker room of the Verizon Center and declining a chance to declare the next move for the Lakers. Pau Gasol was on his way into the lineup, Andrew Bynum on his way to an All-Star career and, wisely, Bryant had returned to destroying the rest of the NBA.
Not his team, anymore.
“I gave up playing GM this summer,” Bryant said.
This time a year ago, Bryant begged the Lakers to give up on Bynum for Kidd. The Lakers wouldn’t have won a title with Bryant and Kidd, just been a fabulous show too slight, too small, for a championship. Just one year later, Bynum, 20, who is out with a knee injury until mid-March, had showed that he wasn’t just a better bet for the long run, but for this year, too. Size matters in the West, and Bynum and Gasol are a frontline of power and grace promising to be a monster.
Over the summer, Kupchak didn’t give up a package for a broken down O’Neal that would’ve included the No. 1 picks they ultimately needed to ship to Memphis for Gasol. Every GM makes mistakes and Kupchak had to live with trading a burgeoning All-Star, Caron Butler, to the Wizards for all-time draft bust Kwame Brown. The Lakers GM turned Brown’s expiring contract into the 7-foot Gasol and, instantly, the NBA’s most important franchise had the parts to return itself to glory.
“It’s going to make my life and everybody’s life easier,” Bryant said.
Someone asked: But will it make you happy?
Bryant raised an eyebrow, and insisted, “I’m happy right now.”
Yes, it does make everyone’s life easier. Nevertheless, that edge, that drive, does separate Bryant and mere mortals in the game.
Watching him play in Toronto on the night of the Gasol trade on Monday, Phil Jackson described Bryant as “joyful,” as he glided through the Raptors on the way to 46 points, a state of basketball bliss that Jackson seldom sees out of his star’s tortured soul. On these Lakers, it’s spreading. Jackson has a shot to pass Red Auerbach for his 10th championship and he knows it. When a breathless television crew from Spain tried to probe the Lakers coach for his expectations of Gasol, he said dryly, “We expect Pau to lead us to a championship immediately. We’re going to win 25 in a row.”
The Lakers are going to be very good – maybe even great again – and they know it. Despite his breakdown over the summer, Bryant is a much better teammate now. In some ways, his parking lot diatribe to “ship Bynum’s ass out,” delivered the young center a public ultimatum from which the kid couldn’t run and hide. What kind of a pro – what kind of a man – would he be by committing to anything but the work it would take to become a dominant center?
Among Western contenders, only the New Orleans Hornets are having as much fun as the Lakers. Just for kicks on Sunday, Bryant outscored the entire Wizards roster in the first quarter. By the fourth quarter of another blowout victory, much of the Wizards crowd boomed, “Let’s go Lakers!” Bryant turned to Fisher on the bench, and wondered, “Where are we?”
The Lakers are back where they belong, America’s team on tour again. When they come to town, there promises to be more Lakers No. 24 jerseys in the stands than those of the hometown hero. The Lakers go to New Jersey on Tuesday, where Gasol makes his debut as the next generation 7-foot All-Star – an evolved Euro model – to wear the purple and gold. Bryant will be passing through where his Team USA buddy, Kidd, waits for Nets president Rod Thorn to punch his ticket out of the swamp.
In contrast to Kobe, perhaps only Kidd had worse instincts as an assistant GM, selling his superiors on a couple free-agent signing busts and the toppling of ex-coach Byron Scott. This time a year ago, Bryant was begging Buss and Kupchak to trade Bynum for Kidd, a mistake that would’ve haunted the Lakers for a decade.
But back in training camp, Bryant finally developed the right idea. Together, Fisher and he talked about these young Lakers. That old trusted sounding board, Fisher, remembered, “We weren’t sitting around waiting for something to happen to become one of the best teams in the league. We set out to become that.”
No, Mitch Kupchak didn’t trade Bryant. He didn’t give up on Bryant’s most gifted, young teammates. Now, Bryant has Gasol on his side, Bynum on the mend and championship contention, even an MVP, within his reach.
Someone Sunday asked him about the trading deadline on Feb. 21, and one of the league’s lousy GMs politely declined.
“I’m letting Mitch handle that stuff,” Kobe Bryant finally said.