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NEW YORK – Kobe Bryant marched out of the interview room, down the small flight of stairs and walked stiffly through the back corridors of Madison Square Garden. He winced once, and again, slowing to straighten his aching back. For all of the ferocity and frustration that washed over him across one more embarrassing defeat, a strange sense of serenity buoyed Bryant late Thursday.
On his way out of the Lakers' fourth straight loss, on the way out of the kind of beat-down he had forever thrust onto the New York Knicks in the past, Bryant started to speak about champions. His conversation on Wednesday with Magic Johnson was still on his mind, and a parallel that Johnson had raised stayed with Bryant.
In the Lakers' moment of crisis, Bryant summoned the toughness and leadership and serious-mindedness of those who had raised banners with him. In his own way, he's challenging Dwight Howard. Steve Nash. Even Mike D'Antoni.
"A lot of responsibility is going to fall on me and Pau [Gasol], but we need Metta [World Peace]," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "Metta has a big presence on this team. I really encourage him to take that role head on – and to be an enforcer with it. But Metta, he's done it before. We've won before together."
Bryant stopped in the hallway on the way out of a 116-107 loss to the Knicks, his eyes widening and his voice – scratchy, tired from a night, from a season, of screaming – became a little louder, a little surer when he said again, "It has to be the guys who have done it before."
[Related: Are the flailing Lakers beyond repair?]
He let that hang there for a moment – who have done it before – and finally smirked and said, "Metta's just as intense as I am, and he's got a lot of that psychopath attitude that I do.
"That's something Magic and me talked about, about how [Michael] Cooper and him did that a lot, how they played off each other."
The Lakers are a mess, but they were never constructed to win without Gasol and Nash. This core will get a chance to turn this season around, to win together, but time is slipping away with a 9-14 record in the Western Conference. Nash believes he can start practicing next week, and these Lakers desperately need him back to run the offense, get the ball moving, get his teammates easy opportunities and spare them the turnovers that turn into transition baskets.
Nash will make life easier for Gasol, and make no mistake: Once Gasol's knee tendinitis lessens enough to allow him to return, Nash could be responsible for sparing Gasol his Lakers career. The organization will give Gasol a chance to work within D'Antoni's system, but should he struggle to find his fit, multiple sources insist the Lakers are prepared to trade him for a younger, more athletic forward and bench help.
The Lakers have pushed back their pursuit of exiled Utah Jazz shooting guard Raja Bell, understanding there's a short-term priority to investigate clearing a roster spot to add a point guard. The Chicago Bulls have shown a willingness to sign Bell to a non-guaranteed deal, but that hasn't inspired Bell to agree to a buyout with the Jazz, sources said.
In the end, these Lakers are responsible for regenerating championship aspirations themselves. There always promised to be an uneasy partnership between Bryant and Howard, because they're personalities that are so diametrically different. Howard is the class clown, and Bryant has little, if any, use for levity within the locker room – especially amidst the losing. They'll never be close – not unless they win a title, anyway – and truth be told, for these Lakers to prosper, they don't need to Bryant and Howard to be close.
This is why Bryant was calling upon Gasol and World Peace to be his partners in shepherding these Lakers back to championship contention. D'Antoni has never been a coach to hold people accountable, to be a great leader of men, and thus so much more is thrust upon this Lakers locker room. On the day of the Lakers' trade for Howard in August, Bryant told me he believed Howard's clown act wouldn't travel from Orlando to Los Angeles, because he said, "I think that changes just by the pressure that he's under now."
[Related: Dwight Howard says he cries a lot]
Four months later, Bryant was asked simply: "Has it changed?"
He thought for a moment and said, "It's coming. …It's coming. In the situations we're in now, you see me and him talking a lot more. I'm going to be more demanding of him. It's coming…"
Four straight losses, and the staggering Lakers left Madison Square Garden trying to hold down the season until Nash and Gasol return, until this grand superstar experiment can be properly judged with the talent aligned, with the excuses gone. Kobe Bryant stopped to greet his wife Vanessa in the bowels of the Garden, and somehow he still seemed far more encouraged than discouraged about a season that feels so flimsy now.
"We're communicating," Bryant said. "Me and Pau, Metta and Coach D'Antoni. Steve and Dwight. We're communicating. We're going to figure this out."
Here it was, mid-December, and Kobe Bryant was leaning on the one thing that he's ever sure about, the one thing that ought to buoy a staggering franchise in its moment of need: the heart of a champion. These Lakers are a long, long way from raising a banner, but if they're ever to get there again, Bryant knows who'll have to lead them, who'll have to raise them out of the rubble.
From Metta World Peace to Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant is closing ranks and clinging closer to those who've hung banners with him, to those he desperately needs if he's ever to do it again.
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