Kobe Bryant. If you just typed “Yes?” “No”? next to the man’s name there’s more than a 50-50 chance a firestorm of comments would ensue. A seven-game Lakers losing streak results in I told you so laughter from those who despise Bryant. A five-game streak of 40 points or more by Bryant accompanied by a five-game Lakers winning streak and those who laughed at the losing streak laugh even harder and claim that Bryant is the most selfish basketball player on the planet.
At every turn the name that arises in conjunction with Bryant is —— Michael Jordan. Always and forever it appears Bryant will be linked to Jordan, if for no other reason than the similarities in their games. Even long-time Lakers insider Roland Lazenby cannot help but to remember the words Phil Jackson used to laud Jordan and compare them with the words Jackson uses to commend Bryant:
In Bryant’s career with the Lakers, I can’t recall Jackson offering a truly Jordanesque quote about Bryant. Oh, Jackson has had plenty of nice things to say, some of them genuine.
Observers who dislike Bryant will point to this passage as an absolute “proof” that Bryant is no Jordan, and at age 28 now, probably never will be. Yet there is more, much more behind the scenes that must be considered if we are to make a true comparison between Jordan and Bryant. Using the column from which the aforementioned Lazenby passage arose will aid us greatly in this thorny endeavor.
There is one man who lies at the crux of the Jordan-Bryant, Bryant-O’Neal dual conundrums. This man has, and has had the power to sway public opinion about Bryant. Yet, until recently, he has remained quiet at least, condemning at most.
He is Phil Jackson.
But before we peer into the reasons for Jackson’s treatment of his stars, we must begin with an attempt to understand what makes Kobe Bryant tick. The next statement by Bryant tells us exactly what his goals for himself are:
As we talked, he recalled the absolute exhilaration; the complete sense of domination, that scoring 50 points brought him.
That night in high school had helped him articulate the goal in his basketball life. “I just want to be the man,” he told me. “I just want to dominate.” (Emphasis mine)
It wasn’t idle boasting by some punked-out kid. Bryant was earnestly expressing his destiny.
We have heard Bryant utter variations on this theme throughout his 11-year NBA career. Some of the distaste for Bryant comes from verbalizing the want to be the man, the want to dominate. In America we voyeuristically adore our heroes but we want them to come with public humility, no matter how transparently false that humility is. Included in this adoration of ours is the secret knowledge that we would never, ever want to take on the responsibility of being that figure, the person on whose shoulders the weight of an event falls.
And that is why we are so preoccupied with tearing figures like Kobe Bryant from limb to limb. If vigilante mob rule was still the law of the day, Bryant would have found his way to a rope and a tree some time ago.
Yet, given a moment of repose, at the same time we abhor Bryant for what we cannot be, how many of us would love to have the courage to want to be “the man?” How many of us would love to be that person who stands at the crossroads of success and failure so often that it becomes a place of comfort?
Kobe Bryant does what we wish we could do – and then tells us that is what he wants from his career.
The first sign of misconstrued dislike of Kobe Bryant came soon after he entered the NBA. The pervasive rumor being floated by players and the press was that he was somehow soft because of his moneyed, European background and NBA player father. The whisper was that Bryant was a silver spoon bubble boy, rich enough to want for nothing, insulated from harm so that his path to the League was unencumbered by what ails so many athletically talented, black, urban youth hoping to achieve the NBA dream – the perils of day-to-day living.
Bryant heard the whispers that came in the form of, “he was groomed to be a superstar” and “growing up in Europe afforded him the necessary time to work on his game against older players who were more physically formed than Bryant, but not as gifted.” The whisperers made it seem as if Bryant was dropped into the Philadelphia high school basketball scene as a fully-formed NBA player, as if he somehow didn’t have to work as hard as everyone else to achieve his dream of being “the man.”
When he reached the NBA, the whispers only became louder and the efforts to stifle his growth became more pronounced:
“…nearly everyone he encountered in the NBA sought to harness his game. Even as a young player he could produce 26-point halves, but it was as if no one wanted to see them. Instead of seeing them as things of beauty, his coaches and teammates saw his scoring outbursts as unbridled acts of vanity.”
They sought to bridle him.
‘I will not let them change me,’ he told me. ‘I will find a way. I don’t know how, but I will find a way.’
It wasn’t a statement he made around his teammates and coaches. He didn’t have to. His every action spoke it. Every little thing he did declared “I’m on my way to greatness.”
Enter Phil Jackson, master manipulator.
Jackson, as he did with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made a conscious choice as to which horse to ride in order to win NBA championships. The other horse had to be subverted to a lesser role. As we can now readily see, Pippen is not without ego; he feels he is Jordan’s basketball equal. It is Jackson who elevated Jordan beyond his already iconic status as the most prolific scorer in the NBA to the global force behind an NBA juggernaut team. In this process of ensuring Jordan’s and his own place in history, he wreaked havoc on Pippen’s psyche.
How do we know this for sure? After Jordan’s mysterious sabbatical from the NBA, Pippen thought he’d earned the right to be “the man” on the 1993-94 Jordan-less Chicago Bulls team. Pippen led the Bulls to a 55-27 record, second in the Central Division, only two games behind the Atlanta Hawks. Yet in the midst of the Bulls semifinal playoff series against the New York Knicks, Jackson designed the final play of Game 3 of the series for Toni Kukoc to take the final shot, not Pippen. Pippen refused to enter the game, Kukoc hit the game-winner while Pip sat on the sidelines, broken to his core.
At that moment Scottie Pippen knew what Phil Jackson thought of him as a person more so than as a player. Jackson knew Pippen had a greater chance at failure than did Kukoc because it was Jackson who molded Pippen in to the second-fiddle player he became while playing with Jordan; now Pippen knew too.
Phil Jackson had the same fate in store for Kobe Bryant that he had for Scottie Pippen. The only problem with Bryant is that, from the moment he stepped on an NBA court for a regular season game, played with the sole purpose of one day becoming the man; no player or coach would stand in the way of his goal. However, despite his bravado, this was Kobe Bryant, according to Lazenby, in the third year of his personal grand experiment:
“I remember chatting with Kobe Bryant on the phone years ago. He was a lost 20-year-old kid, in his third year with the Lakers, just becoming aware that Shaquille O’Neal was stepping on his neck with an inconceivable hatred.”
Oh really? And we are to presume that the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers had no idea O’Neal was engaged in this behavior? Short of an admission from Jackson, it is impossible to know for sure. Yet it is close to impossible to think that Jackson, known for his ability to have his finger on the pulse of his teams at all times, did not know O’Neal was in the process of practicing the fine art of subjugation on a 20-year old. Jackson then allowed this to happen. And there are two reasons he allowed O’Neal to cleave what would become a chasm between he and Kobe; Lazenby supplies us with one reason:
There was no question that Bryant had huge blind spots about himself and his relationships with older teammates. What 20-year-old doesn’t have blind spots? Bryant, though, had huge ambition, thus huge blind spots. He didn’t see that his ambition itself, his over-the-top work ethic, immensely irritated the veterans around him.
So, ambition and an exemplary work ethic breed hatred – at least dismay – from teammates. This is quite an insight, not only into O’Neal, but into the entire NBA culture. But that is fodder for another time.
The second reason Jackson allowed O’Neal to psychically step on Kobe’s neck? Jackson didn’t have to perform these duties himself as he did with Pippen, only to have an act of the tragic play reveal itself in public. With Shaq doing the dirty work, Jackson could sit in the shadows, let the chips fall where they may, attach himself to the side of the winner – inevitably Shaq – while exploiting the emotions of Bryant. And look great in the eyes of the sports media all the while.
Jackson was willing to bet he knew enough about Bryant to know that the strong-willed young player would use Shaq’s malfeasance as fuel to create a deep enough anger to sustain a years-long championship run. He was right. Bryant’s fourth season, 1999-2000 began a three-year NBA title run for the Lakers.
But anger coupled with on-court brilliance was and is no match for the media-savvy O’Neal and Jackson. O’Neal made sure in the press Bryant was always perceived as the “little brother” to Shaq’s myriad of selves – the Big Aristotle, Superman, etc. Jackson appeared to “tolerate” Bryant’s sometimes 40-point outbursts that Jackson manipulated into “Kobe being Kobe” personal statements rather than Bryant picking up the team on a generally off night. Lazenby tells the rest of the story:
Over the years, Bryant has endured much pain trying to establish that destiny.
His ambition has been blamed for wrecking a Lakers dynasty. He has battled himself, his teammates, his coaches, the game itself. He has done so fearlessly, relentlessly, with little sign of regret or doubt, only the dogged pursuit of his vision of what he is supposed to be.
There was no question that Bryant could on any given night be blinded by his own brilliance, just as his teammates could be mesmerized by it.
Soon many fans came to equate his every action with selfishness, so that no matter what he did, or how brilliantly he did it, his accomplishments were met with derision.
After the 2003-04 season ended with 4-1 NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons, Phil Jackson stepped down as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson’s manipulations had clearly run their course and the only thing left was to run to his Montana cabin, then Australia to hang with Luc Longley.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Kobe Bryant was blamed for Shaquille O’Neal’s leaving Los Angeles. O’Neal fostered the perception and it is a perception that exists today.
However, the reality of O’Neal’s being traded to the Miami Heat had nothing to do with Bryant and everything to do with the direction Lakers owner Jerry Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak saw for the team. And that future did not include O’Neal:
General manager Mitch Kupchak made clear the team’s priorities Thursday when he said the Lakers would do anything they need to keep Bryant and would try to accommodate O’Neal if he demands a trade.
Apparently upset over Kupchak’s remarks, O’Neal canceled his exit interview. O’Neal, who has been one of Jackson’s biggest supporters, is under contract for two more years but could opt out after next season.
Kupchak also had this to say:
“You can’t replace a Shaquille O’Neal, period,” Kupchak said. “That’s not our intention. This move, as bold as it was, was necessary.”
When we made the decision to trade Shaquille- you use broad strokes with a brush when you’re painting that picture. Because in this business, you don’t know how things are going to play out…. So the broad strokes in our mind painted the picture where we can bring Kobe back at a young age, at 25 or 26 years old, bring in several other young players… and not break this thing down to where you’re winning eight to twelve games a year. So our broad stroke picture was… not to break it down to ground zero, but to break it down to a point where we wouldn’t have to wait eight to ten years to get competitive. We didn’t want to do that… and then Kobe deserves more than that. He doesn’t want to play for eight more years and then try to get to the playoffs. We felt that we had to put him in a position where maybe he waits a year or two, and we’re there again.
O’Neal proved the point that people will choose to believe a lie even if the truth is in front of them, if for no other reason than that they enjoy the persona of the person telling the lie. Shaq knows this and is not beyond the cryptic untruth:
“They said it’s about the money. It’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about honesty, and the honesty me and [former Lakers general manager] Jerry West had. That’s been gone for four years now … It ain’t about the extension. Of course, that’s what they are going to make it out to be.”
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! For seven years O’Neal did nothing but undermine every effort Bryant made to excel in the NBA. When the choice came for the Lakers to choose between 30-something O’Neal and his want for $30 million and a mid-twenties Bryant, they chose Bryant. Without Phil Jackson to support him and ex-GM Jerry West to buffer his fall, O’Neal showed himself to be nothing more than another fragile-egoed prima donna incapable of dealing with the prospect of being traded. And traded in favor of the player he held at bay for so long.
And a year after the trade O’Neal remained steadfast:
“Most of the people that live here in LA will always be Lakers fans, and you have to understand that,” O’Neal said. “And I don’t take anything personal. But I know that they know who the real deal is.”
As far as public perception goes, “the incident in Eagle” sealed Bryant’s fate. Recounting the events of a dropped court case are unnecessary. What is important here is that before there was any evidence of wrong-doing on Bryant’s part, he was tried in the sporting press and in the court of public opinion:
“The image was of a perfect role model, a superstar athlete who didn’t have a parking ticket, the all-American boy and now, well, that image is tarnished,” said Bob Williams, chief executive of Burns Sports. “As of today and until the trial, his image is going to take a beating.”
Bryant lost endorsements from McDonald’s and Nutella. Coca-Cola stopped airing Sprite ads featuring Bryant, though the company was alleged to have planned to drop Bryant before his arrest for sexual misconduct.
Not long enough after the Eagle, Colorado debacle, Jackson dropped his own bombshell on Bryant, In 2004 the Phil Jackson diary of the Lakers 2003-04 season, ” The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul,” was released. Jackson called his relationship with Kobe Bryant at times a “psychological war” and indicated that he sought to trade Bryant in January of 2004.
In an obvious attempt to clear himself from culpability in the failing of the Los Angeles Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Jackson used the “feuding” between the two as part of the reason for his retirement:
“At times the pettiness between the two of them can be unbelievably juvenile.”
Jackson also wrote that Bryant wanted a trade if O’Neal stayed with the team because he was “tired of being a sidekick.”
Though this statement may well have been true, there is no reason to use it against Bryant. With O’Neal pattern of mal-behavior toward Bryant, Jackson should have empathized with Kobe; instead Jackson trampled on Bryant to ‘cleanse his soul.’
After a season of abject failure under Rudy Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblin where Los Angeles finished the season with a 34-48 record, Jackson returned to the Lakers bench. The stench of O”Neal and Jackson’s previous dirty deeds had apparently cleared. And Bryant, who suffered his first losing season in competitive basketball, was ready to do anything to claim his place as a Lakers legend – even acquiesce and allow himself to be coached by the man who sold him out at every turn.
Today, we have a Los Angeles Lakers team with scads of young talent perhaps a year away of competing for an NBA crown. As Steve Nash grows older, as the San Antonio Spurs find fewer and fewer bodies to prop up their core players, and unless Tracy McGrady finds a miracle cure for his balky lower back, the Dallas Mavericks may soon be the only team to stand in the way of the Lakers and an appearance in the NBA Finals.
The triangle offense remains unstoppable and as soon as Jackson and his mentor Tex Winter find ways to implement Red Holtzman’s, New York Knicks-style pressure defense in accordance with new rules governing defensive play, the Lakers, Winters-Jackson philosophy of basketball will be ready to roll once again off the test pad and into the public’s consciousness.
Somehow Phil Jackson has gained the trust of Bryant, as witnessed by this Lazenby offering:
…after being Bryant’s uncommunicative enemy for several seasons, Jackson has become his ally, the man responsible for guiding him toward a team mind-set.
Today, Jackson even uses a phrase he only reserved for his favorite pet, Michael Jordan:
“At one point, we got the offensive rebound and (had) a whole new 24-second (shot clock) left. Lamar (Odom) gave the ball right back to him and Kobe went right back at them. He just smells blood in the water and he’s going to go after you.” (emphasis mine)
Yet, no matter what Kobe Bryant accomplishes as an NBA player, no matter how many more championships he wins, he will never be accorded the status of Jordan. Though Bryant is a better shooter than MJ and is equal to Jordan in every other respect of his game, Kobe will be regarded at best as “Jordanesque.” And to the Kobe haters there will be a litany of players better than Bryant.
No matter how many bridges he builds, no matter how much he allows us to know him, no matter if one day he opened his hands to reveal stigmata in his palms, Kobe Bryant will always be a self-centered, mean-spirited, sulking epitome of all that is wrong with professional sports.
All because he dared to vocalize his want for greatness. All because he was too young to know that egotistical grown men with darkness in their souls had a vested interest in never allowing Kobe Bryant to usurp their authority. All because they know the public’s proclivity for wanting to hate superstars is far greater than the public’s want to deify superstars.
With Jordan already on the throne, with Jackson there next to him, and O’Neal smiling with his arms around the two, in the NBA, the trinity is full.
And Kobe Bryant knows there’s no room in the inn.