Countdown to Christmas: A window into Kobe Bryant
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- After two weeks of anger and confusion following the collapse of the Chris Paul trade and the inexplicable dumping of Lamar Odom, a night of civic embarrassment at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers and a day to let the first wisps of public criticism from his new coach sink in, Kobe Bryant coolly emerged from the Lakers' training room Tuesday afternoon with a message.
If there is a solution to what is ailing the Los Angeles Lakers, as far as Bryant is concerned, new coach Mike Brown will be part of it.
For months we waited and wondered whether Bryant would finally give his seal of approval to Brown, who was hired by Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, executive vice president Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak without any conversation or consultation with the franchise's best player.
Bryant had been left out of the loop, and while he's never publicly said he was miffed at that decision-making process, his silence spoke volumes.
In the first few days of training camp, Bryant paid Brown some light compliments. Then Tuesday, without much prompting, he went all the way and tried to make an ally for however long they are both charged with righting the Lakers ship.
"What I've heard about him [before this season] was he was a pushover, he doesn't say what he's thinking and all this other sorts of stuff," Bryant said. "I haven't seen that at all. He's been the complete opposite. He's been detail oriented, he's been up front and open and honest. He praises guys when they do well, he jumps on them when they're messing up right away."
It was an interesting statement to make on the day after Brown had criticized Bryant's defense in the Lakers' blowout loss to the Clippers in an exhibition game Monday night.
A way of symbolically blessing the Brown hire, and letting his teammates know they needed to buy into the new systems and culture Brown and his staff have been preaching since camp opened almost two weeks ago.
Bryant still has every reason to be angry with the way Lakers management has cut him out of the loop on major decisions. He has more than a good reason to be angry with the Odom trade.
He just doesn't have time to be angry anymore. In the short term, the Lakers have another exhibition game against the Clippers on Wednesday night and open the season Sunday afternoon against the Chicago Bulls.
But mostly this is about Kobe Bryant being 33 years old with two, maybe three more elite seasons in him, and knowing that a temper tantrum -- even if it's justified -- only closes that window quicker.
"I had the same urgency [to win] when I was 20," he said. "I wanted to win now. Now, now, now, now, now, now."
The way to make that happen this year is to stitch up the wounds the events of the past two weeks have gashed open, throw his arm around Brown publicly and privately, and hope it all works out.
That's it. That's the plan. Uncertain and unsettling as it might feel, that's Bryant's best play for now. Which is why he came out and said what he said Tuesday.
Two things happened earlier in the day to set the stage for this:
• Lakers co-captain Derek Fisher had addressed the team after practice and encouraged his teammates to buy into Brown's rugged, Eastern Conference style of basketball. Fisher has always been the Lakers' most vocal player, and it's generally assumed that when he speaks, he speaks for Bryant as well. Still, for the message to sink in deeply, Bryant had to deliver it himself.
• Former Lakers great Magic Johnson had told a group of reporters on a conference call that if the Lakers were to win this season, Bryant needs to elevate the games of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and become an emotional leader for the team now that Odom is gone.
"I think he's going to have to be more of an emotional leader," Johnson said. "Not just a game-time leader in terms of scoring points and playing defense, but he's going to have to be a locker-room leader.
"Lamar was valuable both on the court and off the court. You're going to miss him in the practice and in the locker room, on the airplane and on the buses. Who is going to replace him being that leader? I think that the way I see it, it has to be Kobe."
Bryant laughed at the idea he was best suited to replace Odom in that way.
"I'm not that person. That's just not in my DNA," he said. Asked what role he tends to play, Bryant joked, "I don't know. Class a--hole."
A few minutes earlier, Gasol had brushed off that suggestion as well.
"I can be everybody's friend," Gasol joked, when I asked who he thought would step into Odom's shoes. "I can be that person if people need a friend."
In other words, it's not going to be Bryant. His leadership style is always going to be of the tough-love variety. As in, there have been no hugs or supportive backslaps for Gasol and Bynum, both of whom have been prominently mentioned in trade rumors.
"Nah," Bryant said when asked if this team needed some emotional healing.
"You gotta be a grown man. We ain't got time to be babysitting people and burping people."
Gasol seems to get it, too. When I asked if Bryant had made any grand gestures to let him know he was glad he was still here after the Paul trade was vetoed by the NBA, he shook his head and said:
"It's all good. There's no need. If I was devastated or something maybe. But if I held up as strong as I did and put things into a very positive perspective, there's no need for stuff like that."
There's no time for it, either. Not for the Lakers, or for Bryant.
This may not be how he envisioned the autumn of his career. This may not even be what he wants now.
But this is what he has to work with. Tuesday afternoon he let it be known Brown was now an ally in this quest.
"A coach can't continue to preach the same message every single day to players, so that's where I come in," he said. "I do that for him, and the message has to be consistent."
It took years for Bryant to develop this kind of relationship with Phil Jackson. To see him as an ally, not an authority to rebel against.
He's learned from that. There are no years to waste anymore.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.