I settle in at the Hilton Garden Inn in El Segundo, sporting a new do, fresh from filming the Zohan spot with Adam Sandler. My season ended a couple of weeks ago, and I got the call from Adam asking me to jump into this commercial where we spoof those ads the NBA has been running. You know, the split-screen thing where two guys from opposite teams are talking about winning it all. Kind of where I wish I were right now: going after that title with the Warriors. I'm still working out at least four hours a day, my production company just launched a website (ibeatyou.com), and my foundation, TeamPlay, is doing a ton of stuff. But I need to figure out one thing:
What do I need to do to play into June?
I know what it's like to make big shots and to win a playoff series or two. I've reshaped my game to make a good team into a scary one. I've changed my diet, taken up yoga and worked year-round with a personal trainer to retool my body. I've played this game around the world, everywhere except the one place I've always wanted to go: the NBA Finals. It's made me think about what else I can do to make that happen. And if a little ego-swallowing research is what it takes, so be it.
Kobe walks into my suite just after a Lakers practice. The issues on my mind are also on his. Of course, he's looking to extend his playoff run all the way to another championship. That's why I've selected his as one of three brains I want to pick. Chauncey Billups' and Tony Parker's are the other two. I've spent a lot of summers working with Chauncey because we're similar in build and share the same self-confidence. He's 31, two years older than me and has been like my big brother. Kobe and I are the same age, but sitting down with him is different. Let's face it, Kobe is The Man right now: three championships and—after struggling for a few years—a shot at one more. It means a lot that he's taking the time to sit with me. He's got a playoff game tomorrow, and at the moment, his wife is waiting at home to celebrate her birthday.
What I'm curious about, for obvious reasons, is how he took a team that scraped into the playoffs a year ago to one that could be a title contender for years. "I've shared with my teammates how I prepare for games," he tells me. "My hope is that my mentality rubs off on them. I want them to see what I see, think about what I think about: Why did you turn the ball over? What was the defense doing? What were your options? If this guy cuts here and the defense does this, who does that free up?
"We've got guys who are gym rats, who want to work hard, who want to win," says Kobe. "The trick is to get everybody playing together, trying to accomplish the same goal. If you have the talent and the sacrifice on top of that, you have a championship-caliber team. One player can do only so much. If you haven't gotten to that next level, you haven't figured out how to get everybody on the same page."
I lean closer. Here it comes: the secret code, the magic key, the coveted password. This is why, when the Hornets put me on the trading block a few years ago, Kobe and I talked about my coming home to LA to play with him. So…?
"I can't tell you," he says with a laugh, "unless you become a Laker."
But he does tell me, in a way. Listen to him explain his transformation from a pup who bumped heads with vets to the big dog who tends to his own pups. "I'd never been on a winning team that got along," he says. "When I was young, I was like, 'Take it or leave it. Train's gotta keep moving.' If you want to win a championship, if you're slacking, I'm going to let you know. And that went from Shaq down to Rick Fox. But when you have that togetherness, you don't get into finger-pointing. If a guy makes a mistake, loses a game, everyone plays the next game to redeem him. That attitude was critical to our getting the No. 1 seed this year."
When I get on the phone with Chauncey and Tony, they confirm the importance of putting personal agendas aside. "Everybody has all the clichés," Chauncey says. "You have to sacrifice. You have to be on the same page. But they're all true. When you're on a team that isn't championship-caliber, nobody looks around and says, 'You've got the better matchup tonight. Let's ride that.' You can't care about who's going to be on SportsCenter's top 10 plays, who's going to be in ESPN The Magazine, who's making the All-Star team. When you win, everyone gets the glory."
Scoring point guards like me, Chauncey and Tony—and, let's face it, Kobe handles the ball almost as much as we do—have to balance keeping everybody happy with filling the basket ourselves. I had one of my best seasons doing that, so why am I the only one who didn't make the postseason? Again I ask, What do the other guys know that I don't?
Chauncey suggests the game might not be decided in the first half—but the stage is definitely set there. "First six minutes of a game is a feel-out," he says. "I run a few pick-and-rolls and a pin-down for Rip, see how they're defending those. I call a Tayshaun post, see if they're doubling that and where they're coming from. Then I mix in some plays for me, so I don't get cold. By half, we know how we want to attack them. If it's a close game at the end, my guys know I gave it up when I had to—now it's time for the Big Dog to eat."
But I know that back in 2004, Chauncey didn't give up the rock (5.2 apg) as much as he took it in his own hands (21 ppg) on his way past the Lakers and to the Finals MVP trophy. "The Lakers' weakness was pick-and-roll defense, so we were going to make them stop that," he says. "It didn't matter who was guarding me; my job was to pick-and-roll Shaq. Every series has its own version of that. And if we have to run it every time, we run it every time."
Every time looked different when I watched Tony in the Finals. First, he came in and followed David Robinson and Tim Duncan to a championship, then it was Tim and Manu Ginobili. On the third try, he was the ringleader himself, winning the Finals MVP last year. I also had a front-row seat at his wedding, and he's buying a summer crib not too far from mine in Malibu. If there's a guy who might be willing to reveal a few valuable secrets, it would have to be him, no?
But it seems I might be inspiring him instead. After the Spurs fell behind to the Hornets 2-0 in the second round, Tony stopped shaving. "The big beard is for you, BD," he says. "I had to rough it up." It's kind of a visual cue to help him remember what coach Gregg Popovich has taught him about the value of toughness. "My first three years, sometimes he was so hard on me he made me cry," Tony says. "It seemed like I could never do enough for him. But when I was Finals MVP, his eyes were watering, and mine, too. That's why it gives me goose bumps anytime I see anyone win a championship. I know how it feels to work hard all year just so you can hold that trophy at the end."
These days, Tony keeps attacking the rim, no matter how physical opponents get with him. But it wasn't always that way. "My first Finals, everything went so fast, I didn't realize what I was doing and what I was a part of," he says. "I enjoyed the second time more, but the third is when I saw everything in slow motion. Everything was so easy." Tony may make winning look simple, but he knows it takes a 24/7 focus. "It's huge to eat healthy and make sure you get your rest," he says. "The intensity and the pressure and expectations are so high, it takes a lot out of you, mentally and physically, especially all the bumps and bruises that come with penetrating. When I was young, I drank Sprite and
ate McDonald's after the game. But I've changed. I'm lucky to have a wife who cooks."
And then Tony, despite being only 26, the youngest of my three advisers, offers what might be the most valuable advice of all. "Time and patience, BD. Time and patience," he says.
As with everything my friends have told me, though, that's easier said than done.