|Monday, June 17
Updated: June 20, 12:20 PM ET
Being team players part of game for Bryant, Fedorov
By Joe Lago
Amid serious hype, both entered their respective leagues with high expectations, Bryant making the jump to the NBA straight out of high school in 1996 as a precocious teen-ager with Jordan-like potential, and Fedorov joining the NHL in 1990 as the latest, greatest scoring machine from Russia. Already, their careers have been replete with championships. Last week, Bryant, with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Fedorov, with the Detroit Red Wings, added another title to their respective resumes.
But in trying to aid the rise of their teams, Bryant and Fedorov could just as easily have caused their fall.
Had they been selfish and not accepted supporting roles for the greater good, the Lakers and Red Wings would have no need to make room in their trophy cases. Bryant could have disrupted the Lakers' triangle offense by not deferring to Shaquille O'Neal as the first scoring option, and Fedorov could have sulked about having to move from forward to the blue line to shore up the Red Wings' decimated defensive corps.
In both instances, the superstar had to leave his ego in his locker. Happiness had to be found in victory, not in baskets or goals.
Until last season's playoff run, Bryant didn't accept being the speed jab to O'Neal's right hook as part of the Lakers' 1-2 punch. Los Angeles managed to win its second straight crown in 2001 despite a highly publicized regular-season feud between Bryant and O'Neal, who patched up their differences before the repeat and seemed even stronger friends for the three-peat run.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson helped defuse the situation by showing Bryant how to "play that second role in a complimentary fashion." Bryant's maturity had as much to do with the team finally finding a resolution.
"I understand my role perfectly," said Bryant, 23, who averaged 26.8 points in the NBA Finals to help L.A. win its third straight crown. "I understand it clearly ... We all just fall in line."
"It took a long road to get here -- we had our ups and downs -- but we understand clearly our roles, and from here on out, it should be pretty smooth sailing," added Bryant, before qualifying that statement. "Unless we bring in Dennis Rodman."
Unlike Bryant, Fedorov has had to be flexible to change throughout his Red Wings career. The All-Star center has been part of the supporting cast of leading men, namely longtime Detroit captain Steve Yzerman and eight-time All-Star wing Brendan Shanahan, in a constantly shifting role that has been "uncomfortable (and) not very interesting."
A former 50-goal scorer and two-time 100-point performer, Fedorov was called on by Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman to keep the opponent's top forwards in check before and during this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Being one of the best all-around players in the game, Fedorov not surprisingly made the seamless change to defenseman.
"If I say no, then what happens? What sense does it make?" said Fedorov, 32, who was asked to do defensive duty during the Wings' Stanley Cup run in 1997. "As we went through the season and the playoffs, my role adjusted and I took it as it was."
"He's been here what 10, 11 years and he's had to play under the shadows of other players," Bowman said. "It doesn't bother him."
Soon, Bryant and Fedorov will be standing front and center -- alone. The fortunes of the Lakers will rest squarely on Bryant's shoulders when O'Neal and Jackson retire. When Yzerman finally calls it quits, Fedorov -- if he opts to re-sign with Detroit as an unrestricted free agent in 2003 -- will have the No. 1 centerman spot all to himself.
Whether the Lakers and Red Wings celebrate more championships at that time will be determined by what Bryant and Fedorov give to their teams, rather than by what they sacrifice. "Kobe is the best player in this league," O'Neal said. "The scary thing about that is he doesn't think he's the best and he wants to get better. And he will get better. I think sometimes he needs more room so he could operate ... He's come a long way."
"(Fedorov's) maturity -- not only on the ice, but off the ice -- has grown immensely," Red Wings forward Brett Hull said. "And, like Stevie said, there's not too many guys in this league, if any, that have the skill that he does. And he's learned to use it over the years. I think everyone can see that."
Joe Lago is the NBA editor for ESPN.com.