- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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Kobe Bryant is well known as The Black Mamba, a basketball assassin, a five-time world champion, an undeniable future Hall of Famer. But the preeminent star of the Los Angeles Lakers has never been confused for being an actor -- until now.
We say this because as the Lakers get set to embark on the 2011-12 season, looking to make amends for the disgraceful performance they exhibited during a four-game sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals last spring, all we've heard from Bryant are terse comments, nothing at all, or, worse, the kind of drivel his stature, alone, should never bother to entertain.
On the eve of the Lakers opening the season on Christmas Day versus the Chicago Bulls, what we've heard from Bryant is something tantamount to "get used to the pain, then learn to deal with it."
Purportedly, Bryant was talking about the torn lunotriquetral ligament in his right wrist. But he just as easily could've been talking about the residual effects from last season's debacle.
The fact is, we don't know what he's talking about these days because Bryant hasn't bothered to tell anyone. It would be one thing if he were a recluse pertaining to something concerning his personal life -- because that's none of anyone's business -- but his M.I.A. status on the true state of the Lakers is quite alarming, considering the circumstances.
As we sit here today, waiting for Bryant and his Lakers (57-25 last season) to go up against the championship-contending Bulls -- and league MVP Derrick Rose -- let us note the concerns:
The Lakers are not what they used to be. With Lamar Odom now gone, they're not as good as they used to be, which is worse.
The Lakers still haven't found a starting point guard, which means they're stuck with Derek Fisher maintaining those duties at age 37. Bryant is 33, and still the team's best athlete. Pau Gasol is 31, and getting softer. Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Luke Walton share his age, and no one cares. Metta World Peace is 32 -- plus a bit different and unwanted for the $22 million price tag left on his deal over the next three years. And there's a coach who is being treated as if he's the equivalent of Phil Jackson, which is where things really get interesting.
"I believe in this team," coach Mike Brown said a couple of weeks ago. "I believe in who we have on our roster. I believe we're good enough to win it all, and that is what I came here to do. This franchise, this tradition they've established, isn't about winning games and fitting in. It's about winning championships. I didn't come here for anything else. That's my attitude, and I don't expect anyone else's attitude to be any different either."
But we all know Bryant's attitude is a tad bit different, if for no other reason because of the dissent descending from the Lakers' front office. On several occasions over the past few weeks, Bryant has made it a point to say he "doesn't know what the hell they're doing upstairs." Essentially, that they have their job and he has his job. Bryant has indicated the Lakers have always run their organization in similar fashion and he doesn't expect things to change now.
The only problem is such an assertion is flagrantly inaccurate.
True, the Lakers' hierarchy makes the decisions, not the players. But that doesn't mean Dr. Jerry Buss never consulted with Magic Johnson. That Jerry West never did the same. That West didn't get a feel for what Shaquille O'Neal or Bryant thought. Or that Mitch Kupchak hasn't done the same from time to time over the years.
The difference here is Jim Buss, the son, the man with final say on basketball matters for the Lakers, whose primary agenda appears to be eradicating any semblance of the Phil Jackson era, five titles with the Lakers and all.
Even if it means alienating Bryant in the process.
Once upon a time, we could predict Bryant saying he'd rather "play on Pluto" than deal with this kind of nonsense.
Has Father Time kicked in? Helplessness?
If the question seems unfair, consider that it's Bryant, approaching his 16th season, with three years and $83.5 million left on his deal. It's Bryant who knows he has a virtually untradeable contract, at least for the time being. It's Bryant who knows, that even while he was disappointed from not having Brian Shaw as his next head coach, there's nothing to gain by articulating such thoughts now -- even though he promised over the summer he'd eventually do so.
So this is the Bryant we get: Someone direct. A master at saying so much these days, yet nothing at all. A man looking as if there's always ire beneath the service, yet cunning enough to avoid flagrantly revealing it.
"I have a job to do," Bryant is fond of saying. "So does everyone else."
Yet, we know that with this roster, flagrantly inferior to what it once was -- and perhaps inferior to Chris Paul and the Clippers before all is said and done -- it will become increasingly difficult for the Lakers to do their jobs as the season progresses.
Oklahoma City, Dallas, Memphis and the Clippers are waiting.
And where, pray tell, will that leave Bryant?
Upset? Resigned to mediocrity? Lashing out?
It's quite easy to figure out which category Bryant will drift into once a Lakers demise kicks in.
The question is: Will he let on?
The last time he did, the Lakers were able to replace Kwame Brown with Gasol.
Just a thought.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com