In Bynum, Bryant sees some of himself
The Lakers' leader and the heir apparent share a determination to overcome injury
LOS ANGELES -- There is a certain standard of excellence that Kobe Bryant chooses to surround himself with.
The guests waiting for him outside the locker room after the Los Angeles Lakers' 108-99 win over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday included Alex Rodriguez, Cindy Crawford and Tim Grover -- one of the best baseball players of his generation, the woman who put the "super" in supermodel and the trainer who Michael Jordan credits for his success in his later years of his career, respectively.
He was spotted rolling up to Staples Center on Christmas in a new, black Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4, which has a sticker price of $387,000.
A sweatshirt hanging in his locker Tuesday was made by Gucci.
Even in his poor game against Denver in a loss to the Nuggets on Sunday, he managed to set an NBA scoring record. It was reminiscent of one of those Most Interesting Man in the World advertisements: "I don't always shoot 6-for-28 from the field, but when I do, I become the youngest player in league history to score 28,000 career points."
Sometimes, often even, Bryant can't help but apply his high standards for himself when it comes to basketball to his teammates.
It infamously sabotaged his relationship with Shaquille O'Neal, because Bryant never felt like Shaq matched his dedication to the sport and therefore didn't deserve the ball as much as he did.
It has publicly tested his relationship with Pau Gasol, as Bryant said of Gasol last season, "Very white swan. I need him to be more black swan."
Now, 33 years old and in his 16th season, he is gauging the 24-year-old Andrew Bynum's preparedness to be that same torchbearer for excellence as the center embarks on the seventh season of a career in which he's already missed 164 (or exactly two season's worth of) games.
"We all know the amount of talent that he has and he's really worked on it," Bryant said after Bynum finished with 21 points, 22 rebounds and three blocked shots against Houston in registering the first 20-20 game of his career.
"The thing that I like about him is that he has an engine inside of him and he wants to do well, he wants to dominate. He has ambition to be great. I think that's the biggest positive about him aside from all the physical attributes."
In other words, Bryant not only sees Bynum as someone who can help him win a coveted sixth championship, he sees Bynum as someone worthy of helping him with that quest because Bynum has the same intrinsic drive that he does.
Even though Bryant had all but given up on Bynum in the summer of 2007, when he told a fan toting a camera in a grocery store parking lot that the Lakers should "ship his a-- out" to acquire Jason Kidd, he has come around.
During the Lakers' run to the 2010 championship, Bynum played every one of the Lakers' 23 playoff games with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Bryant was playing with a right knee of his own that was in disrepair and required him to have it drained three times during the playoffs. Bryant, like Bynum, never missed a game during the playoffs en route to a Game 7 Finals victory over Boston, the title that Bryant calls the sweetest of the five he's won.
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"I think the thing with the injuries is everybody kind of looks at each other and tries to figure out which one is going to be the first punk," Bryant said at the time. "Because we will talk about you like a dog, like a chump. So nobody wants to be a chump."
The shared resolve to play through pain continues. Bryant is playing with a torn ligament in his right (shooting) wrist that he hurt only two weeks ago, yet he has played in all seven of the Lakers' regular-season games since then. Bynum rarely, if ever, complains about his injuries even though his knees have been through so much at this point that he actually ices them before games once he goes through his pregame workout.
When Bryant was shooting blanks against Denver in that 6-for-28 game, Bynum was putting up 18 points and 16 rebounds on 7-for-12 shooting. Rather than complain about Bryant's shot total compared to his, Bynum put the onus on himself, saying that it's his responsibility to get in better shape and run the floor faster to earn more touches.
The two always had more in common than people cared to realize -- they both were drafted into the league out of high school at just 17 years old; Bynum's hometown of Plainsboro, N.J., is just 50 miles away from Lower Merion, Pa., where Bryant matriculated; they both had a dominant, veteran superstar to contend with starting from their rookie season (Bryant had O'Neal; Bynum has Bryant); plus nobody on the Lakers' roster can appreciate Bryant's Lamborghini as much as the car-crazed Bynum.
It appears that Bryant's standard of excellence has rubbed off on Bynum.
When asked about his first career 20-20 game, Bynum did not boast, saying, "It was about time."
As for those 22 rebounds, just one off his career high of 23.
"I think in the first quarter I had 10, so I guess I was kind of slacking the rest of the game," Bynum said.
The bar has been raised and Bryant and Bynum are ready to hurdle over it together.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Follow Dave McMenamin on Twitter: @mcten