'Unfamiliar territory' for Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant has never slept much. In a few years, when basketball is over for him and there is nothing left to chase, maybe then he'll sleep.
For now, rest is nothing more than a function. He sleeps in staccato segments. A few hours at night, a few more in the middle of the day if there's time before a game. Off-days are miserable. Those in his inner circle are used to short, late-night text messages that name a time and a place. The expectation? Be there quick. Kobe wants to work.
It's how he deals with things even when there's nothing to deal with.
But on this night there was a lot to work through. This was the night after Kobe Bryant had failed. After he had turned around for a pass that never came from Metta World Peace at the end of Game 2 of the Los Angeles Lakers Western Conference semifinal series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Steve Blake had popped wide open in the corner. With Kobe covered on the far side of the court, Metta almost had to pass it to Blake. Still, Kobe was mad. His turnovers in the final few minutes allowed the Thunder to seize control over a game they had no business winning. They were his mistakes to atone for. Bryant has always been OK with those terms. All the great ones are. Just put the ball in his hands and whatever comes of it, he'll live with.
But instead of getting the last shot, instead of getting that chance to fix things, the ball never came to him. Blake missed. The Lakers lost. The most important game of the season and he didn't even get a chance to settle it. There was no way to sleep after that.
This Oklahoma City team was too good. Its stars were too much like him.
"They grew up watching me," Bryant said. "It's like I'm playing a mirror image of myself in [Russell] Westbrook, [James] Harden and [Kevin] Durant. You've just got to dig deep and fight 'em back."
So the next night he went to shoot. He texted a friend, asking to meet him at the Lakers' practice facility. And for two hours, while everyone else in this brutally scheduled series was catching some rest where they could, Kobe Bryant put up shots. This is his routine the night before a game. It cleanses the palate. It helps him move on.
He said nothing during the workout. Not one word. At the end of it he was drenched in sweat. His shot felt good. It was enough. He went home and slept a few hours.
"This is what I do," Bryant said. "I've always done this."
Kobe Bryant figured out how to make himself into a great player a long time ago. His routines, his preparation, his approach have all been honed and refined over the years. It's the other stuff that gets to him. The things he can't prepare for or forget with a night of shooting in the gym. The place he finds himself now after the Lakers were eliminated in Game 5 of the best-of-seven series.
For the second straight year they weren't good enough.
For the second straight year Bryant couldn't fix them.
It was wrong from the beginning. All jumbled and strange with the failed trade for Chris Paul on the eve of training camp. He probably should've known then this wasn't meant to be. But knowing and accepting are two different things.
"It's kind of unfamiliar territory," Bryant said when it was all over. "I'm really not used to it."
The words were honest, but they sounded wrong coming out of his mouth. This was a dangerous road to walk. He caught himself. There is only one way to ride.
"I'm not the most patient of people and the organization is not extremely patient, either," Bryant said, defiant again. "We want to win and win now. I'm sure we'll figure it out. We always have and I'm sure we will again."
The circle of people Kobe Bryant trusts is small and getting smaller. In the last year, he has lost too many of them. Phil Jackson retired and is reachable only by phone now. Lamar Odom lost his way. Derek Fisher was traded. Pau Gasol has faded. Andrew Bynum isn't worthy yet.
Only general manager Mitch Kupchak remains.
Kupchak's place with the Lakers is different now. Everything is. The team let many of its longest tenured employees go during the lockout. Scouts, equipment managers, strength coaches, front office personnel. All discarded for unsatisfying reasons.
Like Bryant, Kupchak's job is harder now. He has fewer resources. His options are limited. He took his big shot by trading for Paul, but it was taken away before it became a reality. After that, there was almost no way to make it right. At least not right away. But knowing and accepting are different things.
Kupchak stood up to watch the final seconds of the Lakers' season Monday night in Oklahoma City. He had to if he wanted to see. The fans in front of him were standing, blocking his view.
"It's tough right now to really process what exactly we need," Bryant said. "But that's something we've been great at as an organization. Mitch has really done a phenomenal job the past decade in building title teams pretty quickly.
"We just have to do it again."
Bryant hasn't always had this much faith in Kupchak. It has been earned over the years. Now it's what he has left to cling to.
"Come hell or high water, we're going to be there again," Bryant commanded. "There's just something about the Lakers organization."
At one of the last practices before the end of the regular season, Bryant lingers a bit and makes himself available for a few extra one-on-ones with some of the local reporters he has gotten to know over the years.
He makes a point of being good to the higher-profile national guys and the local guys. But only the ones who show up and earn it.
After that day, though, he's done. Forget trying to get anything extra out of him. His answers will be clipped from here on out. His expression mirrors the seriousness of the playoffs.
He used to make a big show of it. Remember the "Kobe face" of the 2009 NBA Finals? The quote during those playoffs about his daughters calling him "Grumpy from the Seven Dwarfs. A grouch"?
It was as much for himself as for his teammates. A sign of how seriously he was taking this.
This year Bryant's benevolent day came on April 24. The Lakers had just staged an 18-point comeback to win a double-overtime thriller against the Thunder in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
Kobe stuck around for a good 10 minutes after practice that day, answering all sorts of questions with a rare and endearing candor. "This is it, guys," he joked. "This is your last chance."
We laughed and prepared for him to adopt a scowl the rest of the way out.
But the next day came and he was still cool. Then the playoffs started and he was still candid. The frown never appeared. Not for long, anyway.
Derek Fisher watched him from afar. They had grown up together and should've gone out together. Or at least parted on their own terms. He had seen Bryant evolve from the petulant young star to the man he is today. They had learned how to stay centered from Jackson. The journey mattered as much as the destination.
"I just think with age and maturity and wisdom, you figure out that it's a waste of energy to do all that other stuff," Fisher said. "It's just, 'Let's just solve this puzzle.'
"He's evolving as a leader. That's what's really been remarkable about his career is that he's continued to evolve in that area."
It stung Bryant when Fisher was traded, but he tried to give the new reality a chance. Change is inevitable, even as each break leaves him more alone.
This series has been memorable, but awkward for both of them.
On the court it was the same as ever. Every time Bryant saw Fisher switch on to him, he backed him down and posted up. Fish dug his forearm hard into Bryant's back and used his sturdy frame to check him. Bryant shot over him.
"It's the same result of all the times we've played 1-on-1 in the gym by ourselves," Bryant joked after Game 3. "I love him but he's a midget."
Fisher heard the quote and laughed. He expected as much. This is how they are together.
I ask if the "Grumpy Kobe" of years gone by would ever say such a thing during the playoffs. The ball is set up on a tee for Fisher. He doesn't miss.
"He's got shoes to sell now," Fisher jokes. "He can't be doing that anymore."
"That's going to get back to him, you know?" "Good," Fisher said, smiling widely. "Make sure it does."
Pau Gasol has never traded barbs with Bryant like that. Not publicly, anyway. That's not their relationship.
Both men are smart and cerebral about the game of basketball. But here's the difference:
After Game 3, Gasol was presented with the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award by the Professional Basketball Writers Association for his charity work. The Lakers had pulled out a big win. Gasol and Bryant both spoke on the podium afterward. But when the discussion turned to the way Bryant attacked Fisher every time he tried to guard him, Gasol couldn't hang.
As he started in on a measured, respectful answer, Bryant interrupted. "Stop. Do you guys want the politically correct answer or the real answer? Dude, come on, Fish is like 5-2!"
Gasol laughed with the rest of the room, then got up and ceded the stage to Bryant.
"He just won a citizenship award. He has to give a politically correct answer," I joked.
Bryant laughed and said, "I would never, ever win that."
The next night Bryant fried Gasol. The Spaniard had been too passive, too quick to pass, too unselfish. The Thunder essentially stopped defending him, sent his man over to double-team Andrew Bynum and dared Gasol to do something about it.
Even Gasol knew he had blown it on the Lakers' final possession when he passed up an open 14-foot jumper and ended up turning the ball over the Durant, who then drained a backbreaking 3-pointer.
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"Pau's got to be more assertive," Bryant said. "He's the guy that they're leaving. When he catches the ball, he's looking to pass. He's got to be aggressive. He's got to shoot the ball, drive the ball to the basket. He will be the next game."
And as usual, Gasol responded with class and was more assertive in the next game, with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
He took Bryant's criticism and did not fire back, except to politely point out that his role in the Lakers' offense forces him to look to facilitate and pass first. Then he answered the challenge on the court.
It wasn't the first time Bryant had called on Gasol to do more. In the past he famously called him "The White Swan" and himself the "Black Swan," a nickname Gasol laughed at publicly but privately resented. But the fact they've spent nearly four seasons being teammates and incidents like this still come up suggests that it's probably always going to be this way if they remain together.
Much like his previous partnership with Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant can't hide his disappointment in Gasol. It's no doubt hard to understand how Gasol could play like a superhero for his country in the Olympics, but accept a lesser role with the Lakers. Bryant never would've ceded his role as the No. 2 option in the Lakers offense to Bynum, as Gasol has this year. Heck, he would've been pushing to take over as the lead dog. Gasol isn't wired that way.
With O'Neal it was a similar issue. Bryant loved his ability and intensity. But he hated that O'Neal could've been the best center of all time yet didn't train like he wanted that mantle. Bryant wants it all. He will accept nothing less. He wants to pass Michael Jordan's six rings, he wants to score more points than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he wants to win more titles than O'Neal and Magic Johnson and any other Lakers great or would-be rival.
When O'Neal was traded after the 2004 season, Bryant became the unquestioned face of the franchise. It took until Gasol arrived in 2008, however, for Bryant to win again.
He needed him. They both knew it. And for a time Gasol seemed to be the perfect partner for him: comfortable as the Beta, talented enough to lean on, mature enough to handle with him.
They are friends off the court. They admire each other. But you wonder if the marriage has run its course? If the partnership has been used up?
"Our relationship is good. We respect a lot out of each other. I love h… uhh …" Gasol paused before completing the thought. He may very well love Bryant as a teammate, but he wasn't about to say so out loud.
"I think what he brings to the table is very unique and he's one of the greatest that's ever played."
As badly as things ended, there is another school of thought that says the Lakers should keep their core together and make changes at the margins. This team was assembled hastily in the first weeks after the lockout ended, then reconfigured at the trade deadline. The players never had a real training camp to learn Mike Brown's schemes. Then they didn't have much practice to make adjustments during the season.
Under the circumstances, has Brown been given a fair shot? Is it too soon to dump Gasol after his role was so dramatically altered this year? Would it be crazy to give up on Bynum before he matures as a person as much as he's developed as a player?
There were moments this year that it looked like this group could work. That they could win it all. After Bynum's defensive dominance in Game 1 of the first-round series against Denver, it seemed probable. After the double-overtime win over the Thunder in the regular season when Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks starred off the bench, it seemed possible. After Ramon Sessions came over in a trade and started creating offense off dribble penetration, it seemed plausible.
Bryant latched on to all of them. These glimpses pushed him. Sustained him.
In the end they proved fleeting.
It ended for good on Monday night in Oklahoma City. But really, it was after the Lakers blew a 13-point lead in the final eight minutes of a heartbreaking loss Saturday night that the series felt over.
This Thunder team was too good. The Lakers had a way to win, but kept finding ways to lose.
Long after the game ended, Brown changed into a comfortable pair of sweat pants and walked out of the arena holding his wife's hand. They've been married since their early 20s. Traveled all over the country together and raised a family.
During the season Brown is almost never home. He's a grinder. It's how he got where he is without playing in the NBA himself. The first few weeks of the season he took that to another level. Several nights during the abridged exhibition season, Brown slept in his office at Staples Center, emerging only to use the restroom or send an assistant to grab food at a nearby restaurant.
That work ethic earned Brown a measure of respect from this team early on. It's why Bryant gave him a chance, after publicly endorsing former assistant Brian Shaw for the job.
But respect in these parts is earned only by winning in the playoffs and the Lakers didn't do that this year.
Asked where the Lakers go from here, Brown was sullen.
"Nowhere," he said. "We're hopping on the plane, flying back. We've got a long time to think about it. In terms of trying to think about what to do with this team now, I'm still digesting this loss."
There is no way to know when the end will finally come for Bryant. Only that he's closer to it with each passing year. He'll be 34 before next season, his 17th in the NBA. His legs are still strong, even if they aren't as spry. He can still dunk to prove a point. (He dunked four times in Game 5, so don't tell me he wasn't thinking about it.)
"It's different from being 21 and you think there's endless amount of opportunities," Bryant said Monday. "At 33, the ending is much, much closer."
He's hungry still. He's got time left. But you get the sense he only wants it if there's a chance to do something good with it. To win.
That's less certain now. He can shoot all night in the gym, it might not matter.
Deep down, he seems to know that. But knowing it and accepting it are very different things.
There's only one way to ride. Bryant continues on defiantly.
"I'm not fading into the shadows, if that's what you're asking," he said. "I'm not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere."
You wonder if he'll ever sleep well one day. When basketball is over and there is nothing left to chase, will he rest?
"He might dedicate himself to coaching his little girls teams," Fisher said, laughing at the thought but not joking either. "His daughters. He might just start coaching soccer teams, following them around, he'll be the dad with the camcorder on the sidelines."
Ah, but what about his drive?
"That doesn't turn off," Fisher said. "That'll never turn off."