Kobe Bryant and the Triangle
Phil Jackson had already won six NBA championships as a coach when he arrived in Los Angeles, inheriting a team with stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Jackson's plan for dealing with his two stars was derailed early on when Bryant suffered a broken hand in the preseason. In this excerpt from his new book, "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success" -- available May 21 from Penguin Press -- Jackson explains how Bryant was like no other player he ever coached, and how he dealt with the challenges the young star presented in the 1999-2000 season.
If children are fated to live out the unfulfilled dreams of their parents, Kobe was a textbook case. His father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, was a six-nine forward for the legendary 1970s Philadelphia 76ers. Bryant Sr. once claimed that he played the same kind of game as Magic Johnson, but the NBA wasn't ready for his playground style.
So after stints with two other teams, he finished his career in Italy, where Kobe grew up.
The youngest of three children (and the only boy), Kobe was the golden child in the family who could do no wrong. He was a bright, talented overachiever with a natural gift for the game. He spent long hours practicing, imitating the moves of Jordan and others he studied on tapes his relatives sent from the United States. When he was thirteen, the family moved back to Philadelphia, and he soon developed into a star at Lower Merion High School. John Lucas, then head coach of the 76ers, invited Kobe to scrimmage with the team over the summer and was surprised by the young player's courage and level of skill. Not long afterward, Kobe decided to forgo college and jump right into the pros, even though he had high enough SAT scores to take his pick of schools. Jerry West said Kobe's pre-draft workout at age seventeen was the best he'd ever seen. Jerry made a trade with the Hornets to draft Kobe thirteenth overall in 1996 -- the same year he lured Shaq away from Orlando with a seven-year, $120 million free-agent deal.
Kobe had big dreams. Soon after I started with the Lakers, Jerry called me into his office to report that Kobe had asked him how he had averaged 30-plus points a game when his teammate, Elgin Baylor, was also scoring 30-plus points per game. Kobe was hell-bent on surpassing Jordan as the greatest player in the game. His obsession with Michael was striking. Not only had he mastered many of Jordan's moves, but he affected many of M.J.'s mannerisms as well. When we played in Chicago that season, I orchestrated a meeting between the two stars, thinking that Michael might help shift Kobe's attitude toward selfless teamwork. After they shook hands, the first words out of Kobe's mouth were "You know I can kick your ass one on one."
I admired Kobe's ambition. But I also felt that he needed to break out of his protective chrysalis if he wanted to win the ten rings he told his teammates he was shooting for. Obviously, basketball isn't an individual sport. To achieve greatness, you must rely on the good offices of others. But Kobe had yet to reach out to his teammates and try to get to know them. Instead of spending time with them after games, he usually went back to his hotel room to study tapes or chat with his high-school friends on the phone.
Kobe was also a stubborn, hardheaded learner. He was so confident in his ability that you couldn't simply point out his mistakes and expect him to alter his behavior. He would have to experience failure directly before his resistance would start to break down. It was often an excruciating process for him and everyone else involved. Then suddenly he would have an aha moment and figure out a way to change.
One of those moments happened in early February. That's when the team was struck by a puzzling malaise. After a less-than-stellar performance, I closed the locker room to all but the players and asked what had happened to cause them to suddenly stop playing together. It was a rhetorical question, but I let them know we'd take it up the following day after practice. We gathered in a small video room at Southwest Los Angeles Community College -- our temporary practice space. There were four rows of five chairs, and in the first row sat Shaq, Fox, Fish, Harp, and Shaw. Kobe was in the last row with his hoodie pulled over his head. I reviewed the demands that the triangle offense placed on each team member, then concluded: "You can't be a selfish player and make this offense work for the team's good. Period." When I opened the floor to comments, there was complete silence, and I was about to adjourn the meeting when Shaq spoke up. He got right to the point, saying, "I think Kobe is playing too selfishly for us to win." That got everyone fired up. Some of the players nodded in support of Shaq, including Rick Fox, who said, "How many times have we been through this?" No one in that room came to Kobe's defense. I asked him if he had anything to say. Kobe finally addressed the group, and in a calm, quiet voice he said he cared about everyone and just wanted to be part of a winning team.
I wasn't pleased with the meeting. I worried that having everyone's complaints on the table without any resolution would have a negative effect on team harmony. In the days that followed, we lost four out of five games, including a 105-81 "massacre" by the Spurs in the Alamodome. One night that week I had a dream about spanking Kobe and giving Shaq a smack. "Shaq needs and Kobe wants -- the mystery of the Lakers," I wrote in my journal.
The players started blaming one another for the breakdown, and I realized that I had to address the unrest head-on. The first thing I did was meet Shaq for breakfast to discuss what it means to be a leader. I started by relating the story of how Michael galvanized the Bulls with his confidence in himself and his teammates before the must-win game 5 against Cleveland in the 1989 playoffs. The Cavaliers had just beaten us at home to tie the series, and Michael had had an off night. Still, that didn't faze him. His uncompromising faith revved up the team, and we won the final game -- not surprisingly, on a last-second miracle shot by Jordan.
One night that week I had a dream about spanking Kobe and giving Shaq a smack. 'Shaq needs and Kobe wants -- the mystery of the Lakers,' I wrote in my journal.”
I told Shaq he needed to find his own way to inspire the Lakers. He needed to express his confidence and natural joy for the game in such a way that his teammates -- Kobe especially -- felt that if they joined forces with him, nothing would be impossible. A team leader's number one job, I explained, was to build up his teammates, not tear them down. Shaq had probably heard this kind of spiel before, but this time I think it clicked.
With Kobe I took a different tack. I tried to be as direct as possible and show him in front of the other players how his selfish mistakes were hurting the team. During one film session, I said, "Now I know why the guys don't like playing with you. You've got to play together." I also indicated to him that if he didn't want to share the ball with his teammates, I would gladly work out a trade for him. I had no trouble being the bad cop in this situation. (See under: Sometimes you have to pull out the big stick.) I knew [Ron] Harper would soften the blow later by explaining to Kobe -- in far less strident terms -- how to play more selflessly without sacrificing his creativity.
I also talked to Kobe about what it takes to be a leader. At one point I told him, "I guess you'd like to be the captain of this team someday when you're older -- maybe like twenty-five." He replied that he wanted to be captain tomorrow. To which I said, "You can't be captain if nobody follows you."
Eventually it sank in. Kobe began looking for ways to fit himself into the system and play more collaboratively. He also made an effort to socialize more with his teammates, especially when we were on the road. And after the All-Star break, everything started to come together. We went on a 27-1 streak and finished the season with the best record in the league, 67-15.
The players seemed relieved that we'd put to sleep a problem that had haunted the team for the past three years. As Rick Fox put it, Kobe's me-first attitude "was a land mine that was about to explode. We all knew that somebody had to step on it, but nobody wanted to. So Phil did it, and we all walk a lot more freely now."
Excerpted from "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success" by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty.