- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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Kobe Bryant, speaking publicly for the first time since Mike D'Antoni resigned from the Los Angeles Lakers, expressed apathy about the turn of events but also said he'd like to have an active role in choosing a new coach.
"Honestly, I didn't care," Bryant said Thursday during a guest appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," when asked whether he was happy D'Antoni accepted a buyout of close to $2 million instead of coming back to coach the team next season.
"Mike was dealt a really bad hand in dealing with all the injuries that he had here," Bryant said. "This is a tough place, man. If you're not winning, you're not going to survive, man."
Bryant added that Magic Johnson's controversial tweet in which he celebrated D'Antoni's departure reminded him of a scene out of "The Wizard of Oz."
"The first thing I thought of was seeing the munchkins on the Yellow Brick Road dancing and singing, 'The Wicked Witch is dead,'" Bryant said. "When he tweeted that, that song just came to mind."
Bryant hopes the Lakers will sing a different tune than they have in the past when it comes to consulting him about hiring a coach.
"On the last two they didn't," Bryant said, referring to Mike Brown and D'Antoni, who both failed to endure the length of the initial contracts they signed with the Lakers before parting ways. "On the third one, I'm hoping they do."
Taking over for a legend like Phil Jackson is never easy, of course. Bryant said he still speaks to Jackson often and expects the 11-time champion coach to transfer those results to his front-office role with the New York Knicks.
"I think he'll do fantastic," Bryant said. "Especially the more people say that he won't be successful."
Bryant had similar faith in the Lakers' brass, endorsing the efforts by Jackson's fiancée and Lakers president Jeanie Buss, as well as her brother and Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss, in steering the franchise in the right direction.
"Jimmy and Jeanie both, they're just really determined and excited about the possibilities of next season and rebuilding this and building on their father's legacy and everything that he's accomplished," Bryant said. "And they're taking the challenge extremely, extremely seriously. They're both on the same page and they want nothing but excellence here, so I have no doubt that we'll make it happen."
Bryant did not identify any specific candidates he would like the Lakers to hire but said there is an "open-door policy" in place between him and Lakers management as the process plays out.
"We talk back and forth," Bryant said. "We'll text or I'll sit down with [them]."
But Bryant, who will turn 36 in August before embarking on his 19th NBA season in the fall, said he doesn't want the team to play favorites when it comes to picking its coach.
"Honestly, it's not really about whether the players like the coach or not," Bryant said. "It's really about getting results. Liking somebody and those results don't necessarily go hand-in-hand.
"Sometimes when a coach is driving you, you don't necessarily like it, but it's a part of the process, and then once you win, everybody is buddy-buddy after that."
Drive has rarely if ever been an issue for Bryant, who started a six-month intensive training program to ready himself for 2014-15 shortly after the Lakers' disastrous season ended in April, and he already is bullish on his well-being.
"From a health standpoint, 100 percent," Bryant said of where he stands after missing 76 games this season because of a fractured knee and torn Achilles in his left leg. "I started doing a lot of on-court training and so I'm back into my routine. Then I'll start lifting and start doing the running, which I hate. By the time the season comes around, I'll be ready to go."
He said he believes the Lakers will be ready along with him.
"I do," Bryant said when asked if he thought the Lakers could win next season. "We'll make changes, for sure. There's certain characteristics that you have to build your team around in speed and length and rebounding and defense. We'll make those adjustments."
Bryant was also asked about the league's hot-button issue of the moment: Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
He flirted with joining the Clippers as a free agent in 2004, even meeting personally with Sterling, long before the owner was banned from the league for life for racist comments he made that surfaced during the first round of the playoffs.
Bryant took Sterling to task for the comments, tweeting, "I couldn't play for him" and "No. He should not continue owning the clippers. #nochance #noway #nohow," but said that he was more focused on winning than digging into Sterling's race relations.
"At the time the biggest concern was, 'Was he willing to spend to have a successful team?' " Bryant said. "He said during the meeting that he was willing to make the commitment in bringing another championship team to Los Angeles. And he has done that. He has spent the money to go out and keep Blake [Griffin] and DeAndre [Jordan] and CP [Chris Paul] and those guys."
Bryant, who caught some flak both for rarely sitting with his teammates on the bench and later for jetting to Europe for a family vacation before the Lakers' season was officially over, reflected on how difficult it was to watch the team suffer without him.
"I'd rather stay at home and eat paint chips," Bryant said. "It was tough, man. It was really, really tough. But you know, when you go through seasons like that, it just adds fuel to the fire to come back even stronger."
Meanwhile, Bryant said he couldn't care less how the Clippers' season ends.
"Doesn't really matter to me, because I'm not winning, so what the hell do I care who wins?" Bryant said, before adding that he did reach out and offer support to Paul during the Sterling "fiasco."
He is hopeful the Lakers will play the Clippers in the postseason down the line. The Clippers are one of just three Western Conference teams -- along with Memphis and Golden State -- that Bryant has never faced in the playoffs.
"I would love for nothing more than the Lakers to get back to that championship level and meet the Clippers in the playoffs," Bryant said. "I think that would be fantastic."
Similar to the Clippers' ascension and how it dovetailed with the Lakers' descent into a historically bad 27-55 season, Bryant's prime came after his idol growing up, Michael Jordan, had put his best days behind him and retired.
But as Bryant told it, that didn't stop Jordan from challenging Bryant after he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in 2006.
"After I scored 81, he was barking on how I could never do it against him," Bryant said, before breaking into a Jordan impression. "'There's no way you're going to score 80 on me! I would have fouled out!' We just went back and forth with it. I normally try to stay pretty cool when it comes to MJ because I look up to him so much, but on that particular occasion I had to remind him that I did have 42 in one half against him."
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss