Commentary

Kobe Bryant shining in leading role

Originally Published: March 15, 2013
By Jay Mariotti | Special to ESPN.com

Kobe BryantAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesIt's been a trying season in L.A., but Kobe Bryant has put together one of his finest performances yet.

Did you feel it, too? Concern, sympathy, maybe even pity for a man who once symbolized petulance and might have been America's most reviled athlete? As he clutched his left ankle, did you cringe with Kobe Bryant? The maddening obstacles simply never end in a season that he describes as his most difficult challenge, something you'd say was straight from hell except hell is more forgiving.

He has had to be an inspirational machine, a guiding beacon, a grief counselor. He has had to elevate his performances with stuff-the-stat-line domination and crazy old-man hops, forcing those who'd eliminated him from the ongoing third-beer argument -- LeBron versus Michael -- to acknowledge Kobe remains in the equation at 34. He has merited not only MVP consideration but perhaps a statue -- outside Staples Center, beside other bronzed Lakers greats -- for willing and rallying his team through the death of franchise patriarch Jerry Buss, uncommon failure on the court, Dwight Howard's adjustment issues, the first-month firing of coach Mike Brown, the midnight dissing of Phil Jackson, injuries to Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, no-show defense, weekly TV ridicule from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, you name it.

What was supposed to be a convergence of Hall of Fame talent -- the melding of Howard and Nash with Bryant and Gasol -- has sputtered into a desperate, clunky race for a Western Conference playoff spot. Only the defiant, unbreakable will of Bryant has prevented a madhouse from sliding into a sinkhole, and his dedication to salvaging what's left while honoring Buss' memory has been breathtaking. He has bonded a dazed group, bolstered the spirits of the anguished, and demanded that a positive vibe rise from the darkness, all while routinely rescuing the Lakers with spectacular moments and game-winning prayers.

And now he is out indefinitely, or so they say, a severely sprained ankle confirming that he is human.

It will be debated for days whether he was the victim of a deliberate ploy by Atlanta's Dahntay Jones. As Bryant descended from a missed baseline jump shot in the final seconds of a 96-92 loss, his foot landed on Jones' right shoe. Bryant told reporters that he thought the play was "very, very dangerous, especially when I'm fading away," no doubt flashing back to how Jones tripped him and was whistled for a flagrant foul during the 2009 conference finals.

"First and foremost, the officials really need to protect shooters. ... As defensive players, you can contest shots, but you can't walk underneath players," said Bryant, who tweeted the same message. Jones refuted it with his own tweet, claiming Bryant committed an offensive foul with a leg kick and that he "would never try to hurt the man."

Regardless, Kobe Bryant is hurt. Other than "a tsunami is coming," those are the four words that scare Los Angeles the most. He will try to return before the medical staff prefers, of course, and he will play until the ankle separates from his foot and falls into Jack Nicholson's popcorn. "I'll just do what I have to do," he said.

It has been a simple mantra for a unique and admirable chapter in sports leadership. Fixing himself might not be so difficult, considering how he has fixed everyone and everything else around him.


Kobe Bryant and Dwight HowardJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesKobe has pushed Dwight Howard's buttons time and again during the season. Is it starting to pay off?

It is early March, and Bryant's face is all scrunched up. He isn't sure how to answer my question, which qualifies as breaking news when the question seems little more than an alley-oop lob about Howard's future. He breathes deep, exhales even deeper and looks around the practice facility -- two ... three ... four seconds ... -- while gathering exactly what he wants to say about the gifted, accomplished but still perplexing big man.

If he were running the Lakers, would Bryant sign Howard to a max contract of almost $120 million this summer? Lock him up for five years? Make him the next cornerstone of a golden, illustrious franchise that always has flaunted basketball's grandest brand names -- West, Wilt, Baylor, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe -- as pillars of its championship kingdom?

Five ... six ... seven ...

"I'd be patient. I'd try to make the best decision I possibly could make from a basketball perspective and from a business perspective," he says.

He purses his lips, contemplates.

"And they've done this -- take your time and talk to people and look at which way the franchise wants to be 10 years from now. Look at the cap. Look at a myriad of things. But it's still a very tough choice."

Hardly an emphatic endorsement.

Talk to people? Look at the cap? A "very tough choice"? It doesn't appear Kobe, on this day, is lockdown-sold on Howard as a Lakers legend-in-waiting. Nor does he sound overwhelmed a week later, again leaving a pregnant pause when asked by ESPN's Michael Wilbon if he gets along with Howard -- finally concluding they get along better than Bryant did with O'Neal, which isn't real assuring.

But then a thought occurs: Is this Bryant's way of motivating Howard? Tweaking a teammate whose carefree approach to life is the antithesis of Bryant's maniacal approach to basketball? Hasn't Kobe dropped hints all season that Howard needs to pick up his game and energy level, at one point drawing criticism from Howard's father, who wanted Kobe to stop picking on his son?

Whatever the agenda, Bryant sounded like a proud papa days later in Orlando, when Howard conquered an emotional test that could have further wounded his psyche. Facing down fans who booed him wickedly and a Magic franchise still sour about his turbulent departure, he produced his best game as a Laker: 39 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks, making an impressive (for him) 25 of 39 free throw attempts -- 16 of 20 when the Magic tried to employ a Hack-a-Dwight strategy. "I think it's a big boost for his confidence," Bryant told the media. "He wasn't distracted or down about coming back, and his energy propelled us. I think it will do wonders for him."

Said Howard: "I was happy I was able to face my fears at the free throw line and knock them down. I thought that was the best thing for me, to come in here and really learn how to block a lot of stuff out and play and not allow it to affect me. That's been big all season, to where I would hear the crowd and I'd get up there and brick. So I think it was good for me. I think I'm maturing as a player, as a person -- and I'm happy."

How many times has Bryant instructed him to block out all the noise? As he told Howard before the game, "Just go out and bust their ass, man. Show them what they're missing."

Before you come to the usual deduction -- same old control-freaking Kobe, trying to run the franchise his way -- please grasp the larger context of what has happened to the Lakers. Even for the NBA's traditional drama kings, this has been a season of relentless disruption, dysfunction and tumult. A teetering operation begs for direction and equilibrium on every level.

Thus, Kobe has to run the franchise.

He has to prod Howard because no one else has succeeded, prone as he has been to letting critics and fans bother him and allowing parts of the season to become daily Dwight dramas.

Kobe has to weigh in on personnel decisions because the two sibling heirs now in charge, Jim and Jeanie Buss, have been at odds, in part because Jim's basketball department awkwardly rejected Jackson -- then Jeanie's boyfriend, now her fiancé -- for the coaching vacancy with a midnight phone call in mid-November. Kobe has to act like a coach, a general manager, an owner and an all-encompassing leader to save the current team from becoming an all-time overhyped, underachieving farce.

He has to take over games, from opening tip to sweat-drip finish, because losing appears inevitable if he doesn't.

And you know what? Bryant was damned near pulling it all off, until a Wednesday night in Georgia.

"You see the names up there," says teammate Antawn Jamison, motioning toward team legends honored at the practice facility, "and, of course, he's one of them. If anyone understands what Mr. Buss expects of anyone who puts on the Lakers uniform, it's Kobe. They had a great relationship, and you can tell it's tough on him. But he respects him so much, and as long as Kobe has that uniform on, he's not gonna let him down. He's going to expect even more from himself and his teammates. It seems like the tougher the challenge is, the better he is. You see the hunger in his eyes right now, and we're following him."

To refer to his survivalist act as fun would be shallow. This run is mind-blowing, historic. "I feel a sense of responsibility to this organization to perform at a certain level at all times. And Dr. Buss has done so much for me," Bryant explains. "Once he passed, there was a finality to it. Things set in, and I became more reflective of what he has meant to me and the Lakers legends before me. I've been carrying that with me every day. It sharpened my focus even more. With everything thrown into the pot -- us struggling, expectations with Dwight and Steve here, going to the memorial service and seeing the Hall of Famers who loved him -- everything came to a head for me."

As it did on a March evening in New Orleans, when Bryant's eyes -- burning with rage -- created a trail for a Lakers' rally from a 25-point hole in the second half. His line -- 42 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists -- was his response to adversity, his theme after the game. "It can do one of two things," he said. "If you have a weaker mind, it will break you, but if you decide to let it build you up, make you stronger, then that's what happens."

As it did two nights later in Los Angeles, when the Lakers again started sluggishly against the Toronto Raptors, forcing Bryant to apply oxygen with a trio of late 3-pointers, including an overtime-forcing miracle in which he fought through two defenders, pump-faked and somehow found space by the sideline to get off the tying heave. In the extra period, he blew past three defenders for a crushing jam that preserved the victory.

"I have a determination where I don't think anybody I line up against, on any given night, will be able to out-will me," he said afterward. "I just refuse to believe that."


Kobe Bryant, Jerry BussKevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesThe passing of Lakers owner Jerry Buss has given Kobe more motivation and clarity in recent weeks.

Truly, Bryant is obsessed with prevailing in this mission, which might explain why he's inside the team facility on a lovely weekend afternoon -- Range Rover parked outside -- and in no hurry to cruise, shop, eat lunch or hit the beach. There are, after all, weights to lift and a personal legacy to discuss. No longer is this the bratty Kobe who demanded a trade and referred to Buss as an idiot, who drove O'Neal out of town and Jackson out of his mind, who hogged the ball and lashed out at teammates, who scored 81 points out of necessity yet stopped shooting in a playoff game out of spite, who made a public apology for committing adultery as his young wife clutched his hand at a news conference.

The Kobe we see now is so much different. He is a man. He's a strong, world-weathered adult softened by the love of two daughters -- "They think I'm cool after spending a weekend at the All-Star Game," he says, eyes sparkling -- but also sobered by a lurking sense that his career twilight is upon him. Last month, he was saddened by the passing of Buss, the owner who supported him during his court case and tolerated his immaturity streaks. The loss of his 80-year-old mentor, who died of kidney failure after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer, has forced Bryant to contemplate his mortality for the first time. He responded by delivering emotional public tributes to Buss that drew high praise from Magic Johnson and other Lakers greats.

Kobe Bean Bryant, is that really you, a savant and a sage?

"It's about growing up," he says, taking swigs from a water bottle as he sits atop a pile of exercise mats. "Everybody grows up."

He is told he sometimes seems older than his years now, after making mistakes as an immature man-child. Is he proud of how far he has come -- as a public figure, a father, a leader? "Yeah, I'm proud of it," Bryant says. "You're always reaching crossroads while you're growing up, and you choose the paths you go down. You can take the correct path or the really f---ed up path. I feel like I've mostly made the right choices, had some good mentors and had a franchise that has been extremely patient with a young, temperamental player. And I'm eternally grateful for that."

There also is peace in his home life. He is back with his wife, Vanessa, who announced in January that a previous divorce filing would be "dismissed." They attend public events and openly discuss their relationship on social media. Last year, the rapper, Drake, defended Kobe in the song "Stay Schemin'" with the line, "You wasn't with me shootin' in the gym" -- meaning, he shouldn't give Vanessa his riches in a settlement. Kobe, now a Twitter regular, supported his wife on his account: "no, she wasn't. She was busy raising our kids #no nanny #respect mothers."

People close to Bryant aren't surprised by his grounded being and robust leadership, an almost-spiritual zeal to make everything around him right. Among them is Mike Krzyzewski, who has coached Bryant during two gold-medal runs with the U.S. Olympic team. He thinks the Kobe-as-superbrat angle never was right to begin with.

"I believe Kobe has been grown up for a long time. He has been as mature and as good a leader as we've had," Krzyzewski says. "I think [his] leadership is showing more when adversity hits. And when an emotional thing occurs -- the death of Dr. Buss and the state of this team -- it showed that someone has to emerge at a higher level, and on all levels, within the organization. I think Kobe has been magnificent since then. It has always been there. This hasn't taken 17 years to develop. He had it as a youngster, and it has developed along the way."

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesGrown-up Kobe let people see his softer side at All-Star Weekend.

Even those who never will forgive Bryant's missteps might commend him for the personal growth he has channeled under fire. From the minute Buss passed away, no one has represented the Lakers' organization more elegantly and dynamically. What Grown-Up Kobe is trying to do, basically, is save the old man's franchise.

On a cool, sunny morning befitting a cool, sunny man, Jerry Buss was buried in the Hollywood Hills, by the park where Michael Jackson was memorialized, on a slope overlooking three major movie studios. Other than a Vegas poker table, the setting couldn't have been more appropriate. Dr. Buss -- as L.A. was conditioned to call him, though few actually knew why (his Ph.D. was in chemistry) -- was the biggest star to own an American sports team, all gold trophies and gold chains, diamond rings on his fingers and young blondes on his arms, a Hef with heft.

In basketball, in sport, in Hollywood and L.A. life, this was an epic loss. As the mustachioed, thrill-seeking owner, Buss won 10 NBA championships in 34 years. Ever wonder when sports stopped being a simple ballgame and transformed into a glossy, pricey event? The seeds were planted at a 1979 meeting between Buss and Jerry West, the influential team icon. "I want people to come and see a winning team, but I want entertainment," Buss told him, "very much like a Broadway show." He wanted Hollywood pizazz mixed with basketball dominance so L.A. could have a common source of pride. He created just that, with Laker Girls and dimmed lights and stars everywhere. The production became known as Showtime, and inevitably, Buss' business prowess led to a boom in franchise values, a regional TV network, arena naming fees, specialization in seat pricing -- all adopted in the industry worldwide. "He changed the way that we watched games," Magic says.

But now that Buss is gone, the concern is whether the Lakers will erode into something unrecognizable. He left a succession plan, a trust run by his six adult children. It keeps his daughter, the personable and industry-respected Jeanie, in charge of the team's lucrative business operation, and a son, the distant and sometimes maligned Jim, as boss of a basketball operation with erratic recent results. There is no definitive, CEO-type boss, with Jim and Jeanie considered equals in parallel domains while general manager Mitch Kupchak serves under Jim. Sometimes, as Jeanie writes in her book, "Laker Girl," she and Jim "are not on the same page," with no bigger example than the Jackson snafu which led to the hiring of Mike D'Antoni. Their father always calmed any front-office angst and was the final arbiter in a series of superb, championship-building moves. So who serves that function now? Who has the hammer for a property valued at $1 billion-plus, with a $3.6 billion local TV rights deal?

Against a backdrop of uncertainty, Bryant keeps his cool. In the past, he would have been the one screaming, calling the bosses idiots, making ultimatums. Not now. Maybe he isn't sure about the new front-office order, but in the interest of preserving some semblance of unity and sanity, Bryant won't admit it. "Um, I don't know. I'm not really sure," he says when asked what's going on internally. "One thing I do know is, it always seems this franchise figures things out, and a lot of that was Dr. Buss. You've got to believe he passed down pretty good leadership and business tips to Jeanie and Jim and the rest of his kids."

And if you expect Kobe to join Magic and a steady stream of radio callers in bashing Jim Buss, forget it. Grown-Up Kobe will not take sides in a political fray. Unlike Johnson, who is close to Jeanie, Bryant cares only that an optimum effort is made to spend and win titles. "I have no problem with it whatsoever from the basketball or business sides," he says. "I have no concerns. I've spent time with Jimmy many times, and I know how competitive he is and how much he's willing to sacrifice to get that done. I'm not worried about him.

"I've known Jeanie for a while. I think Magic has a different relationship with the Buss family than I do because he was there since the inception. He knows Jimmy and Jeanie on a personal level a lot more than I do. Jeanie has been brilliant since I've been here."

Would he have preferred Phil over D'Antoni? Again, diplomacy. "I have a special connection with Phil, and he was the option," Bryant says. "I made it clear it was something I was more than happy to see happen. But it didn't. I'm trusting the organization. I'm happy with D'Antoni."

Maybe he can take the siblings to lunch, sprinkle his love, purge all the Buss Fuss. After all, he's getting along famously these days with O'Neal, his former adversary, laughing riotously with him during a timeout when comedian Will Ferrell, dressed like a Staples usher, had Shaq removed from the front row.

Indeed, Bryant is trying to befriend a world that used to dislike him. In an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Bryant says he won't be following Dennis Rodman's lead and hanging out with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. "I'd probably pass," he says.

"Oh," shoots back Kimmel, "for once, you're passing."

Grown-Up Kobe doesn't stare, stew or storm off. No, he laughs hysterically, rocking in his chair and slapping his leg. More important, when the host asks how he'd handle a slacker teammate, Bryant says he'd call "the Buss family." Not Jim, not Jeanie. The Buss family.

Smooth.


Kobe BryantLayne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty ImagesKobe has been a force during the Lakers' recent surge, even showing he still has hops at 34 years old.

As much as L.A. can be unified by anything -- fragmented and myth-ravaged as it is -- the Lakers are its foremost shared passion. In a place that derives joy and wellness from beaches, mountains, warmth and sex appeal, a historically glorious basketball team brings it together and places an exclamation point on living here and loving it. Kobe has managed to salvage the California love, too. On Valentine's Day, the Lakers were routed by the city's best team, the Clippers, dropping their record to 25-29. Buss died four days later. Since then, Bryant has led an 8-3 charge, pulling them above .500 and yanking the city out of its misery.

"It's phenomenal to watch him right now, the way he's in total control," Nash says. "I don't think I've ever seen him better."

"Incredible, just incredible," D'Antoni says.

LeBron likely will win league MVP honors again, over Kevin Durant, but this season, no one has been more vital to a team than Bryant. His work started after Buss died, when he urged younger Lakers, such as Howard, to absorb "a history lesson and understand what this franchise really is, what this thing means." He spoke to a grieving crowd at Staples and directed all eyes to a familiar suite above midcourt, where a single light was cast upon Buss' empty seat. "We lost the greatest owner in sports -- ever," Bryant told the throng.

He led the Lakers to an emotional victory over the Celtics. He scored 40 points in a win over Portland, then guaranteed to Sports Illustrated that the Lakers not only would make the playoffs, but they weren't scared of "Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver ... whatever." In Dallas, after Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested the Lakers cut Bryant and save $30.5 million in luxury taxes under the new amnesty clause, Kobe went for 38 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists in a victory. "Amnesty THAT," he later tweeted. In the process of blowing a 16-point lead to Atlanta, he gave the Lakers a lift with a liftoff, dunking over 6-foot-9 Josh Smith -- in what some YouTubers are calling the NBA season's best slam -- and then driving past Al Horford to bank in the game winner. "There's a reason he's the best player in the game," Horford said.

Feeling it a bit, Bryant asks that he now be referred to as "Vino," as in wine, as in improving with age. A copywriter friend of his came up with the nickname, and judging by his per-game averages since the All-Star break -- 30.3 points, a .492 field goal percentage, 7 assists, 6.4 rebounds -- this is vintage stuff. "The vino is out of the barrel," he says. "I was in my coffin a few years ago. I've got plenty in the tank, but if you want to feel free to criticize and say I don't, go right ahead," he says. No one dares. Or has reason.

It's a tough call with me because everybody wants to make the comparison between me and Michael, but our paths were just different. You almost have to evaluate our careers from two different lenses. Ultimately, I want to be known as a person who was just hell-bent on winning. If people say that about me, I'll be happy.

-- Kobe Bryant on his legacy

The tank has gasoline because he takes supreme care of his body. Starting last summer, Bryant has been paying meticulous attention to his diet and advances in sports performance. "We're all accustomed to eating what we want whenever we want. Changing that, in essence, is changing your lifestyle," he said after a recent practice. "I started becoming obsessive about it."

Occasionally, he'll eat a cookie as a junk reward. That's it. "There's a lot of sacrifice, a lot of attention to detail that goes into playing at a high level for a long, long time. To me, it's worth it. After so many years, it's easy to lose focus. Some guys lose focus game to game. I take it as a challenge to try to be focused for many, many years."

Bryant's surge adds more ammo to his monstrous legend. Along with his inarguable status as the second-best shooting guard ever, it reaffirms his place among sport's most voracious competitors. It should surprise no one that Kobe, when considering his legacy, says he wants to be remembered as such. "It's a tough call with me because everybody wants to make the comparison between me and Michael, but our paths were just different," he says. "You almost have to evaluate our careers from two different lenses. Ultimately, I want to be known as a person who was just hell-bent on winning. If people say that about me, I'll be happy."

It's interesting Horford would call Bryant the best player in the NBA. Hasn't he been kicked out of that conversation by James, who has been anointed in the media as the reigning hoops god? Does it annoy Kobe that recent conversations have compared Jordan and LeBron while, somehow, omitting him? "I think it's a numbers thing," he says. "They look at the individual numbers Michael put up and those LeBron is putting up. My numbers are great, but I played with Shaq. So those numbers have to be looked at from that perspective. They didn't have to play with a 7-foot-1, 350-pound dominant force.

"My motivation is to win every year. When I was growing up and Magic had five and Michael was getting his [six], I decided this is what I'm supposed to do: win as many as I possibly can. [Bill] Russell had 11, so this is what it is. It does bother me that during your career, everyone says, 'Win championships.' Now, at the end of your career, they want to look at [individual] numbers. That drives me crazy a little."

To hear Bryant even suggest he's nearing a career end, especially in his Vino phase, is a shock to the system. What would a gym-rat-for-life do with the rest of his years? "I don't know if there ever will be a time when I'm definitively ready," he says, "when I've been so passionate about something my whole life."

Would he want to coach? "Uhhhhhh," he says, meaning no.

How about owning a team? "Only if it's in a big market," he says with a nervous laugh, knowing Jordan's chronically failing team is in Charlotte, a small market. L.A. is a big market. How about owning a piece of the Lakers? Like the idea?

"Of course, I would," he says. "Honestly, this franchise is part of me. I've been very lucky that I followed this team religiously [while growing up] and I've just happened to play for this team my whole career. I would love [ownership]. If I could be part of this organization forever, it would be very special."

Neither Jim nor Jeanie was available for comment.


Kobe BryantKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesA sprained left ankle is the latest twist in Kobe's season, but he still has a playoff guarantee to fulfill.

For now, Bryant must stop limping, heal quickly, return to his blazing form, navigate the final weeks of the regular season and uphold his playoff prediction. That's all. "If we get there,'' says D'Antoni, referencing the postseason, "we're gonna be a tough out.''

The assumption, based on Bryant's track record of recuperative willpower, is that he'll miss one to three games. But realistically, a gimpy ankle could be just enough to sabotage what's left of the Lakers' hopes. He spent Thursday receiving treatment and emptying his frustrations onto his Twitter feed. If he still trails Michael Jordan's body of work as a player, Kobe clearly ranks as the NBA's all-time madman Tweeter. All day, he took turns issuing updates -- sending a photo of his badly swollen ankle -- and taking more shots at Jones.

"Compression. Ice. Django. Zero Dark Thirty. This is Forty and 1 hour of sleep," he wrote. "On to the next."

"(Jones) knows what he did and anyone with half a brain can see it," he wrote, using "cleanupthegame" as a hash tag. "I don't want it to happen to anyone else!"

His only solace: The league issued a statement and agreed a foul should have been called, while concluding Jones "did not give him the opportunity to land cleanly back on the floor." As Bryant likes to say, whoop-dee-do.

To even think about making a deep playoff run, the Lakers will need Kobe's continued mastery and Howard to be his All-Star self, which he vowed to be after a soul-searching period in late February. If he'd come to L.A. and performed all season like "Superman," as he often self-advertises, re-signing him would be an easier decision than Malibu for a sunset. It won't be an issue if he continues his recent inspired play, including a four-game stretch in which he averaged 24 points and 13 rebounds. But it's hard to know whether his recent back and shoulder injuries are isolated events or the beginning of a decline phase. Kupchak tried to quell criticism by saying Howard will earn his own statue someday, yet it's fair to ask if the Lakers should commit almost $24 million a year going forward. You also never know if Howard, known for maddening mood changes, decides he'd rather play in Brooklyn or Dallas, even when the Lakers can offer him about $30 million more than other teams.

There also is the matter of appeasing Bryant. His contract expires after next season. He has suggested it will be his final season, but he isn't firm on that. "It could be -- I'm not saying it will be,'' he says. He's waiting to see how the Lakers landscape looks, among other factors, before deciding whether to play longer. Should they execute a Howard sign-and-trade? Pursue attractive free agents? In future offseasons, the Lakers could have a shot at LeBron. Or Kevin Love. With the league's new tax rules, even an ATM machine such as the Lakers must be smarter than ever. "I'm sure they know that,'' Bryant says of the LeBron scenario. "They also know all the other free agents that could be available.''

Kobe, LeBron, Magic, Michael -- all are known for having no mercy on a basketball court. Howard is not merciless, never has been. Is that what the Lakers want as their reigning superstar deep into the decade, a nice guy who doesn't necessarily ache to win trophies?

A "very tough choice,'' Bryant says of bringing back Howard. You might say this franchise has had an exceptional track record on tough choices -- drafting West and Elgin Baylor, trading for Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, plucking Pat Riley from a broadcast booth to coach, trading Vlade Divac for a 17-year-old Bryant, throwing $121 million at O'Neal, hiring Jackson twice, keeping Bryant and trading O'Neal, and trading for Gasol and winning two more titles after Bryant asked to be traded in 2007.

"I didn't just give them advice. I sort of made demands,'' says Bryant, laughing as he recalls that version of himself. "To me, it's about one thing only -- winning. You can have all the talent in the world, but if the organization isn't making the smartest decisions, you're not going to win. Dominique Wilkins had a great career, but he never got to that [championship] level. I didn't want to be that for the second half of my career. [Management] made a conscious call to cut costs then and kind of ride their goose with the golden eggs, and I wasn't OK with that. I said, 'Hey, look, you guys have got to do something.' ''

Six years later, with a game and a name that still resonates all through the world, Kobe Bryant is telling the Lakers exactly that about the summer ahead: Do the right thing. Only this time, his voice is measured and soft, his method is subtle, his body is aching all over, and he can't wait to see his daughters. Who has time for rage anymore? Not Grown-Up Kobe, star of a cute and well-received ad with soccer superstar Lionel Messi for Turkish Airlines, of all things. He's obviously having a good time on Twitter, a toy he resisted for years because he cared about mass reaction from followers.

"You get a chance to chit-chat with people, s--- talk with them,'' he says. "At first, I was hesitant; it looked insane. But you can't control what people say anyway. They can say what the hell they want. So why not just have a little fun with it?''

He has his Twitter antagonists, but not as many as might be anticipated. Too many people are in awe of him, you see. The brat is now the bomb, bum wheel and all.