|Like father, like Kobe|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of Charley Rosen's two-part look at the Lakers opening the 2002-03 season without Shaquille O'Neal. Today, Rosen explains why Kobe Bryant often feels inclined to fly solo -- a tendency that can be traced to his father, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant -- and what Phil Jackson plans to do about it. In Part 1, Rosen examined how Kobe abandons the triangle offense when Shaq is sidelined, prompting assistant coach Tex Winter to call Kobe "uncoachable."
LOS ANGELES -- As with most everybody else, Kobe Bryant's blessings, as well as his travails, have two root causes -- genetics and environment. The main difference between him and the rest of us is that Kobe's father was a world-class professional athlete.
Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant was a talented 6-foot-10 forward who played for Philadelphia, San Diego and Houston. His most productive season was 1981-82 with the San Diego Clippers, when he averaged 11.8 ppg., and during his eight seasons in the NBA, the elder Bryant's career average was a respectable 8.7 ppg.
Unfortunately, Jelly Bean didn't get the respect he thought he deserved from either his coaches or the referees. Hey, Julius Erving was playing the same kind of shake-and-bake game ... how come Dr. J never got called for traveling or palming the ball like Jelly Bean did? How come Dr. J wasn't universally castigated for being selfish like Joe was? And why wasn't Bryant playing 40 minutes a game? Jelly Bean felt, and with some justification, that he was ahead of his time.
In any case, since the NBA didn't value his individualistic talents, Bryant took his shakings and his bakings to Italy, where he starred for several years.
The skills and mindset of one-on-one play -- and almost surely a good deal of resentment over his "mistreatment" at the hands of the NBA -- were a significant portion of Jelly Bean's hoops legacy to his son.
When Kobe first joined the Lakers in 1996, Del Harris was the coach, and the 18-year-old rookie was given a license to razzle and dazzle. The same permission was granted by Harris' successor, Kurt Rambis. Kobe was such a talented prodigy that he was an All-Star in 1998, and was hailed as the heir apparent to His Airness. That's why, when Phil Jackson came to town in 1999, Kobe was so resistant to the triangle -- an equal-opportunity offense.
One can almost imagine what Jelly Bean thought of all this. It must have seemed like family history repeating itself: Lookit ... Phil was messing with Kobe's game. Right? Hey, wasn't Kobe already a certified All-Star? And how was Kobe going to make the Hall of Fame if Phil wanted to curtail his shots? His creativity? His style?
Just how bad was Kobe's resistance that first season? Bad enough for Shaq to say this during a team meeting: "I think that Kobe is playing too selfishly for us to win."
Some of the players then spoke up to support Shaq's opinion and some defended Kobe. Then Kobe spoke in his own behalf, saying he really cared about his teammates and wanted, above all, to be part of a winning team.
The biggest problem was that Kobe was a loner, lifting weights by himself and never hanging out with the other guys. So, as much as Kobe wanted to lead, nobody wanted to follow him. At the same time, Kobe refused to follow anybody else.
Jackson broke the stalemate by convincing Kobe to go along with the program until he matured into a leadership role. Three years later, and Kobe is almost there.
A major impediment to Kobe's growth is the unalloyed adulation of the L.A. media. It's OK to criticize Jackson for "doing nothing," but the players are sacrosanct. Precious few of the area's sportscasters and sportswriters ever call Kobe to task for his chronic selfishness.
For sure, Kobe is always politically correct in his public pronouncements nowadays. He says his me-me-me game plan is ancient history. Individual numbers mean nothing. Winning is all that counts. And for the latter part of the 2001-02 season, every move he made on the court proved the truth of his testimony.
It's also true that nobody since MJ in his prime competes as hard as Kobe does -- on both end of the court. Hard work is Kobe's delight; just last summer he (along with Derek Fisher) spent long hours in the gym doing drills and exercises designed to enhance the agility of his footwork.
And yes, there's always a certain shakedown period at the beginning of a new season. Who can Kobe trust with the ball? Who's going to step up with Rick Fox suspended and Shaq still on the injured list? Robert Horry, Fisher and Brian Shaw are the Lakers' only reliable players.
Add up all the causes and conditions, and it's no wonder Kobe's opening game against San Antonio was an unrestrained exercise in egotism. How easy to forget that although Kobe is a veteran of six NBA seasons, he's still only 24 -- and that under pressure, young players invariably regress and fall back into old bad habits.
Despite his glorious gifts and achievements, the whys and wherefores of his game are so intriguing simply because, despite his otherworldly skills, psychologically Kobe Bryant is Everyman. Like the rest of us mortals, the demands of Kobe's self are constantly battling the demands of his soul ... and the echoes of his father's disappointments.
So what's a coach to do?
In both Chicago and L.A., Phil Jackson's modus operandi has been to create an environment that enables his players to become a community. His major tools here are trust and respect.
So whereas the standard procedure is for a coach to call a timeout whenever the bad guys extend to a six-point lead over their good guys, Phil's practice is to let the players play their way out of whatever difficulties they've gotten themselves into.
Jackson coaches what he preaches, so timing is also crucial. With the season barely under way, it's much too early for him to tighten the reins. Better to save any possible confrontations with Kobe for late-season or (heaven forbid) postseason emergencies.
Sometimes doing nothing accomplishes everything.
And Kobe is changing. After he recovered from the shock of his horrendous outing against the Spurs, Kobe was feeling somewhat guilty for taking 29 shots. It's a good sign ... whatever Kobe can figure out for himself, he'll never unlearn.
And what about his fracas with Tex Winter? Hell, if the Lakers were to win a game by 50 points, Tex would find something to criticize. (At the same time, it should be noted that Jackson's players are unusually open to his constructive criticisms. More, they're eager to try to understand and to please him.)
Also, the leftover passions of any ballgame, amped by the profound aggravation of losing a home opener, can shorten tempers -- and some unpleasant truths are liable to be blurted out.
Indeed, perhaps it was as much the truth that was presented in Part 1 of this series as anything else that helped set Kobe free. Free to play an almost perfect game (33 points, 15 rebounds, 12 assists) in leading the Lakers to their first victory of the season -- a 108-93 pasting of the crosstown Clippers.
"This is the style of basketball that I want to play all season long -- to get my teammates involved and play unselfish basketball," Bryant said.
After the game, the aggrieved losing coach, Alvin Gentry, his words edged with sarcasm, said to me: "Thanks a lot, Charley, for giving Kobe a wake-up call right before he played us."
And Kobe remained wide awake Sunday night, posting another monstrous triple-double (33 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists) as the Lakers beat the Blazers 98-95 in overtime to even their Shaqless record at 2-2.
So, will Kobe suffer a relapse and fall off the wagon again?
Will Phil have to roll 10 the hard way?
And what will happen when Shaq lumbers back into the volatile mix?
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."