Excerpt: Bryant's trial, attitude took toll on Jackson, Lakers
Posted: Tuesday October 12, 2004 11:46AM; Updated: Wednesday October 13, 2004 4:35PM
In the following excerpt from Phil Jackson's upcoming book, The Last Season (published this fall by Penguin Press), the former Lakers coach describes the difficulties in trying to manage an increasingly petulant Kobe Bryant while trying to keep the Lakers focused on the season at hand, and not themselves.
In the first six weeks after the Colorado story broke, I did not speak to Kobe [Bryant]. I called for a third and final time from Montana, but again the machine answered. He never returned my calls. Imagining the anxieties in his new life, I was not offended. Kobe will confide only with the people he trusts, and I certainly have never been a card-carrying member of that group. Mitch [Kupchak] and I wondered whether Kobe, as some people have suggested, might elect to sit out the entire season. We also talked about perhaps offering him a leave of absence. No professional athlete, I believe, has ever tried to perform at the top level of his sport for any extended length of time while fighting to keep his freedom. We didn't wonder for too long: we recently received word from Kobe's people that he intended to treat the upcoming season like any other. He must be in denial. This season, if nothing else, cannot possibly be like any other.
Finally, earlier this week, Kobe came into my office at our training facility in El Segundo. He looked weak and gaunt, down to maybe a little more than two hundred pounds, ten or fifteen less than his standard playing weight. Most NBA players participate in pick-up games during the off-season and work out daily to maintain the conditioning they'll need to compete in top form. Many use the time to develop another move or facet of their game, something, anything, to provide them with an edge over their opponents. Kobe has been playing basketball since he was three years old. He loves the game more than anything else. To realize that he hadn't been doing much physically was quite a shock.
"We really want you to survive this thing," I told him.
"Are you getting any help?" I asked. "Do you have anybody to talk to?"
"Kobe, you've got to have someone to talk to."
"We have a minister."
"That's a start."
We didn't rehash our old conflicts. We were here to talk about this year, this team, and the necessary adjustments to make this coming season successful. We didn't go over his case. We discussed how he was recuperating from the injuries to his knee and shoulder. The conversation was fairly harmless. Until out of nowhere it became anything but harmless.
"I'm not going to take any s--- from Shaq[uille O'Neal] this year," Kobe blurted out. "If he starts saying things in the press, I'll fire back. I'm not afraid to go up against him. I've had it."
I tried to calm him down as quickly as possible. "Kobe, we'll watch what's being said," I assured him. "We'll make allowances this year so you'll be able to do what you have to do and then come back to the team. Don't worry. We're hoping for the best."
I looked him right in the eye and gave him a hug. No matter what had gone on between us in the past, he is a member of the Laker family, and families stick together in difficult times. I was sure that at least for the moment, the anger he flashed toward Shaquille was neutralized. After we wrapped up, Kobe headed straight to see Mitch, who later informed me that nothing had been neutralized.
"Shaq didn't call me this summer," Kobe told Mitch.
"Kobe, I gave you a message from him," Mitch responded. "He invited you to Orlando to get away from everything."
"Shaq didn't have to leave a message through you," he said. "He knew how to reach me."
The exchange with Mitch revealed the underlying contradiction in Kobe's attitude toward Shaquille, a symbol, in fact, of a much broader dichotomy in his psyche. On the one hand, he insists that he doesn't "give a shit what the big guy does," but on the other, he shows he cares a great deal about what the big guy does. The meeting with Kobe reinforced an idea I had been contemplating since July, since Colorado, since everything changed. I decided to enlist a therapist to help me cope with what will surely be the most turbulent season of my coaching career. After receiving a few recommendations, I selected a therapist who has dealt with narcissistic behavior in the Los Angeles public school system. He'll be right at home here.
I wonder what Kobe is thinking. Yesterday he reiterated his intention to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. I would never oppose a player's desire to explore his true market value -- if only the players in my era had been granted a similar freedom -- but I do question his sense of timing. Since the charges were made, Kobe has been treated remarkably well by the Lakers organization and the fans. He gave his press conference at Staples with our blessing, and we have agreed -- once we attained permission from the league to make sure the funds wouldn't be applied to the salary cap -- to cover a percentage of his private plane expenses to and from Colorado for court hearings. This will cost thousands of dollars. Kobe was unhappy with the type of plane that was selected; he wanted one with higher status.
After going 3-5 during the exhibition season we started serious preparations a few days ago for, at long last, tonight's opener at Staples against the Dallas Mavericks. While we put together probably only one decent half in eight games, this is a veteran group that will know how to perform when everything matters. This being the Lakers, the longest-running soap opera in professional sports, there has been plenty of intrigue off the court over the last seventy-two hours. The stars of the newest episode? Why, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, of course. Their most recent feud had taken place in early 2001. After a two-year hiatus, the duo have reunited -- wrong word, I suppose -- for a sequel. I heard the news while checking out video of the Mavericks, trying to devise a game plan to disrupt their highly explosive attack. There was a knock at the door. Kobe walked in, anxious to talk about another highly explosive attack.
"He popped off," Kobe said. I did not have to ask who "he" was.
"You're kidding me," I said. "What did he say?"
"Did you read the paper? It's in the paper," he said.
It was in the paper, all right, Shaq suggesting that for the Lakers to be successful this season, Kobe, who played in only two exhibition contests, needed to rely more on his teammates until he regained his full strength.
"Is this what you're talking about?" I asked Kobe.
"Yeah," he said.
"Kobe, what's wrong with this?" I said. "Shaq is right. This is exactly what we want you to do." ....
But the anger did not disappear. After practice, Kobe fired back at Shaquille, through the press, exactly as he promised he would in August. "I definitely don't need advice on how to play my game," he said. "I know how to play my guard spot. He can worry about the low post." The war was on.
"He doesn't need advice on how to play his position," Shaquille said, "but he needs advice on how to play team ball. If it's going to be my team, I'll voice my opinion. If he don't like it, he can opt out."
On and on it went, the two protagonists in top form. Why don't the two get along? I have my theories, one of which is that Shaquille is making the type of money -- about $25 million a year -- that Kobe will never earn due to the changes in the league's collective bargaining agreement. No matter how many MVP trophies Kobe might collect in the decade ahead, there is nothing he can do about this discrepancy. In fact, the word I got was that Kobe was the only player in the entire league who voted against the agreement because of the cap it put on salaries.
The newspapers, needless to say, have treated the Kobe-Shaq feud as if it were the second coming of Cain versus Abel. IT'S THE RETURN OF STAR WARS was the headline in the [Los Angeles] Times. The story was destined to last for days and days, every basketball reporter in the city, maybe the nation, on a scavenger hunt for the next insult or innuendo to filter through the grapevine. There was only so much the Lakers could do to try to tame the beast, and whatever we were going to do, we had to act fast. I placed a call to the therapist. "Get them apart," he recommended. "Tell them that what they're saying about each other is not doing anybody any good." He mentioned a psychological term for this damage-control strategy: suppression. I took Shaq aside, and Mitch found Kobe.
"We can't have this," I told Shaq. "This isn't right. We're on a mission, and we want nothing more in the press." Shaq was not in the mood to suppress anything. "Phil, I have a stepbrother," he explained, "and when I was young, I was the outcast. Everything I did was wrong and everything he did was okay even though he did stuff that I could never get away with. If I tried to do it, they would have beaten the heck out of me. It's the same situation with Kobe. He ends up getting an operation from some doctor, who knows where, and I end up getting an operation and I'm the one criticized for it. I end up looking like crap in this thing, and he can do whatever he wants. I'd like to pound the chump." I empathized with Shaq but I told him the team needed to put the feud behind it as soon as possible. He agreed to keep quiet. This was another example of the basic difference between him and Kobe. Ask Shaq to do something and he'll say: "No, I don't want to do that." But after a little pouting, he will do it. Ask Kobe, and he'll say, "okay," and then he will do whatever he wants. Against our instructions, Kobe did an interview with ESPN, vowing that if he were to leave the Lakers at the end of the season, it would be due to Shaq's "childlike selfishness and jealousy." So much for suppression.
On the subject of losing Kobe, I wonder once again whether our relationship has deteriorated beyond repair. Earlier this week at El Segundo there was an incident at practice. On the way to the court, I asked Kobe, still nursing a sore shoulder, if he was up to doing a little running. Sure, he responded, as soon as he finished his treatment. Almost an hour went by, and there was no Kobe sighting. Finally, with an ice pack on his shoulder, he took a seat on the sideline. It began to dawn on me that contrary to what he had told me, Kobe had no intention of running. After practice I followed Kobe to the training room, asking him why he lied to me. He was being sarcastic, he said. Wrong answer. I wasn't in the mood. Believe me, I can't begin to imagine how difficult this whole ordeal has been for Kobe, but that doesn't mean I will allow myself to be the recipient of his displaced anger, especially when I've been firmly on his side since the Colorado story broke.
Now I was the one who was angry. I went upstairs to see Mitch in his office. Wasting no time, I went off on a tirade about the need to deal Kobe before the trading deadline in mid-February. "I won't coach this team next year if he is still here," I said emphatically. "He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid."
This afternoon I did something I almost never do. When Shaquille and Rick [Fox] stepped off the bus at our hotel in Coconut Grove, an upscale Miami suburb, I asked them to enter my suite for a brief chat. From the puzzled expressions on their faces, I could tell they were extremely curious, perhaps alarmed. I believe the time on the road between practice and the tip-off is almost sacred; the players should be allowed to prepare in their own ways for the challenge awaiting them. But this time I was facing my own challenge, and it had nothing to do with the Miami Heat. Recognizing that my relationship with Kobe was becoming more acrimonious by the day, I decided that a conversation with Shaq and Fox could not wait any longer. At practice the day before Kobe, who told [trainer Gary] Vitti that his finger hadn't healed sufficiently for him to play in the Miami game, was taking a few shots left-handed when I asked him not to be a distraction. I needed to work with the players who would be suiting up. "Distraction," he said, mockingly, unable to resist taking one more shot. A few hours later, during dinner in Key Biscayne with the staff, Vitti told us that Kobe has been threatening again to opt out of his contract, vowing "to take Slava [Medvedenko] with me." Slava? Was this an indication of Kobe's being totally out of touch with reality? If Kobe was interested in taking along a player who would defer to him, Slava Medvedenko was the worst choice imaginable. He hasn't passed up a shot since November.
Shaq and Rick took a seat in my room. Inviting Rick, I felt, would keep the discussion at a high level. I got right to the point. "What would you guys think if I were to offer Kobe a leave of absence?" They wasted no time, either. Kobe, they promised, would contribute to the team in a positive manner once he recovered from his finger injury. I was gratified to note the genuine sense of compassion, especially coming from Kobe's supposed enemy, Shaquille. The press, I have long believed, with its sensationalistic, insult-to-insult coverage, has captured only one component in a rather complicated relationship between two proud, if emotionally fragile, superstars. Shaq and Kobe will never be buddies, but they remain linked together by a common goal, perhaps destiny, each aware that they can't win championships here without the other. With Rick and Shaquille opposed, along with Mitch, I filed the leave of absence idea away for good. "What happens if he won't accept it?" Mitch asked. In that case, I replied, I would tell Kobe that we would suspend him with pay regardless, but for PR purposes call it a "leave of absence." The choice would belong to him. I knew precisely what I would say: "Kobe, you're not a positive element with the team anymore. You can't have these kind of anger situations in front of your teammates because it's destructive to the balance that has to be maintained."
A conversation with Kobe often reveals one of his many narcissistic tendencies. After I told him I believed he and Shaquille have proven they can play effectively together, he brought up Sunday's All-Star game, captured by the Western Conference squad 136--132. Shaq led the way with twenty-four points and eleven rebounds. "I got Shaq the most valuable player award last night," Kobe said. "I know how to make Shaq the best player on the floor." No doubt he was right. Nobody, when he is committed, can deliver the ball to Shaq more consistently, in a better spot, than Kobe. Yet if I were to acknowledge this point, I would betray Shaquille and arm Kobe with ammunition he might later exploit for their one-on-one battle that although camouflaged, always simmers under the surface. Kobe then expressed his disapproval of Shaquille's failure to show up for practice today. "That just shows you what kind of a leader he is," he said. "The conversation is about you and me, not Shaq," I said. He was angry about the allowances the Lakers afford Shaq, failing to note the hypocrisy in his accusation. Nobody this year, or in any year I've coached, has received more "allowances" than Kobe Bryant. At times the pettiness between the two of them can be unbelievably juvenile. Shaquille won't allow himself to be taped before a game by Gary Vitti because he's too aligned with Kobe. Kobe won't let Chip Schaefer, Shaq's guy, tape him. Reporters aren't immune from these territorial disputes. If a writer lingers too often around one superstar's locker, he is likely to be shut out by the other.
With the playoffs less than a week away, we need to be coming together. Instead, we're coming apart. At the center of the latest turmoil is -- who else? --Kobe. This time, in a strange twist, he's being crucified for taking too few shots: only one, unbelievably enough, in the first half of Sunday's game in Sacramento, which we lost by seventeen points, ruining, in all likelihood, any chance to win our division. He finished with eight points, his lowest total ever in a game in which he played at least forty minutes. The theory being tossed around is that Kobe, stung by criticism for his shot selection in recent games, decided to show the Lakers how stagnant the offense can become when he doesn't assert himself. "I don't know how we can forgive him," one anonymous teammate was quoted as saying in today's Times.
Today at practice, Kobe went from player to player, shoving the article with the anonymous quote in their faces. I have rarely seen him that incensed. "Did you say this?" he demanded of each player. Later, during a team gathering, he pursued the interrogation. "Right here and right now," he said, raising his voice, "I want to know who said this shit."
Nobody said a word, until Karl finally broke the silence. "Obviously, Kobe, no one said it or no one wants to admit they said it," Karl said. "You've just got to let it go now." Karl and Kobe, who have become buddies, launched into a shouting match that I had to stop.
"We have to get over these types of things," I told the guys. "You can't be playing as a team if you're going to be harboring sentiments that aren't good toward each other." Desperate measures, I'm beginning to think, might be in order. Maybe we'll return to meditation, something, anything, to improve our karma.
"Are you feeling like you're going to come back next year?" Jeanie [Buss] asked me.
"Well, not if Kobe Bryant is on this team next year," I told her. "He's too complex a person. I don't need this."
This was one day I will certainly never forget. In the morning I met with Kobe. In the afternoon I saw [Lakers owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss. By the evening I no longer had a job. I was not surprised in the least, yet the end of any journey is always jarring. Once again I will need time to reflect. Kobe arrived in El Segundo with his agent, Rob Pelinka. Before the formal exit interview with Mitch, who was still meeting with [Derek Fish[er], I invited them into my office. I couldn't help but think of my meeting with Kobe back in February on the day after the All-Star game, when I was trying to salvage a relationship and a season. There was great tension, yet in a sense Jeanie right. Kobe and I did work well together -- for four months, that is. This time the same tension between us wasn't there. We both knew I would never coach him again.
While waiting for Mitch, we discussed Kobe's upcoming court appearance in Eagle County.
"Is the trial going to interfere with your free agency?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "The date hasn't been set yet."
"If it's set in July, will you be able to work around this?"
"Yeah, I'd have meetings on the weekends."
"How long will the trial last?"
"Anywhere from one to three weeks."
"Is there still a chance that there won't be a trial?"
"Yeah, there's a chance but either way, it doesn't matter. The outcome will be the same."
Just then Mitch came in. The chat was over. It was time for the official meeting. Mitch, Kobe, and I moved to the conference room.
I started by casually asking Kobe who called him on his cell moments before we left the locker room for Game 5. It was Brian Shaw, he said, a former teammate and part of our organization. "He told me to get after Gary [Payton], to make sure he was fired up." The advice, it turned out, was sound, but answering the call wasn't appropriate.
I then told Kobe how pleased I was with his ability to put aside our conflicts after the meeting in February, and make a strong commitment to the rest of the season. Mitch didn't waste the opportunity to praise Kobe's remarkable performances. The next subject was his decision to become a free agent, which killed a minute or two. I then got down to the questions I really wanted to ask.
"Will my presence or absence have anything to do with your desire to play for the Lakers?" I asked.
He looked puzzled. I rephrased the question. "Would my being with the Lakers or retiring have any influence on your desire to remain with the Lakers?"
He said I should make up my mind about my future independently of his decision.
"I'm going to retire," I said.
He raised his eyebrows. For the first time in the entire conversation, I thought I detected a little emotion.
"Really?" he asked.
I nodded. The next subject was Shaquille. "Will Shaq's presence on this team color your decision to come back or not?" I asked him.
"Yes, it does," he said.
"There's no doubt about that," he said. "I've done that for eight years with him, but I'm tired of being a sidekick." His sentiment came as no surprise, obviously. In the last few years the entire city of Los Angeles has heard many times from many "sources" that Kobe was no longer willing to play a subservient role to Shaquille. But to hear it in the words of the only source that matters, to hear Kobe say "sidekick," really struck me. I told Kobe I hoped he would find happiness in basketball and in his life, and that his family would remain intact after everything that had transpired in the last year. The meeting was over.
I understand why the Lakers treat Kobe as their most valuable asset. The kid will be twenty-six in August. His ability to take over a game, to make an impossible play, is unmatched. Yet it needs to be remembered that Kobe is still an employee, and that he needs direction and guidance in a way that helps him mature into the kind of adult we hope he can be. Kobe is missing out by not finding a way to become part of a system that involves giving to something larger than himself. He could have been the heir apparent to [Michael Jordan] and maybe won as many championships. He may still win a championship or two, but the boyish hero image has been replaced by that of a callous gun for hire.