He's All Grown Up
After going it alone on the court and off, Kobe Bryant relishes being a teammate
One year after their team was almost torn apart by dissension, the Lakers are cruising toward a third straight championship, and nobody is complaining about Kobe Bryant. "He's doing what everyone asks him to do," says Shaquille O'Neal.
When O'Neal missed five games over the holidays with an arthritic right big toe, Bryant's scoring went down (from 26.3 points per game to 24.2) and his playmaking improved (from 5.7 assists per game to 6.8). That wasn't the case a year ago when Bryant was pilloried by the press, his teammates and coach Phil Jackson for trying to outscore opponents all by himself, particularly in Shaq's absence. His ability to give the Lakers what they need when O'Neal is out will again be tested over an upcoming three games, while Shaq serves a suspension for taking a swing at Bulls center Brad Miller last Saturday.
Only 23, Bryant is playing better than ever—at week's end he had career-high averages in shooting (48.0%) and assists (5.8 per game). He still bristles at accusations that he played selfishly last season, saying he wanted to help the team but was too young to know how. "I've gotten better at it," he says. "I know I'm not a selfish person, that I'm not what these people were saying. I definitely wanted to kick somebody's ass, but that's not going to resolve anything."
As an 18-year-old straight out of high school in 1996, Bryant joined a team favored to win the tide. While he is grateful to the Lakers for having given him a crash course in championship basketball, nobody on the team could help him learn the ropes. "How could they?" Bryant says. "I was the only guard ever to come out [of high school]. They couldn't understand because they had never been through it."
As the unschooled outsider Bryant was easy to blame when Los Angeles lost three of seven playoff series over his first three years. He grew hesitant to seek advice or help in the locker room. "There was a lot of criticism [of] me," Bryant says. "I didn't know if I could trust so-and-so or talk to this person."
He enjoyed his second championship more than the first because he no longer felt alone. Bryant began to grow closer to his teammates last April, after he missed 11 games with a viral infection and injuries to both ankles. Still ailing when he returned, he realized he could no longer take on two or three defenders by himself. For the first time in his career he reached out to his fellow Lakers. In the end, forward Rick Fox says, Bryant was willing "to open up to a group of guys who were going to be there when he wasn't at his best and who could make his game easier."
Nobody fed the perception of Bryant's selfishness more than Jackson, who last March said Bryant had purposely squandered leads at Lower Merion (Pa.) High to set himself up as the hero in decisive moments. Bryant and his high school coach angrily denied the claim, and one of Bryant's advisers floated the possibility of suing Jackson for slander.
The two talked it over and have put their differences aside. Things are so good, Jackson says, that he hasn't had to counsel Bryant about his play, as he has in years past. Bryant expresses gratitude for Jackson's input. He describes looking over to the bench and calling plays as Jackson is about to relay them, then taking pride in the sight of his coach slumped over in jest. "It's a good sign," Bryant says, "because that means we're on the same page and he can trust me to make crucial decisions."
While Bryant used to predict that he would win more titles than Michael Jordan, he now talks about living in the moment and focusing on the next game. Even if Bryant doesn't want to look ahead, others can—and do. "It's hard to believe, but I think Kobe-can continue to improve until his early 30s," says Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak. Guard Brian Shaw notes that no other player has learned so much at such an early age. "This is uncharted territory," Shaw says. "Kobe has the ability to pace himself and take over the game at the right time."