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It should be noted that Jordan's �bercompetitiveness, which sometimes led him to humiliate his teammates, was generally seen as a positive, perhaps because he did it (mostly) behind closed doors, partly because he was, well, Michael. The same trait in Bryant is often seen as objectionable. "When he's being the nice Kobe, he's good with everybody," says San Antonio Spurs forward Robert Horry, a teammate of Bryant's in L.A. for seven seasons. "But when he's being the butthole Kobe, he's difficult. There were days when the second team would beat the first team, and he wouldn't speak to guys because he wanted to get back onto the court and beat them. He's just very passionate about his basketball."
As dominant as Jordan was, he had a way of refraining from lording it over his opponents. He disagreed, of course, with suggestions that there were actually defenders who could stop him (such as Detroit's Joe Dumars or Cleveland's Craig Ehlo), but he usually did it with grace and good humor.
Bryant does not. After he dropped 51 points on Raja Bell in a loss to the Suns last Friday, he was asked about the physical battle Bell had given him. Bryant shot the questioner a look that said Are you nuts? " Raja Bell?" he said, enunciating the name as if it were a contagious disease. "I don't even think about him. Man, I got bigger fish to fry than Raja Bell."
In The Last Season, Phil Jackson's tell-almost-all book about the 2003--04 season, the Lakers' coach labeled Bryant "uncoachable" and admitted that he tried to persuade general manager Mitch Kupchak to unload him before the February trading deadline. "[Kobe] could have been heir apparent to MJ and maybe won as many championships," Jackson wrote. "He may still win a championship or two, but the boyish hero image has been replaced by that of a callous gun for hire."
Two years later, having returned to the Los Angeles bench, Jackson is predictably conciliatory, insisting that Bryant would, for example, no longer defiantly remove himself from the offense, as he did during an infamous one-shot first half against the Kings late in the 2003--04 season. "Kobe now plays that role of involving guys in the offense without taking himself out," says Jackson. "It used to be an either-or situation, black or white.
"I wanted Kobe to move into the realm where he's not only the driving force by his play but also has a nurturing element," the Lakers' coach adds. "And that is what has come out this year. He's patient, accepting and friendlier to his teammates."
Some of the Lakers agree. "Before, Kobe wouldn't really say much and would just lead by playing hard, coming early and staying late," says forward Devean George, who among his current teammates has been with Bryant the longest (seven years). "Now he's more vocal. Some of the younger guys, it might bother them. They're still trying to find their way. Kobe being the superstar player and a big name, it holds weight when he yells. But he likes everybody on the team. I don't think he's doing it to put anyone down."
Bryant's most important relationship among his teammates is with talented 6'10" forward Lamar Odom. Bryant and Odom have the potential to be a 21st-century version of Jordan and Pippen. But Odom sometimes defers to Bryant too much; around the league it is generally thought that the Lakers' chances of flourishing in the postseason depend on how much Odom asserts himself.
One of the most intriguing subplots of the Lakers' season involves whether Bryant and Odom nearly came to blows after a 94--91 loss to the Wizards in Washington on Dec. 26. With five seconds remaining, Bryant turned the ball over but pinned the blame on Odom for a botched pick-and-roll. The principals say there was no subsequent altercation; other teammates confirm that harsh words were exchanged. Nevertheless, Odom, who has heard throughout his career how much better he would be if he had a warrior's mentality, sometimes seems in awe of Bryant's single-minded dedication to winning. "Kobe goes after it as hard as anybody in the league," says Odom. "He wants to win. That's what you have to understand about him."
Still, it's hard to determine where the party line stops and reality begins. His teammates know that they will face Bryant's wrath if they don't get him the ball in clutch situations ... and may face it anyway. After the Lakers lost close games at New Jersey (92--89 on March 17) and Cleveland (96--95 two days later), Bryant pointed fingers.