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"At the end of the day, you still have a job to do," says Bryant. "All I ever wanted was to win. We went three years here when that wasn't going on and no moves whatsoever were being made. That's where my frustration came from.
"When our young players heard what was going on in the summertime [including the now infamous parking-lot video in which Bryant trashed young center Andrew Bynum], they took it as a personal challenge. They saw how hard I work, how much I want to win, and gradually the focus shifted. It got away from us maybe being a playoff team to, We gotta aim for a championship."
Over the last two seasons Jackson and Bryant had worked hard to repair their relationship, which had been damaged by criticism leveled at Bryant in Jackson's 2004 book The Last Season. Jackson gives Bryant, as he gave Jordan in Chicago, room to voice his opinions, particularly on offense, and Bryant has become a de facto assistant coach. "Lots of times, usually in a timeout, Kobe will say to me, 'We can run this.' And I let him run it," says Jackson. "Kobe has a real good vision of what he wants to do."
If Bryant regretted having popped off, he never showed it. His legendary ability to play through distractions was made clear during the 2003--04 season, when on several occasions he jumped on a morning flight to Colorado to appear at court proceedings involving his rape case (charges were eventually dropped) and arrived back at Staples Center right before tip-off. Then he would drop, oh, 40 points on a defender who appeared more tired than he did. "There is no player in the history of our game," says Fisher, "who can compartmentalize and separate on-court and off-court like Kobe. It was like all [the trade talk] never happened."
Indeed, with Bryant willingly sharing the ball but still taking over when he had to, the Lakers became one of the league's surprise teams. Bynum, Kobe's whipping boy, was a particular revelation, averaging 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.06 blocked shots to spark a 24--11 start before he went down with a dislocated left kneecap and bone bruise on Jan. 13. With sieve-handed Kwame Brown—who calls to mind Yeats's words, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"—replacing Bynum, L.A. seemed likely to tumble from the playoff race.
"But then," says Bryant, "came the coup de grâce."
Predictably, the deal made him even more uncomfortable and desirous of a background role.