word that describes you," a reporter told him last week.
"I'll have to
look that up," said Kupchak.
While Bryant had
long let it be known that he was happier when West was in charge, Kupchak never
returned fire, and so there was no scorched earth to irrigate when his star
finally got happy. "I understand where Kobe is coming from and always
have," says Kupchak. "He tasted winning early in his career, then began
to think he wouldn't taste it again. He didn't want to get to that stage when
the window was starting to shut and he was in another rebuilding
Kupchak points to
the big board in his El Segundo office listing the personnel of every NBA team,
a G.M.'s standard wall accoutrement. "Kobe's not the first player to voice
frustration with his team," he says. He stops there, but he could have
thrown out names such as Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Paul
Pierce. Though none did it as loudly as Bryant.
Gasol and Bryant "hit the ground running," in Bryant's words, partly
because both have high basketball IQs, partly because the center position,
which the 7-foot Gasol will occupy until Bynum returns (possibly in early
April), is the easiest one to learn in Jackson's triangle offense. Bryant feels
that he now has his ideal supporting cast: two established vets who don't want
the responsibility of leading (Gasol and forward Lamar Odom); a bunch of young
"gym rats," as he calls forwards Luke Walton and Ronny Turiaf and
guards Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic; and an old pro in Fisher, whose steady
professionalism leavens Bryant's grinding, get-after-it-every-minute M.O.
"I don't have to be as in-your-face as I used to," says Bryant. "I
had to do it in the past because guys weren't working as hard as I was. Now
everybody's on the same page."
"Leadership is something I've always talked about with Kobe," says
Jackson, "sometimes in conversations, sometimes through books I've given
him. [One was John Heider's The Tao of Leadership.] Kobe's not big on subtlety,
but his style of leadership has matured, gotten less confrontational. Of his
[league-leading 12] technicals this season, half have come from fighting for
his teammates, not from calls that even involved him."
Asked what his MVP ballot would look like, Bryant says, "I'm not even
thinking about that." But when somebody mentions that the Cleveland
Cavaliers' James is a favorite because he's a near one-man team, Bryant, who
was averaging 28.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists through Sunday, snaps,
"Put me in the East and see what happens."
Bryant has taken
steps to repair his image, mostly by communicating "with [his] fans around
the world" on his website (KB24.com). He gets gentle grief from teammates
for the Nike "Pure Genius" spots that appear on there, featuring Bryant
dressed as different historical characters—George Washington Carver, Leonardo
da Vinci, Albert Einstein and his favorite, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why the
"He was the
most talented among them, right?" says Bryant. (That could be debated, of
course.) Then Bryant adds this: "And I've known more than my share of
He does not
elaborate. Chances are, though, that he sees Mozart in himself, the
controversial wunderkind (Bryant had just turned 18 when his NBA career began
in '96) trying to play through the jealousy and rage of those less talented,
which is pretty much everyone.