Reasonable Doubt: Kobe Bryant

Darius Soriano —  August 30, 2011

J.M. Poulard is a friend of the site and contributor to fellow TrueHoop Network site,Warrior’s World. Over the summer he’s been doing excellent work at FB&G and continues those efforts today . You can reach him by email here and find him on Twitter @ShyneIV.

Shawn Carter has been known to step inside the booth and bang out classic hits despite never writing down his rhymes. Jay-Z’s gift though is his ability to turn words into short movies that slowly but surely develop themselves in the fabric of our minds as we listen to his songs. Whether talking about his father in Moment of Clarity or putting his emotions out there in Song Cry; there are few entertainers that can match the Jigga Man.

Much like Jay-Z, Kobe Bryant has excelled at his craft for over a decade and continues to be one of the best in his field. He routinely does things on the basketball court that we are not sure we have ever seen before. His mastery of footwork, pump fakes, angles as well as his unmatched scoring creativity make him one of the best players today and easily an NBA legend. And yet, throughout the course of his career, he has been met with criticism, doubt and blame.

For years, basketball fans have showed a great deal of antipathy towards Bryant, for reasons that were once unclear. However, after reading Roland Lazenby’s Mad Game, one can obtain a greater understanding of his trials and tribulations; and how people on the outside looking in viewed them and consequently, viewed him.

The Lakers star joined the NBA at an age where most people are getting ready for their freshmen classes in college. Given his youth, Kobe kept to himself and rarely if ever communicated with teammates. The idea was that he wanted to accomplish his goals and did not trust people from outside of his inner circle; because they could potentially steer him away from his objectives (he wanted to be the greatest player ever).

Despite his isolation and failure to communicate with his teammates, Kobe was still a truly gifted NBA player at an early age. He found ways to consistently create shots in practice and convert them at a decent rate.

His rookie season saw him get sporadic playing time because he played behind seasoned and talented players such as Eddie Jones, Rick Fox and Nick Van Exel (Kobe played some back up point guard early in his career). On the rare occasions that Bryant got into games, he hit the court exclusively looking to score. The young star in the making had always been a scorer; however Kobe did it in ways that often disrupted the offense.

Then Lakers coach Del Harris failed to implement a solid system on offense and had very lax practices. The end result was that far too often the ball would go into Shaquille O’Neal while the other players just stood there watching him, failing to move without the ball. Furthermore, the lack of attention to detail in practice meant that the Lakers defeated teams with their talent as opposed to their execution.

Tex Winter offered this point to Lazenby prior to joining the Lakers coaching staff:

“I don’t think he’s selfish at all. The impression I get with him is his indecision, because they don’t seem to have a system, other than space the floor and move the ball inside to Shaq. I asked him if they had an identifiable system of play and he said he didn’t think so.”

This explains why Los Angeles often fell at the hands of experienced teams in the playoffs such as the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs.

Harris’ inability to properly coach the Lakers meant that Kobe could not commit to him. Thus, when Harris called for adjustments from his young guard, he rarely acquiesced. Further exacerbating the issue his following season, when the Lakers met with the Bulls and Kobe had a chance to play against Michael Jordan; MJ took the youngster aside and offered him this piece of advice: “You gotta stay aggressive”. Kobe took those words to heart; he took them to mean that his Airness understood what he was going through and wanted him to remain confident in his abilities.

If things had been difficult for Kobe Bryant then, they were going to become increasingly hard for him after the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. The rising star had been voted as a starter and went on to dazzle those in attendance. His confidence had reached a new level and it was obvious by his body language.

Several had interpreted Kobe’s silence with his teammates as a sign of arrogance. They thought that this kid figured he was so much better than all of them that talking with them was beneath him. Or so they thought. But then this new Kobe came out and started trash talking with players and teammates who had routinely done the same to him.

This was par for the course in the NBA, but the Lakers players and coaching staff felt as though they needed to rein him in. His minutes were squeezed a bit and all of a sudden Bryant started to realize that he was not getting the ball as much out in transition. He thought they were out to humble him.

These issues altogether led to the purple and gold becoming a less cohesive team. Consequently they had to hold a few team meetings to air out their grievances but the truth is that the players always danced around the topic. Kobe was playing a brand of basketball conducive to making himself look good but was hurting the team in the process; however no one ever said it. The meetings were always about avoiding the temptation of playing selfishly and trying to help out each other, but it was never explicitly stated that Kobe was the problem.

Things took a turn for the worse with Shaquille O’Neal. By virtue of his presence, talent and enormous contract, he was the leader of the team. He attempted early in Kobe’s career to integrate him to the team but when that failed, he began telling management, players as well as the coaching staff that the biggest problem the team had was Bryant’s play. He would criticize him in the media and even asked for the team to trade him for Penny Hardaway.

But for all of his jabs and insults, Shaq never sought to understand the youngster or tried to guide him. In his opinion, his role was that of a leader, not a baby sitter. And the way he lead his ship was to turn everyone against Bryant. Things were bad to the point that during the 1999 lockout, O’Neal slapped Kobe Bryant during a two-on-two basketball session.

By the time Phil Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in 1999, the team was clearly talented enough to win an NBA title but it lacked discipline, continuity and chemistry. Jackson’s biggest role as a head coach would be to repair the relationship between O’Neal and Bryant.

But a funny thing happened when Phil Jackson and Tex Winter joined the Lakers: they realized that most players on the team (especially O’Neal) harbored ill feelings towards the play of Bryant. They could not appreciate Kobe for the talent he was; instead they kept seeing the young player that made countless mistakes in the past and that had a penchant for becoming trigger-happy. When the Lakers won, things went smoothly, but if they lost, it was Kobe’s fault. If Bryant took an ill-advised shot or committed a turnover, the whole team would get deflated given their history with him.

Derek Fisher had this to offer on the issue:

“The coaches voiced to us that they weren’t seeing the same things we were seeing when they watched film and when they watched what was going on. They didn’t see the same selfishness or one-on-one play that we saw. What I tried to tell the other guys is that this is our fourth year now. Me, Shaq, Robert [Horry], Rick [Fox], Travis [Knight], so we still had issues that we had dealt with before. It was kind of similar to a relationship between a man and a woman where you get upset with all of these things from the past that come up. That’s really where a lot of this stuff stemmed from. The coaches saw that a lot of this stuff would come in due time. But we were so impatient because we had dealt with it before.”

Thus, Jackson obtained video clips of Bryant’s play and showed them to the team in order for them to finally understand that their star guard was doing exactly what he was being asked to do. He made mistakes on the court occasionally, but he was still one of the best players in the league and he played like it.

Mind you, in order for the team to have any sense of normalcy and harmony, it was important for Jackson to create and cultivate a strong bond with the star center. At times, that meant that Kobe was left feeling like an outsider.

What made their dynamic so intriguing was the fact that O’Neal was clearly at the time the best player in the league, but he rarely worked at it. He would often use the season to get himself into shape, his poor conditioning led to injuries and did nothing to improve his game.

Kobe on the other hand practiced hard, was always looking to improve, played hurt and made sure he was one of the best-conditioned athletes in the league. And yet, Jackson always sided with O’Neal (which was obviously good strategy given his stature and how his mood affected the team’s).

And that’s what makes the relationship between fans and Kobe Bryant so fascinating. Here we have a hard working player that has rarely thrown a teammate under the bus, but he is still received amongst many as the basketball anti-Christ. One could even say that throughout his career he has always been the victim whenever conflicts arose and yet he managed to stay above it all. Perhaps, it’s time for the court of public opinion to let him walk, because whatever it was he was accused of, there seems to be at least some…

Reasonable doubt.

-J.M. Poulard

Darius Soriano

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