Kobe Bryant and the Matrix of Leadership

J.M. Poulard —  May 28, 2013

Kobe Bryant is one of the most talented players the league has ever seen and he has used his skills to repeatedly reach the mountaintop. Mind you, his basketball skills alone did not suffice in his ascension into the pantheon of greatness. He also had to morph into a leader.

The leadership component often goes unmentioned and even unnoticed. However, its absence typically gets a lot of publicity and becomes an important point of criticism.

Early on his career, Bryant could not be a leader on the Los Angeles Lakers. Within the span of a few months, he went from playing and practicing with high school players to sharing the court with professionals.

While still developing as a teenager, he now was in a working environment with grown men. Thus, Bryant had to evolve as a person before anyone on the Lakers would accept to follow him.

The path was a difficult one. In his early years, he was perceived as selfish. Some on the Lakers felt as though he looked to elevate his status while sabotaging team concepts.

This resulted in a well-documented rift with Shaquille O’Neal. During his stint with the Lakers, O’Neal was the team’s dominant personality and as well as its best player, which in turn made him the team’s leader.

Thus, whenever Bryant strayed form the pack, the onus fell on the big man’s shoulders to bring him back into the fold. Mind you, his methods were often questionable.

The process O’Neal borrowed created friction and animosity at times. Both players eventually figured out which buttons to push with each other on the way to championships, but the uneasiness often loomed in the background.

Bryant was growing and maturing both as a player and an adult. Consequently, at some point he stood up for himself. In retrospect, this was inevitable given that he had to affirm himself as a man.

However, many saw this as a form of rebellion, especially considering that it came on the heels of his infamous 2003 sexual assault case.

O’Neal was eventually traded away and Bryant became the team’s dominant personality as well as its top player. However, it’s debatable whether the Black Mamba was ready to lead.

For those that are familiar with the Transformers, Optimus Prime was the leader of the Autobots and earned the right to carry the Matrix of Leadership. It’s a powerful contraption that gets placed into his chest and gives him added strength as well as intimate knowledge on the functioning of his species.

Bryant was not ready to assume the Lakers’ version of it, but his time was coming.

Phil Jackson irked a few Laker fans with his book 11 Rings given that it contains a detailed breakdown between the games of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

There is a feeling that he wrote it to give a definitive answer on which player was in fact best. But in actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. In the book, Jackson illustrates the differences between the two simply for the sake of relating to readers how he approached coaching Jordan and Bryant.

Whereas he could tweak his Airness one way, Bryant needed a completely different approach. The book tells the tale of a coach understanding the personalities he was dealing with and how to get them to fit within the group despite their individual brilliance.

In that sense, Jackson provides a deep look into Bryant’s psyche and the sequence of events needed for him to embrace just what leadership was about.

It goes without saying; the Lakers’ back-to-back championship banners in 2008-09 and 2009-10 are proof that Bryant’s chest was in fact blessed with the Matrix of Leadership.

The journey was a long one but he eventually made it there. Jackson’s book captures the evolution of both the 1990’s Chicago Bulls and 2000’s Los Angeles Lakers.

In addition, it gives a detailed description of the hardships the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer had to face before regaining his championship mystique. Bryant’s experience and maturity helped forge not only one of the greatest competitors in league history, but also one of its greatest winners.

11 Rings is essentially the story explaining the challenges Phil Jackson faced in molding the identity of his title teams. Along the way, he noticed and noted the growth of his players as he rode in the passenger seat of the “success race car” he created.

Kobe Bryant was an integral part of that and rightfully gets his due in the book. It was a long and arduous process, but eventually when the Mamba spoke, his teammates listened and followed.

J.M. Poulard