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

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27 responses to Kobe Bryant and the Matrix of Leadership

  1. I appreciated that Phil, who often treats Laker history with little respect (Dr. Buss buying the team and drafting Magic was “lucky”) said his favorite championship was his last, because it was Lakers vs Celtics. He seemed to have learned all about that history with one horrible Finals loss.

    I think the Kobe / Pau Lakers have a special place for him, because of all the young guys he raised and trusted, because it was the least talented team he ever won with, and because it was the fruit of a long and often unsatisfying relationship between him and Kobe. They trusted each other, and that meant a lot to Phil I think. He loves journeys, and that was a long one.

  2. Tom Daniels,
    I agree with your post. I do wonder who that comment says more about – Phil or Kobe?

    Michael came to him much more fully formed and was the vehicle to his own fame. Phil wasn’t very famous for developing players — he much preferred taking a talented veteran and fine-tuning the skills until that player was a key contributor to a championship team. Kobe is perhaps the only star he was able to have a good deal of influence with through his formative years – and even Kobe had 3 years of development behind him before Phil set eyes on him.

  3. While I don’t mind the post since I am probably going to buy the book, but it sort of reads like a review of the book.

    Anyway, it is obvious that Kobe was no leader from the get-go. Even if he had the ability, he wasn’t a lottery pick on a last-place team where players of his caliber would be given the keys of the franchise right away and be able to showcase whatever leadership skills he may have.

  4. It’s no secret Kobe’s off the court drama makes people’s decision easier to criticize him and hold small things against him. All the young guys who’ve come to the Lakers (Sasha, Farmar, Caron, Odom, Ariza, Brown, Morris, CDR, etc) have all said they look at Kobe as a big brother and have a much different perspective off him once on his team. I’m not sure anyone gets along with a constant demanding person whether it be a boss, brother or teammate. Kobe has made them all better and his leadership can’t be overlooked in that process.

  5. Kevin makes a great point. For all the cheap shots Kobe has endured, as well as some of the rightful critiques that has come his way, the whole bit about him being an awful teammate was gradually eroded each time you heard comments about how helpful Kobe is/was from guys like Sasha or Turiaf, even Pau, who’ve credited Kobe with helping them to grow as players.

    Kobe’s willingness to share his summer shooting program with Ariza helped earnTrevor a free-agent bonanza in 2009. Kobe’s definitely grown as a man and a player over the years.

  6. Warren Wee Lim May 28, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    Kobe just lets the court performances do the talking. Nuff said.

  7. The problem is we want a winner who is ego-less — they simply don’t exist. It takes great ego to overcome all the obstacles life and competition put in your path.

  8. Well, there is this one young guy named Smush that didn’t get along too well with Kobe ;)

    Anyway, he won two as the alpha dog and the unquestioned leader of our team, although Lamar, Fisher and Pau helped.

  9. Kobimus Prime?

  10. Leadership is a special quality. One that has little to do with your actual physical basketball skills. On court leadership is a natural part of some players mental & emotional basketball persona. Can one just “become” a leader? Sure, but it doesn’t mean that player will be considered a “good” leader.

    In my book a very good leader not only knows the strengths of his teams and how to utilize them, but recognizes his teams weaknesses and how to not only minimize them, but get the most out of what he’s working with. You have to know how to push the right buttons.

    There’s a reason Capt America is the leader of the Avengers. The Hulk, Thor & Iron Man are all top shelf as a solo act, but imagine any of them leading the Avengers…

    It is what it is.

  11. Warren Wee Lim May 29, 2013 at 7:12 am

    Love it Fern :D

  12. Spurs to get long rest. Heat tweaking ankles and such. And nobody is openly helping me root against the Spurs. If the Spurs win, I will take my revenge with a long dissertation about the importance of NBA coaching. Hopefully I will never post it. And if I do, I will remind the board that you can deny me my revenge by simply not reading it : )

  13. I am listening to Phil Jackson on Colin Cowherd’s show and feel Phil is showing a bit of revisionist history. He commented that he learned early that Kobe was a very sensitive individual and he had to be careful to rebuke him privately and not around his teammates. Those of us who followed the Lakers closely during Phil’s early years realize that he was very careful of Shaq’s ‘eggshell ego’ and referenced things he wanted Shaq to do by criticizing Kobe and letting the criticism alert Shaq to changes he had to make. Well, if Phil knew Kobe was very sensitive, he certainly ignored his own knowledge and left Kobe out to dry on numerous occasions – like in his 2004 book.

    IMO, the closeness developed between Phil and Kobe after 2005 was the result of both men realizing they had to develop a bond to succeed. Now Phil is talking about his bond with Kobe in the early 2000s – BS.

  14. Rusty Shackleford May 29, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Did the NBA give a reason why the Spurs and Griz played games 1 & 2 before the Eastern Conference played a first game? “Basketball Reasons” I presume…….

    (edited for trade speculation)

  15. Kobe has made a point over the years to remind people of how he came into the league. He always wants people to remember that his trajectory did not resemble that of the modern NBA franchise player. He was not drafted by a bad team. The keys were not handed to him from day one like it was for other franchise players. Kobe came off the bench behind an All Star shooting guard in Eddie Jones. He had a veteran floor leader in Nick Van Exel already here. Lastly, he had the biggest in-his-prime franchise player in the league on his team. The fact the teenaged Kobe didn’t completely disappear under those circumstances is a testament to his fortitude and leadership. Actually, its downright remarkable.

    It also shows the immense social hurdles Kobe had to overcome. He was like the 12 year old high school senior. He was smart enough to be there, but his social skills hadn’t caught up yet. What we have witnessed over nearly two decades is Kobe’s growth into a more well rounded leader. I don’t think Kobe is anymore limited in his leadership capabilities than any other great player. He just gets the microscope put on him a whole lot more.

  16. Being the best player and being a leader are not the same thing. The most talented player is not always the one the rest of the team wants to rally around but their shear talent allows them to determine the outcome of a game… It is in a (playoff)series where athletic leadership becomes more visible… but even there to, pure athletic ability shines a light that is often assumed to be leadership.

    I believe if you look deeper you will find the leader is not the one in the spotlight, but who motivates (yes superstars sometimes need motivation) but also supports the elite player to reach and/or maintain their full capabilities while keeping the full roster engaged in the process.

  17. Well, I don’t think Indiana can beat the Spurs. And if the Heat beats Indiana, they’ll likely be coming into the finals with a very limited Wade.

    So a Spurs championship would be likely, which is not something I’d like. However if LeBron wins out, the narrative of LeBron will be about a thousand times more annoying (and gives Wade a third ring too).

    Thus, while very improbable, rooting for the Pacers to win it all. Also just learned that Roy Hibbert graduated from the same high school as I have… so all the more reason to root for the Pacers to win it all.

  18. Indiana is the lesser of 3 evils for me. Can’t stand any of the final 3, but am rooting for Indy. When I see San Antonio in the Finals, my heart aches because I still think that a healthy crew of Lakers would have given the Spurs a real run for the money.

  19. Simply put, the Black Mamba is A LIVING BASKETBALL LEGEND,
    & anyone who denies his growth as a ball player, a leader of an historic franchise, a philanthropist or a family man is quite frankly sticking his or her head deep in the mud.
    _____

    harold –
    you mentioned a couple of threads ago that your pick is the Pacers, and after last night´s W, I tip my hat to ya; Game 5 should be a doozy !
    Robert –
    I loathe the g******ed Spurs! (this of course is not to say Ducan, Pop, Parker & Ginobili don´t deserve respect) . so i´m with you on this one: Go Eastern Conf.!

  20. Miami is in an interesting place right now. As great as LeBron is their fortunes rest on Wades shoulders. Actually, they rest on Wade’s knees. If Wade can’t play like “Dwayne Wade” they will have a hard time beating the Spurs. And Wade’s leg/knee problems seem to be getting worse as he ages. I reiterated to the one Heat fan in my family over the weekend that the big 3’s battle is not against other teams, but against Wade’s health. When Wade is at the top of his game Miami is unstoppable. When he is struggling they become very vulnerable. The struggling Wade is showing up more frequently.

  21. TexasSportsFan May 29, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Kobe Bryant is not a great leader. He’s a great player. He has a great work ethic and a will to win second to none. However, that is not leadership except in the sense that he leads by example in those areas. Leaders are not selfish. That has not changed over the years. Leaders don’t alienate teammates, ignore coaches, or put themselves above the team. No one doubts that Kobe is one of the best players ever, but being the dominant player doesn’t make you a leader.

  22. Robert, I’m pulling for Indiana to win it all (It’s too late to root against the Spurs, it may be their year as they should have never made it out of the West). Those youngsters on the Pacers are ballers, Stevenson, Hill, Paul and Hibbert are playing like they’re ready for prime time.

    The Spurs traded George Hill for Leonard so there’s a little sidebar that should add intrigue to the finals if the Pacers get there.

    Lebron is a future hall of fame player; however, I have never liked the way they anointed him king prior to playing in an NBA game. Dwayne Wade busted Kobe’s nose and hit a player in the head running down the middle of the court in the ECF’s but they still treat him like he’s a saint.

  23. TexasSportsFan: When is the last time the Lakers had a superstar player who was great in on and off the court leadership. Magic? You can go down all the team in the league and find gap void of leadership from their franchise players. Rarely is the elite of the elite players voice consistently as strong as their play. Magic, KG and LeBron come to mind. When the lead by example guys do speak up, everyone listen because they usually lead by example. I think Kobe is in that category.

  24. Interesting read. One thing that I have started to wonder recently is how well Phil would fit into a FO position given his personality. Is he better suited for the Basketball Operations or the Business Operations side? Well, to me, Phil is not one to be shy about critiquing a player, organization or ref, so I wonder if that “style” of personality would be detrimental to the organization when it comes time to make trades or negotiate contracts with players. One thing I admire about The Logo and Mitch is their ability to make deals happen seemingly out of nowhere. I don’t know if Phil has the subtlety for that nor do I think his “mind games” would be beneficial at that level. I guess I see him more as belonging on the Jeannie side of the business rather than the basketball ops side (the one exception being asking him for input on future coaching changes if and when they come).

  25. Miami is in the spot it is because their frontline is a joke, whe the Laker were put togheter i envisioned Howard and Gasol dominating that Miami frontline, we all know how that turned out lol. Even if they get past Indy they have absolutely no answer for Tim or even Tiago, that Bosh has grab 13 rebounds in 4 games is beyond embarrasing and Wade looks washed up. Cant count on Lebron bailing them out everytime when you are getting killed on the boards. That being said we were witness of another clutch performance by Joey freaking Crawford he sure took over that game down the stretch. That 6th on Lebron was total bs especially at that point in the game but Crawford have to make the games about him down the stretch, they need to get rid of him ASAP.

  26. Chearn/Purple/Kenny T: Yes – 3 evils as Kenny said, but with the Spurs on top of the list as Purple said. I would like Indiana as well, but I feel that “if” they beat the Heat, you might as well engrave SA on the trophy, so I root for the Heat. Chearn – this is in spite of the fact that D Wade is the biggest PUNK in the league and I also tire of all LeBron all the time (however I look at that as inevitable).

    MannyP: You are correct to question Phil in the FO, and I for one do not specifically want that except as a part of a larger package. I love your idea about keeping Mitch for the players and using Phil for the coaches. So basically we pay Phil let’s say $1 million a year for that service. He walks in on Day 1 with Brian Shaw at his side, he points to MD and says your fired. Then looks at Shaw and says – call me if you need anything – I will be in Montana. I think we have reached common ground here Manny ! Congress should work this efficiently.

    Kobe: He was not the greatest leader in his early career, but Kobe has basically had 3 segments of his career, all of which have been successful, and his leadership skills have developed along the way. “Leading” is difficult is today’s NBA. Magic experienced this in his second stint and in his coaching attempt. And that was 20 years ago. Even more difficult now. The tough love shown by Bird, Magic, and MJ would not always work with today’s brand of NBA player.

  27. You crack me up, Robert.