If you are an NBA fan, you are familiar with Allen Iverson’s famous rant on practice. In response to a report that Iverson had missed a session (and his coach’s criticism that came with it), he vented to the press and delivered the now famous quotes. While that clip will never cease to make me smile, we must not forget that for all intents and purposes, Iverson was wrong in the big picture. His coach at the time, Larry Brown, came from the Dean Smith tree of coaching that emphasized “playing the right way” and establishing good habits in, yes, practice. Iverson, acknowledged those things, but still turned the moment into a half joke-half serious retort to the idea in principle, going so far as to rhetorically ask how he can make his teammates better by practicing.
I take this trip down memory lane not to beat up The Answer or to try and tarnish the rep of a guy who I used to love to watch compete. No, I bring it up because I was thinking about A.I.’s one time rival, Mr. Kobe Bean Bryant and one of the ways he can most help this year’s Lakers.
In a recent sit down with Dave McMenamin, Nick Young waxed on many topics, including growing up in Los Angeles, his “legend” status as a competitor in the famous Drew League, and returning to the Lakers to try and build on his strong individual campaign last year. He also talked about Kobe and offered these very nice words on his teammate:
“He’s been great, really. He’s been like my mentor, really, right now. He’s been calling, texting me, talking to me, motivating me. I think that’s big. Growing up, who would have thought Kobe would be the one doing all that? I didn’t ever think I’d be working out with Kobe or talking to him.”
Kobe “the mentor” is an idea that comes up periodically from both current and former teammates. Often times it’s framed in the exact manner that Young did, almost in a “who’d have thunk it?” way or as a means of contrasting what is the more general view of Kobe as a teammate. More often than not, we think of Kobe as a guy who will get in teammates faces and tell them the things they don’t want to hear, rather than the nurturing type who builds guys up. He has gone on record as someone who leads through confrontation, after all, so it’s not a surprise that conventional thinking exists.
No leader is any one way all the time, however, so this isn’t a matter of style or tactics or, even, effectiveness (which I’d argue Kobe very much is). It’s a matter of presence. Last year, Kobe was not around. While he was with the team during his comeback from his achilles injury, his presence faded after fracturing a bone in his knee that kept him out after his brief six game return. The longer his absence from the court went, the less and less Kobe was around the guys, either on the bench at the games or at the practices to serve as an example and voice of leadership.
In a way, his absence from the practice court reminded me of the 2011 season. That year, the Lakers were coming off back to back championships and three straight runs to the Finals. Kobe had suffered through knee issues most of the year before and had to have his knee drained on more than one occasion during the playoffs that saw the Lakers dispatch the Celtics in seven games to claim the championship. In 2011, then, Peter Vescey, at that time of the New York Post, broke the news that Kobe Bryant had not been practicing due to recurring issues with his knee. In typical Kobe fashion, he was defiant about his injury, but still acknowledged that his lack of practicing had an impact.
Following the disappointing end to that season, Kobe spoke about this during his exit interview, which Brian Kamenetzky (then with ESPN) captured and discussed:
That Kobe was unable to practice with any consistency is no secret. Asked about how it impacted the team, Bryant said he was disappointed in how the team reacted, believing the players didn’t quite have the same intensity as they otherwise might have, since “big brother” wasn’t on the floor to keep them in line. They could take “days off.” There’s probably some truth to that, but the larger issue is how hard it is for a team to gain continuity on both sides of the ball when the main cog is rarely on the floor to practice. Particularly offensively, where the Lakers struggled to create good looks deeper into games. It wasn’t something that could be avoided — Kobe wasn’t sitting on the sidelines to protect a pedicure, but a bum knee — but was a factor for sure.
This upcoming season, Kobe faces multiple individual challenges. He is coming off major injuries and is staring at his basketball mortality while battling father time. Embedded in the fabric of these challenges, however, is the fact that he must still lead his team. And, in order to do so, he must be a part of the group and, yes, be in practices as the driving force behind creating the culture that Byron Scott is so fond of discussing.
There are complications, however. Even if disregarding the recent injury history, there is the fact that Kobe is…old. He recently called himself “70 in basketball years” and, while it’s a hyperbolic line that inspired a few chuckles, it’s also rooted in truth. After over 50K minutes combined regular season and playoff minutes, Kobe will need the proper rest to play at a high level. This rest needs to be given not only in games, but in practices as well.
Further, Byron Scott is not known for his lax practices. In fact, it’s the opposite. In a recent sit down with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, the question about how Scott liked to practice was barely completed before “Hard” was coming out the head coach’s mouth. He followed that up with a comment about needing to find a balance, understanding his players, and how he’d handle back to backs, but the implication was clear. Scott will work his players hard in practice in the hopes of drilling them on how things need to be done in game situations. As a Pat Riley disciple, we should not expect less.
For Kobe, then, how this plays out will be something to watch this year. If the team is going to achieve at the levels they hope to internally, Kobe will need to be front and center and providing an example, not just in the games, but in the practices. History has proven as much.