EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - Kobe Bryant nervous before a game? Impossible. Crazy talk. Basketball heresy.
The consummately cocksure Bryant never doubts he can perform, and tells you just that. He seems to dominate by merely stepping on the court, never mind scoring. He rejects comparisons to Michael Jordan, confident of his own legacy. He dismisses the league's top defenders and vocal critics with MVP play. So stomach-turning, pregame jitters simply don't fit the Bryant profile.
But Bryant admits to once feeling jittery in a visiting locker room. Just once. A decade ago at Madison Square Garden awaiting the start of the 1998 All-Star Game, Bryant was eager to justify the hype surrounding a matchup with Jordan. He remembers being a 19-year-old kid "just scared [expletive]," not fitting in with his Western Conference teammates.
"Nobody was really talking to me," said Bryant. "They all felt I didn't deserve to be there anyway."
There was, however, one notable exception. Kevin Garnett put his arm around Bryant and reassured the teenager. "Just stay with me young fella," said Garnett. "Just run with me. I'll get you going." True to his word, Garnett lobbed a pass to Bryant midway through the first quarter. Bryant caught the ball and completed the alley-oop. With that phenomenally athletic play, Bryant said it "just felt like all the butterflies left me."
The Bryant-Jordan duel lived up to its billing. The '98 All-Star Game went down as one of many coming-of-age showcases in Bryant's rapid rise to superstardom. Since then, Bryant has fashioned a Hall of Fame career filled with countless memorable performances, three NBA championships, and two scoring titles.
While Bryant never again felt nervous before playing on the biggest of stages, he has never looked more comfortable on the court or more comfortable with his teammates than this season. The Lakers are his team. Young teammates reflect his personality, his drive, his competitiveness, and his work ethic. As a result, the 2008 Finals may give Bryant the ultimate defining moments of his 11-year career. If the Lakers win the championship, it will cap a remarkable turnaround for the franchise and its star.
"I knew I was going to perform this season," said Bryant. "It was just a matter of how do I get my teammates to perform with me? How do I make them better from work ethic to competitive fire to how you think the game? How can I get them to turn that corner with me? It was a process. It was something that happened over the course of the season. It's a lot of patience, a lot of mentoring, a lot of bonding. And I changed a little bit. I opened up a lot more."
Despite his own confidence and the confidence instilled in teammates during long practices and even longer dinners together, the Lakers' transformation and playoff success still surprises Bryant. Sitting next to Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers on a bus ride in New Orleans during this year's All-Star break, the possibility of a Celtics-Lakers final never came up in conversation. There wasn't even a notion it could happen.
"There's no way I could have foreseen us being here," said Bryant. "For us, it was just putting one foot in front of the other. It's going to be exciting to see how we respond to matching up with a team that's extremely tough defensively. It's not necessarily about holding the trophy at the end, but it's the pressure, it's the moments, it's the practices spent figuring it out. It's a puzzle. The fun about the puzzle is not when you finish it. It's doing it. It's the process."
That statement alone shows how much Bryant has changed since this time last year.
Storm before the calmBryant's well-documented trade request came May 30, 2007 and the one-year anniversary was widely observed in the NBA community. One day earlier, Bryant led the Lakers to the Western Conference title, defeating the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. The timing was too ironic to ignore.
When Bryant made the request on ESPN Radio, he didn't see championships in the near future for the Lakers. He was frustrated with team management. He was dissatisfied with his teammates.
The days, weeks, and months that followed featured backtracking by Bryant, a trade rumor mill in overdrive, and efforts at reconciliation between the Lakers and their franchise player. As preseason started, the trade request threatened to become a lingering distraction, especially when a deal with the Chicago Bulls appeared imminent. Fans at Staples Center booed Bryant on opening night.
"I didn't know what direction the organization wanted to go," said Bryant. "It seemed like they were playing for five, six years down the road and I didn't feel like I had five, six years in me to be able to start contending again then."
When asked if he had any regrets about how he handled the situation, Bryant added: "It was just so public. Because LA is such a major market things really got out of control. At the same time, I felt like I needed to put a little bit of pressure on them because I didn't see anything getting done. I'd definitely change some things about they way I went about doing it for sure. But things seemed to work out pretty well."
There was something of a been-there, done-that quality to the drama. Whether negotiating a once complicated relationship with coach Phil Jackson, taking the blame when the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal, or defending himself against a rape accusation in 2003, the 29-year-old Bryant has more experience than most with bad publicity and crisis management.
Bryant pushed through the trade request turmoil by focusing on basketball. He went to Las Vegas and concentrated on competing with Team USA, leaving the Lakers behind, at least temporarily.
"Once you focus on something, you can't focus on anything else," said Bryant.
Chatting casually about the past year while reclining on the bleachers at the Lakers practice facility, Bryant is vastly different from his intense on-court persona. He is relaxed, in no rush to do anything or go anywhere. But Bryant makes it clear he has not mellowed with maturity. After all, it was his competitive drive that more or less prompted the trade request in the first place.
Now, Bryant's age, experience, and accomplishments have made his competitive drive an object of admiration and imitation. In turn, that has made him more comfortable in his own skin, more willing to open up, more approachable. Just stand clear when he turns on his game-day focus.
"When you're younger and you have that drive, people become a little intimidated by that, become jealous of it," said Bryant. "Now, that becomes inspiration. It becomes leadership. Younger guys follow you a little bit more readily than older guys. People understand my hyper-competitive nature now or they accept it. That's just how I am. I want to go after it. I want to go get it. That's it. The train's got to keep moving."
No I in teamReferring to being named the 2008 NBA MVP, Bryant carefully chooses his words. It is not his award, but "ours." It is not about what he accomplished this season, but what "we" did. The language sounds a little forced, like Bryant feels he must prove over and over again he truly believes the award reflects a total team effort.
Knowing actions often speak louder than words, Bryant showed his appreciation during a team dinner last week, where the Lakers watched the Celtics win the Eastern Conference finals.
Bryant promised his teammates gifts commemorating their MVP win and he followed through with engraved Jaeger-LeCoultre Compressor Chronograph watches. Each has an estimated value of $9,000. But his actions on the court say more. Bryant won the MVP scoring fewer points per game than the previous two seasons with an average of 28.3. He devoted more focus to defense. He didn't feel the need to impose his will upon the game, trusting his teammates to get their jobs done.
"What's impressive about Kobe Bryant is he gets better and better," said teammate Lamar Odom. "As far as basketball is concerned and being a teammate, it's the same thing. He just got better and better at bringing us along with him, understanding how to use us to make him better. That's the reason we're so successful and he's the MVP."
Bryant sees himself and many teammates as "cut from the same cloth," as players who "have a chip on our shoulder." That is a frightening prospect for the Celtics.
Bryant said his ability to trust his teammates more than he did comes from watching them work hard. It is not necessarily about whether they knock down big shots in games, but the work they are willing to put in so they are ready for the big moments. That is what Bryant appreciates.
"We have guys who are ready to step forward, pick up the slack and make plays," said Bryant. "The teams that we had in the past, I had to score 35 points just to keep us competitive. It's not something I chose to do. We wanted to win. In order for us to stay in ball games, that's what I had to do. Throughout my career, if we needed big point production, that's what I did. If we needed passing, that's what I did. Whatever the game required, I try to do.
"To me, leadership is about delegation, it's about empowering, it's about making your teammates better so that they can perform even better when you're not on the floor. So, that's what I try to do now. I didn't try to be the one that's constantly feeding them all the time. I want them to be able to eat on their own and teach them how to do that."
Tonight, Bryant knows his teammates will be as hungry as he is for a championship.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.