Wednesday April 9th, 2008

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Kobe Bryant has invested these past five months in trying to gain leverage over his career. The previous four years are his self-imposed burden, and lately he has been trying to lift that gathering weight and tip it over upon itself. He is succeeding.

It's like watching an undrafted guard work his way into a rotation of guaranteed contracts. That's how hard Bryant has been working to tip over the past in creation of a pedestal for himself. He is the most talented player in the world and he's playing with an underdog's mentality.

Here Tuesday night, his Lakers lost 112-103 to a young team with no more than a week left to its season. When Portland led by 16 late in the third quarter, Bryant could be seen clapping on the bench, trying to raise enthusiasm. After a timeout he scored the next 10 points, on a jumper, a three-pointer, a dunk in transition and three free throws.

What he heard at the foul line was: "Kobe shucks! Kobe shucks!'' Or something a little more vile.

This was not the kind of greeting Michael Jordan received in the second half of his career, but he probably heard many things like it before he won his initial championship, in 1991. It's easy to gloss over his first seven regular seasons and say that Jordan was "destined'' (a false sports cliché to be sure) to become the most prolific winner after the Bill Russell era. But at the time there was no certainty that he would amount to a six-time champion, and it's that same uncertainty that Bryant faces now.

Despite three championships he won alongside Shaquille O'Neal before turning 24, Bryant remains a player struggling to achieve. In a few seasons, will we dismiss these past three or four years as prelude to his fulfilling his "destiny?'' That's how winners are celebrated in America: They get to rewrite the past.

Make no mistake: Bryant now has more in common with Jordan the old champion than he shares with the young Jordan who was criticized in his early years as a flawed scorer, a hollow star. While Jordan needed to learn how to lead a championship team, the truth back then was that he lacked players who could be so led. The same has been true for Bryant. It's no coincidence that he suddenly appears more mature amid the sudden improvement of center Andrew Bynum in the first half of this season, followed by the acquisition of Pau Gasol.

I said it early this season and repeat it now: Bryant was right to exert pressure on the Lakers last summer to demand an upgrade in talent. Would you rather that he cash his checks and accept first-round defeats without complaint? In which case he would be accused of not caring enough. As clumsily as he demanded improvements to the team, those demands in the strangest way showed that he was willing to further injure his own scarred reputation in exchange for winning more championships. And if he does win them, then his momentary demand to be traded last summer surely will be written off as a successful gambit.

For all of the criticisms he's earned over the years, it's only fair to point out that Bryant has made good on his end of last summer's uproar by playing the best basketball of his career. It started later last summer (such a summer this guy had) when Bryant cut back on his scoring and concentrated on shutting down the opponents' top scorers to help USA Basketball win its Olympic qualifying tournament.

"He probably heard a story about Michael or Magic [Johnson] doing things for their team in the Olympics,'' said Blazers coach Nate McMillan, a Team USA assistant. "He set the example for everybody else. ... Now he communicates as a coach does, and he knows that getting guys to do what they're capable of doing is important.''

On Tuesday, Bryant finished with 34 points and five assists on a difficult 11-for-26 night, but the Lakers lost by allowing Portland to shoot 50.6 percent against a defense that ranks No. 6 in that category. Near the end of the game, Bryant's shoulders slumped after Brandon Roy (23 points and 12 assists) beat him off the dribble without another defender preventing him from driving free to the rim. Afterward, however, Bryant spoke constructively like a coach, or (even better) like the older Jordan.

"We just weren't on the same page tonight defensively,'' he said. "We didn't do a good job collapsing, we didn't get out to the shooters, we didn't rotate. When we did rotate we fell a little short and gave guys open looks. We've got to continue to play through the play and get on the same page, and we will.''

The first question is whether Bryant's growth this season will earn him the MVP. I imagine that it will, by a small margin. A lot of people in the NBA believed the Lakers were on the verge of unloading Bryant and collapsing as a franchise; instead, he and coach Phil Jackson have held them together along with the cavalry acquisition of Gasol just in time to replace the injured Bynum. No one, but no one, envisioned a 53-25 record for the Lakers entering the final week of this season.

The second question is whether Bynum can return from his midseason knee injury to give Bryant a chance at the championship over the two months ahead. All Bryant asks is that Bynum defend the basket.

"That's it,'' Bryant said. "He'll be able to patrol that middle, especially against teams that have little guards that can get to the basket. If we'd just set him back there tonight, it would have been a lot tougher for those [Portland] guards to get to the basket. He's a legit 7-1 guy, a long-wingspan shot-blocker, so just that dynamic improves our team.''

As much as I'm interested to see how Shaq works out with Phoenix, how far Kevin Garnett can drive Boston and whether the AARP Spurs will make like the 1968-69 Celtics, the most provocative show of the playoffs will star Kobe Bryant as the player trying to not be too ambitious for his own good. Whatever happens, we'll look back on it five years from now and say it was all meant to be. The truth of it is that nobody knows. Especially him.

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