LOS ANGELES -- The easiest way to engender Kobe Bryant's affection is with a throat slash, a clothesline, or a ball in the face. Throw a few elbows in his ribs for good measure, don't forget to mention in the post-game press conference that he is coddled by referees, and chances are you will have a guaranteed contract with the Lakers come summer. Such is the example set by Ron Artest, Raja Bell and most recently Matt Barnes, who was introduced by the Lakers on Tuesday, less than five months after he pretended to throw a chest pass off Bryant's nose.
When Barnes sent Bryant a text message earlier this month, asking what he would think if they were teammates, he did not know what to expect back. On the one hand, Bryant has a long memory, and is famous for turning slights into feuds. On the other hand, he recruited Artest to the Lakers last offseason, after nearly brawling with him in the playoffs. Likewise, he set up a meeting this summer with Bell, despite their violent past. Perhaps Bryant's reputation for grudges was overblown.
Barnes was startled when Bryant responded, moved when Bryant said he would love to have him with the Lakers. "He told me, 'Anyone crazy enough to mess with me is crazy enough to play with me,'" Barnes said. Then, according to Barnes, they began to text back and forth "like boyfriend and girlfriend." Bryant and Barnes make for an unpredictable couple, but no more so than Bryant and Artest. Bryant has now turned two irritants into allies. He is like Wayne Gretzky with a pair of Marty McSorleys.
Besides the arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, this has been an idyllic offseason for Bryant. He asked head coach Phil Jackson to return, even if it meant a pay cut, and Jackson did. He asked point guard Derek Fisher to re-sign, even if the contract terms were not as rich as what others proposed, and Fisher did. He asked Barnes to join, for nearly half of what Cleveland offered, and Barnes did. After all the speculation about the Lakers slashing payroll, they added Steve Blake to back up Fisher and Barnes to spell Artest, which should keep an older core fresh for the playoffs.
"We see what goes on in other cities," said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. "Teams are loading up and competitive nature kicks in."
Kupchak could not have been referring to teams in the Western Conference, since Phoenix and Utah lost top free agents, while other contenders stood relatively still. He was clearly talking about Miami. Even though the Heat are in the Eastern Conference, their splurge made clear to Lakers owner Jerry Buss that this was not the summer to skimp. The emergence of the Heat emboldened the Lakers and, as a side benefit, it did wonders for Bryant's public image.
When Kupchak was asked why Bryant continues to lobby for free agents who have assailed him, he said: "Kobe is not in a popularity contest to make friends with players. He wants players to stand behind him and compete as hard as he competes." These are the kind of phrases, seemingly innocuous, that will be uttered constantly when Bryant is compared with LeBron James. It used to be that Bryant was criticized for withdrawing from "popularity contests" and for insisting that teammates "stand behind him." Now, those qualities look more like virtues, and he is held up as a symbol of everything James is not. While James sought out a ready-made powerhouse, Bryant continues to build his own. Coincidence or not, Kupchak said he has received more calls from Bryant about moves this offseason than in years past.
For the first time since 2004, Bryant is heading into a season in which he will not be the league's most polarizing figure. In some places, he might not even be the most polarizing figure on his own team. Artest and Barnes will form a harassing small-forward duo, constructed to bother the likes of Kevin Durant and James, and permanently put to rest the out-dated notion of the Lakers as soft. A team with Artest and Barnes may be volatile, but not soft. "I'm like a football player playing basketball," Barnes said. He refers to himself as "a small piece," the kind of subtle addition that helps championship teams defend titles, a ball-hawk and rebounder with a revved motor and adequate outside shot.
Barnes had virtually no jumper for his first three years at UCLA, and then in a single offseason developed a stroke that made him a fringe prospect. He reminisces about summer afternoons at UCLA's men's gym, playing pick-up games against Bryant, who once came in with a cast on his right hand and still dominated with his left. Back then, Barnes was not trying to pick fights with Bryant. He was admiring him from afar, hoping they could one day play a game that counted. Maybe it was those workouts long ago that won him Bryant's endorsement. More likely, though, it was the ball in the face.