Kobe of old remains defiant, determined after 'wasted year'
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- By the time Kobe Bryant was done with his state of the union address at the Lakers' practice facility, he had spoken for nearly 24 minutes.
He reflected on the departure of Phil Jackson, shared his insight on what led to the end of this reign, and explained why the future remains as bright as the Southern California sun for the fans here. But his most telling message, the most obvious sign that the Bryant of old still plays a bigger role here than the old Bryant, took only a few seconds:
"A wasted year of my life."
Yes, the game's most accomplished player still measures everything by the ending. No ring means no rest, and the insatiable Bryant was here to make it clear that anyone dancing on the Lakers' grave after they were put down by Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals would be well advised to watch your feet. He grinned at the notion that he was slowing down, perhaps yielding to this next generation of younger -- dare we say, hungrier -- teams and entering a reflective state of his twilight years.
"What I think about is shutting up those mofos saying I'm done," he said in one of the few moments that came with his trademark edge. "That's what I think about."
There will be, he vowed, a trip back from the dead.
"Do I think we can do it again? Yeah, I think so," he said, having already acknowledged the recent comments made on national television by Laker great Magic Johnson that the team was on its downslide and its roster in need of a major overhaul. "In terms of this being the decline of the Lakers, that is nonsense. I remember they had a pretty good era in the 80s and they didn't win three [championships] in a row, and they didn't break that team up."
Yet this was hardly a case of one leader taking the defiant stance, as every Laker who addressed the media during two days of exit interviews expressed unending confidence in this group that was simply embarrassed by the Mavericks. They pointed to the silver lining that comes with losing in such humbling fashion, the hunger that is born out of being reminded what it feels like to come up short.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sent no strong signs that he is determined to, as Johnson had said, "blow the whole thing up," although change of some sort will certainly come. The only one citing a specific weakness that needed to be addressed was one on his way out, as Jackson said the Lakers have a dire need to add speed to their core.
But the 32-year-old Bryant remains the centerpiece, despite logging 15 seasons and even passing Michael Jordan in career games played with this latest campaign. Thus, a true sense of what kind of player Bryant can be in the years to come is as important as ever for Kupchak & Co. And as end-of-season assessments go, Bryant couldn't have been more convincing with his self-analysis.
While Bryant didn't make the short list of MVP candidates this season, he certainly showed that he has plenty of basketball life left. There are real reasons to think his game could be on the rise again next season, too, chief among them the advantages that come with entering the summer healthy.
The slightly swollen foot that is still healing is nothing compared to nine months ago, when Bryant was having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and having to push himself to make sure he was ready for training camp. The collective toll taken by his endless bumps and bruises and three straight trips to the NBA Finals created a need for the most unique of practice routines, with Bryant routinely sitting on the sidelines while his teammates did the daily duties under Jackson.
On Tuesday, Lakers center Andrew Bynum had blamed the practice component for the erosion of the team's cohesion. A day later, Bryant agreed that it was a factor.
"I think it played a part in the fact that guys felt like they could take days off because I'm not there," Bryant said. "It's like your big brother not being around. You feel like you can go around the house and do all these kinds of things with toys and all this other stuff, because I'm not on the court with you. It's upsetting to me. They knew going in what my knee situation was, and we communicated that with them.
"It's upsetting at this point to me that I wasn't able to get out there every day, but at the same time you can't use that as a crutch or an excuse that I wasn't out there and they didn't work as hard as they should have."
Bryant made it clear that things will be different next time around.
"This last summer, I really didn't do anything because of the surgery, so I came in this season already with a weak leg and having to go through a season trying to get it stronger while playing," Bryant said. "Next season will be different. I'll have this whole offseason to kind of get strong and that way I can get out there and kick your ass in practice and you'll have no excuses."
Yet for the first time since 2004, he'll be doing it without the coach whom he both endured and enjoyed during 11 seasons together. The enduring came in their first go-round, when Shaquille O'Neal's name was always given top billing and their three-peat was a nonstop hoops soap opera. The enjoyment, Bryant made clear, came almost entirely because O'Neal had bolted for Miami by the time Jackson returned from his one-year hiatus in 2005.
"The second time around ... we had more of a trust, where the first time around I really didn't [trust him]," Bryant said of Jackson. "The second time around, he and I could have conversations and it just stayed between us. We talked about a great deal of things, and because of that I learned so much more.
"I understood the first time around that it was a different dynamic. He had to appease the big fella, and in doing that I was, a lot of times I was road kill. The second time around, we didn't have that issue. So it was pretty easy for us just to stay between the two of us."
Bryant was hardly emotional about this farewell, saying he plans to talk to Jackson again in the weeks to come and that there might be a fly-fishing venture in their future. He'll be calling on him routinely for conversation or advice about the challenges to come as well, doing whatever it takes to avoid wasting another year of his Lakers life.
"We have a challenge that's right in front of us now," he said of next season. "It's low-hanging fruit. You have a coach that's different than Phil at the helm. A lot of people probably don't even expect us to continue winning without Phil as the head coach, and that's a challenge right there in and of itself. And then the [talk of the] window closing ..., us being down now and that kind of talk. That's stuff that I'm sure we can latch onto pretty easily."