LOS ANGELES -- Who knew Kobe Bryant -- he of the menacing looks, icy veins and killer instinct -- was such a softy?
So kind, so instinctive, so aware of others' feelings that he single-handedly changed the mood in the Lakers' locker room, which was in need of a therapy session. Especially when it came to their talented but sensitive Spanish forward.
When Bryant challenged Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak on Sunday to tell Pau Gasol whether he would be traded, nothing actually changed about the sticky situation. Kupchak fired back a day later by making it clear he wasn't about to take orders from his franchise player.
"As a former player, I understand how the days leading up to the trade deadline can be nerve-wracking for an NBA player," Kupchak said in a statement. "Nonetheless, as general manager of the Lakers, I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans and the players on this team to actively pursue opportunities to improve the team for this season and seasons to come. To say publicly that we would not do this would serve no purpose and put us at a competitive disadvantage. Taking such a course of action at this time would be a disservice to ownership, the team and our many fans."
But by the time Gasol was being told that the mystery about his situation would remain -- news that didn't come his way until after the Lakers' dominating 103-92 victory against the Trail Blazers on Monday -- that wasn't the message that mattered most to him. This was about making him feel loved again, reminding him that he is wanted by his teammates, no matter how many times his GM fields calls about him. And Bryant, or "my Kobe" as Gasol mistakenly referred to him in reflecting on the past 48 hours, had said more than enough in his moment of support.
"It feels good that my Kobe -- my Kobe [laughs] -- that my teammate supported me and said, 'I want him here, but if you're thinking about trading him, do it or tell him that you're not going to do it,' " said Gasol, who was all but traded to Houston in December as part of the Chris Paul deal that was vetoed by the NBA. "But again, I understand that it's not as easy as that sounds."
For a night, Bryant's words were enough to lift Gasol's spirits. Before tip-off, he looked nothing like a man burdened by the worries of his future. A smile was fixed to his face as he worked out with assistant coach Darvin Ham, their one-on-one session beginning after Gasol gave handshakes and hugs to numerous friends sitting courtside.
Kupchak's statement had been released by then, but Gasol had not been made aware of it. When his routine was complete, he sprinted off the floor with the enthusiasm of a rookie about to get his first start. Nearly three hours later, the Lakers won after jumping out to a 37-7 lead (no typo there) and Gasol logged his 10th straight double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds).
Mission accomplished? Bryant thought so.
"I think Pau feels a lot better," said Bryant, who had 28 points on 13-of-26 shooting. "He looks a lot better to me. It's important to know that guys in the locker room support you, that guys are going to step up. That's my role here. He can't say that. He's a nice guy. He would never, ever say anything to shuffle the deck, so to speak. But I would. I'll say it for him."
Bryant would have been within his right to take the other angle here, to tell Gasol that he has nearly $57 million reasons to compete with a clear mind (the remaining money on his contract through 2014). Kupchak essentially took that route, knowing full well what's at stake and rightfully refusing to offer any assurances.
The harsh truth is that Gasol is the asset that might help the Lakers get out of this mess -- via trade. And while
The GM's job, as Metta World Peace reminded the media before the game, is to procure as much talent as possible -- not placate it. No one knows this better than World Peace, who once demanded a trade from the Pacers based on rumors that were, at the time, false.
His was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his ask-out led to actual trade talks with the Kings and the eventual trade in January 2006. Years later, World Peace would admit regret over the way it all ended for him with the Pacers. And maybe that's why his view has become crystallized, a combination of common sense and wisdom gained from personal experience.
"Mitch Kupchak is doing a great job," World Peace said. "You can't really question what he's thinking or what's going on. He's making decisions for the best of everybody. He brought Pau into a great situation to get a ring [two, in fact]. That's a hell of an experience, so if he needs to trade Pau ... I mean, he's only looking out for the Lakers. That's his job, like our job is to play."
Lakers coach Mike Brown wasn't the sympathetic sort, either.
"The reality of it is that this is a public business, and we get paid a ton of money to be a part of it," Brown said. "I think sooner or later, especially with the amount of money that we make, you've just got to stand up and take what comes to us and handle it however we handle it, you know? At the end of the day, we get paid to win games and play hard and coach hard and all that other stuff. If that happens, then good things happen."
True statements, all, but none of them coming from Bryant. No, the game's most unforgiving personality showed a softer side this time. His Lakers are just 19-13, in fifth place in the Western Conference and on the edge of more daunting times if all minds, hearts and spirits aren't on deck.
"Look, I've won championships with him, been in playoff battles with him, gotten swept with him, lost in the Finals with him," Bryant said of Gasol. "I'm not just going to sit around and [watch him] be down in spirit and things like that. That's not cool. ... We all love him. We all want to play with him -- especially me."