LOS ANGELES -- In this, the 35th year of his life and 17th in the NBA, Kobe Bryant has opened up. Blank stares have been replaced by broad smiles, one-word answers by unforgettable sound bites.
He has been candid ("Remember those days I used to shoot 45 times? What else was I going to do? Give it to Chris Mihm") and clever ("I wouldn't pass a kidney stone," about his 81-point game). He has sounded crass ("He's good. He's getting the f--- out of the way," on interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff) and cocky ("I'm like Neo out this mother------," on playing point guard). Confrontational ("Put your big boy pants on," to Pau Gasol), crude ("The devil probably has frostbite on his balls," after Steve Nash missed two free throws), and cold ("Smush Parker was the worst."). He joined Twitter and lashed out at a fan using a homophobic slur. He explained to a Los Angeles Times reporter that he sucks the sweat out of his jersey to stay hydrated during games.
Why Bryant is unburdening himself now, in the most disappointing season of his career, is one of many Lakers mysteries. Perhaps he is doing it to preserve his sanity. Perhaps he is trying to burnish his persona. But more likely, he has simply reached the age where he is tired of censoring himself, and will say what he wants.
One day during training camp, when he was talking about grooming Dwight Howard, he proclaimed: "I owe it to this organization to make sure they're in great hands when I step away." The line acknowledged what few superstars do, that he is approaching the end, and realizes how well he's been treated. In 2004, Bryant was close to signing with the Clippers, and in 2007, he asked to be traded anywhere, even to a team that played on Pluto. But in '04, Lakers owner Jerry Buss dealt Shaquille O'Neal in order to retain Bryant, and in '07, he defused his headliner and eventually placated him by bringing Gasol to Los Angeles.
Then last summer, Buss agreed to take the Lakers' payroll over $100 million to add Howard and Steve Nash, handing Bryant a chance at a sixth championship. Buss wanted to cut costs, for fear of a more putative luxury tax, but he often wants to cut costs and rarely follows through. Every offseason, general manager Mitch Kupchak asks Buss, "What's our budget?" and Buss invariably replies, "You tell me the player and I'll tell you the budget." There is nothing else an executive, a player or a fan can ask of an owner. The Lakers' current failures will do nothing to diminish the bond between Bryant and Buss. They have overcome too much and won too often.
The first half of the Lakers' season is mercifully over, and as wretched as it's been, the last day was the worst. It is well known that Buss has not been around the Lakers for much of the past year, suffering from various health problems, but reports circulated Thursday that he has been hospitalized with cancer. As the news echoed around Staples Center, the Lakers lost for the third time to the neighbor Clippers, and once again the game wasn't close. The Clippers romped 125-101, capturing the season series for the first time in 20 years and proving the Lakers' recent victories a mirage. The Clippers scored 101 points through three quarters and notched their season high with four minutes left. They made 16-of-30 three-pointers. The Lakers looked finished at halftime.
"I'm not happy right now and hopefully my teammates feel the same way," Bryant said. "You have to reflect on how important this is to you and what it means to you."
Without calling anyone out, he added: "After we lose by 20 or 30 points, we definitely can't be laughing and joking around."
Bryant is heading to his 15th All Star Game and first with a losing record, 25-29. When he was reminiscing about Parker and Mihm, it was during camp, in the context of how far the Lakers had come from those dark days. Now, their record is even worse than in 2004-05, the only time Bryant has missed the playoffs.
He has filled every conceivable role to jump-start this team: He took all the shots and then he took none, he played off the ball and then he played with it, his defense was nonexistent and then it was hyperactive. Down 20 in the fourth quarter Thursday, Bryant was still wrestling for offensive rebounds. As low as the Lakers may be, it was a reminder that they could sink further, because at some point they won't have Bryant or Buss to provide hope. Those two men, who have carried this franchise in different ways over the past decade-and-a-half, are both being confronted with their own basketball mortality.
In 1979, Buss bought the Lakers, the Kings, the Forum and a ranch for $67.5 million. In the ensuing years, he created Showtime, collected 10 championships, entered the Hall of Fame and saw the value of the Lakers rise to $1 billion, according to Forbes.
"It's very rare to find an owner who seemingly does not make any mistakes," Bryant said. "The decisions he made, the brand of basketball he brought here with Showtime, and the impact he had on the sport as a whole, those vibrations were felt all the way to a 6-year-old kid in Italy."
Of course, that 6-year-old was Kobe Bryant, and his connection to Jerry Buss is forever.