LOS ANGELES -- The easiest way to engender
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
Besides the arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, this has been an idyllic offseason for Bryant. He asked head coach
"We see what goes on in other cities," said Lakers general manager
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
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
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
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.