He's All Grown Up
After going it alone on the court and off, Kobe Bryant relishes
being a teammate
One year after their team was almost torn apart by dissension,
the Lakers are cruising toward a third straight championship,
and nobody is complaining about Kobe Bryant. "He's doing what
everyone asks him to do," says Shaquille O'Neal.
When O'Neal missed five games over the holidays with an
arthritic right big toe, Bryant's scoring went down (from 26.3
points per game to 24.2) and his playmaking improved (from 5.7
assists per game to 6.8). That wasn't the case a year ago when
Bryant was pilloried by the press, his teammates and coach Phil
Jackson for trying to outscore opponents all by himself,
particularly in Shaq's absence. His ability to give the Lakers
what they need when O'Neal is out will again be tested over an
upcoming three games, while Shaq serves a suspension for taking
a swing at Bulls center Brad Miller last Saturday.
Only 23, Bryant is playing better than ever--at week's end he
had career-high averages in shooting (48.0%) and assists (5.8
per game). He still bristles at accusations that he played
selfishly last season, saying he wanted to help the team but was
too young to know how. "I've gotten better at it," he says. "I
know I'm not a selfish person, that I'm not what these people
were saying. I definitely wanted to kick somebody's ass, but
that's not going to resolve anything."
As an 18-year-old straight out of high school in 1996, Bryant
joined a team favored to win the title. While he is grateful to
the Lakers for having given him a crash course in championship
basketball, nobody on the team could help him learn the ropes.
"How could they?" Bryant says. "I was the only guard ever to come
out [of high school]. They couldn't understand because they had
never been through it."
As the unschooled outsider Bryant was easy to blame when Los
Angeles lost three of seven playoff series over his first three
years. He grew hesitant to seek advice or help in the locker
room. "There was a lot of criticism [of] me," Bryant says. "I
didn't know if I could trust so-and-so or talk to this person."
He enjoyed his second championship more than the first because
he no longer felt alone. Bryant began to grow closer to his
teammates last April, after he missed 11 games with a viral
infection and injuries to both ankles. Still ailing when he
returned, he realized he could no longer take on two or three
defenders by himself. For the first time in his career he
reached out to his fellow Lakers. In the end, forward Rick Fox
says, Bryant was willing "to open up to a group of guys who were
going to be there when he wasn't at his best and who could make
his game easier."
Nobody fed the perception of Bryant's selfishness more than
Jackson, who last March said Bryant had purposely squandered
leads at Lower Merion (Pa.) High to set himself up as the hero
in decisive moments. Bryant and his high school coach angrily
denied the claim, and one of Bryant's advisers floated the
possibility of suing Jackson for slander.
The two talked it over and have put their differences aside.
Things are so good, Jackson says, that he hasn't had to counsel
Bryant about his play, as he has in years past. Bryant expresses
gratitude for Jackson's input. He describes looking over to the
bench and calling plays as Jackson is about to relay them, then
taking pride in the sight of his coach slumped over in jest.
"It's a good sign," Bryant says, "because that means we're on
the same page and he can trust me to make crucial decisions."
While Bryant used to predict that he would win more titles than
Michael Jordan, he now talks about living in the moment and
focusing on the next game. Even if Bryant doesn't want to look
ahead, others can--and do. "It's hard to believe, but I think
Kobe can continue to improve until his early 30s," says Lakers
G.M. Mitch Kupchak. Guard Brian Shaw notes that no other player
has learned so much at such an early age. "This is uncharted
territory," Shaw says. "Kobe has the ability to pace himself and
take over the game at the right time."
In his first few years in the league, it was often said that
Bryant should have followed in Jordan's footsteps and gone to
North Carolina for a year or two to learn the fundamentals of
team play. But look at the young Tar Heels stars in the
NBA--Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Antawn
Jamison. All are older than Bryant, and none is close to his
equal as an all-around player. "It's up to the individual to
learn the game," Bryant says. "I've been fortunate. I've had
these coaches come to L.A., and I've learned from them. They've
been my North Carolina."
The Enigmatic Raptors
In Search of a New Leader
Don't bother making predictions about the Raptors. When Tracy
McGrady left Toronto as a free agent two summers ago, the
consensus was that the team's future was bleak. The Raptors
responded by advancing to the second round of the playoffs last
spring--and coming within one shot of ousting the 76ers. When
G.M. Glen Grunwald re-signed All-Stars Vince Carter and Antonio
Davis over the summer for a combined $144 million, then acquired
Hakeem Olajuwon from Houston, Toronto was hailed as a possible
Eastern Conference champ. At week's end, however, the Raptors
were only 20-17. "Some of it is because of injuries," explains
coach Lenny Wilkens, "and some of it is because of us."
To no one's surprise the key injury has been to the 39-year-old
Olajuwon, who through Sunday had missed nine games (bringing his
total over the past five seasons to 106). As a result Olajuwon
and the 6'9" Davis have yet to establish a relationship on the
court. It has been especially frustrating for Davis, who has
spent this season moving between power forward and center, where
he played last season and had career highs of 13.7 points and
10.1 rebounds. Through Sunday those numbers were 11.1 and 9.4,
"He's not helping me, and I'm not helping him," Davis, 33, says
of Olajuwon. "You see a lot of big guys playing together, and
sometimes they get each other easy baskets because they know each
other so well. Once that happens for us, we will work the paint
like no two big men in the league."
At power forward Davis plays with his back to the basket more
than he does as a center, where he can try to beat larger men
with his quickness. "I have to deal with guys who are as athletic
as I am," says Davis. "And with the new rules, even if I beat my
guy, I've got to beat the second guy coming at me."
Davis accepts that the team needs his leadership more than ever.
Last year that role was filled by Charles Oakley, who before
being traded to the Bulls set a standard for physical defense
while holding his teammates accountable in the locker room. The
lack of a vocal leader has put more heat on Wilkens. While some
writers in Toronto are calling for Wilkens's ouster, that seems
premature. It was Wilkens who steadied the franchise last season
after controversial Butch Carter was fired, and it was his calm
demeanor that helped the Raptors come back to win their
first-round playoff series against the Knicks.
Vince Carter has also come under fire. Although he has been
marketed as the league's next star--at week's end he was the
leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game--he has been unwilling
or unable to carry Toronto. He shows few signs of improving
defensively or of taking responsibility for the team's doldrums.
"It's unfair to ask him to be a leader, because that's not what
he is," Davis says. "If we need a bucket, he tries to get it for
us. That's his job. Leadership should fall on many guys--me,
Dell Curry, Chris Childs, Hakeem. Everybody has to pitch in."
The players wonder when the team is going to assert itself. "I
don't see a mood change yet," says point guard Alvin Williams.
"Someone has to put his foot down and say something."
He just doesn't know whose foot it might be.
Travels of Mike D'Antoni
La Dolce Vita for Ex-Denver Coach
Former Nuggets coach Mike D'Antoni has returned to his adopted
home of Italy as coach of Benetton Treviso, the top-rated club
in the European and Italian leagues with an overall record of
25-5 at week's end. "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse,"
says D'Antoni, who speaks fluent Italian without compromising
his native West Virginian twang.
After a three-year playing career in the NBA and ABA, D'Antoni
migrated in 1977 to Milan, where he won two European
championships and retired in '90 as the top point guard in
Italian League history. He coached at Milan and Treviso before
returning to the U.S. in 1997 as an assistant for Denver and
enduring an 11-win season. D'Antoni took over the Nuggets in
lockout-shortened 1998-99 and went 14-36. Fired shortly before
the next season, he served one year as an assistant in Portland
before Mike Dunleavy and his staff were let go last spring.
Seeking control over his career, D'Antoni found it in the
familiar surroundings of Treviso, an hour north of Venice. Owned
and operated by the Benetton clothing family, the club pays him
more than he would make as an NBA assistant. Among his players
are two 21-year-old swingmen who could become NBA stars. While
Mario Stojic, a 6'6" Croatian, needs two or three more years of
experience in Europe before trying the NBA, Bostjan Nachbar, a
6'8" Slovenian, could be a first-round pick in June. "He's a
Sean Elliott type, smooth and a good jumper, but he needs to
become more aggressive," says D'Antoni.
Nachbar's agent says he is trying to steer more of his clients
to Treviso to play for D'Antoni. "The best thing that happened
to Bostjan was having Mike D'Antoni come back to Treviso," says
SFX's David Bauman. "Mike understands what guys need to do to
get ready for the NBA."
D'Antoni says Benetton has at least four more teenagers with NBA
potential. How does Europe produce so many highly skilled
players? "My seven-year-old son plays basketball three times a
week at this club from September until June, and in a couple of
years he'll play five or six times a week," D'Antoni says. "You
do that for 15 years and you can get to be pretty good."
Play of the Week
The Trail Blazers had rallied from a 10-point deficit in Atlanta
on Jan. 8 and were streaking on a three-on-two fast break to tie
the game at 83-all in the fourth quarter. However, as Portland
crossed midcourt, referee Ron Olesiak halted play to give
Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace his league-leading 11th
technical of the season for complaining about earlier calls made
against him. The Hawks made the free throw, Portland missed
seven of its last eight shots and Atlanta won in a romp, 101-92.
Through Sunday the Blazers were 2-9 when Wallace earned a
technical, including 0-6 on the road.
around the Rim
With Mark Cuban unfazed by a record $500,000 fine, NBA insiders
predict his next swipe at the referees will result in a
Sonics coach Nate McMillan will allow Desmond Mason to defend
his slam-dunk title despite Mason's sprained right knee. "This
opportunity is once in a lifetime," says McMillan. "It's a
chance for him to get recognized for his talent."...
The prospect of paying the luxury tax had many teams scrambling
to cut payroll in the off-season, but with those costs leveling
off and attendance up slightly, league officials say the tax may
not be levied this year. Still, teams are wary of exceeding the
estimated $52.8 million payroll threshold because next season TV
revenues are expected to stay flat, making it likely that the
tax will kick in....
The secret of the Celtics' success? "We're spending 85 percent
of our practice time on defense," says coach Jim O'Brien, who at
week's end had produced a nine-game improvement over last
season's team without a major overhaul in personnel....
Once the 76ers get their offense clicking, they could become a
force again. Through Sunday the struggling Sixers ranked No. 2
in field goal defense and No. 5 in rebounding....
One team pulling for the Hornets to relocate to Anaheim is the
Grizzlies, who could then take Charlotte's place in the Eastern
Conference. At week's end Memphis was 5-14 against the West,
7-10 against the East....
Tyrone Hill, who has yet to suit up for the Cavaliers,
says he may not recover from back spasms until early February.
"All the talk that I'm faking it because I don't want to be
here, it hurts," says Hill, who played for the 76ers despite an
injured back last season....
Of the 19 players selected for the rookie game during All-Star
weekend, none entered the league straight out of high school.
On Duke junior point guard Jason Williams, who is expected to be
the top pick in the June draft:
"Everybody is talking about him like he's a sure thing, but he
has liabilities. He's only a 64% free throw shooter, and his
assists and turnovers are about even, which means he doesn't
make great decisions. I'd almost classify him as a poor
finisher, and if you're not a good finisher in college, what
happens to you in the pros? I'm not trying to take anything from
him--he's a great shooter who hits big shots, and he cares about
winning. But I would be concerned about making him the Number 1
pick and handing over an NBA team to him. Veteran players will
want the ball, and he might not be able to get it to them
because he's more of a scorer than a traditional point guard."