As Kobe Bryant navigated a crowded corridor at AmericanAirlines Arena after a 102-89 loss to the Miami Heat last Thursday, he looked calm but guarded, his feelings a mystery. It had been an awful night for Bryant--not the first and not the last in this decomposing Los Angeles Lakers season--but who could tell what he had gone through? Who can ever tell? He is, as Dickens wrote of Jacob Marley, "secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster." ¬∂ Bryant had missed 10 of 11 second-half shots; he had been shown up by a bellicose rival, Shaquille O'Neal, and a quiet one, Dwyane Wade; and if he had listened to the Miami fans and read their signs, he had heard or seen himself called a rapist, among other things. So what did Bryant do after all that? What he always does. He stood at his locker and reported that everything was copacetic.
You can say that Bryant invited all this misery upon himself, and you would be mostly correct. He was accused of sexual assault by a Colorado woman (the charges were dropped, a civil suit settled), then orchestrated the trade of Shaq. But as he stopped to pose, his smile frozen, for the cellphone cameras of passing fans, questions begged for answers. What is he thinking as he suffers the metaphorical equivalent of being drawn and quartered? What really gets to him?
Kobe paused. "Nothing," he said. "I don't let [anything] get to me." After plopping onto a table, he expanded on his answer, something he rarely does, preferring to defend his life in glass-is-half-full sound bites. "When I'm finished playing, I want people to say, 'He handled this well, he kept his cool,'" Bryant said. "I know there are fans--maybe they had too much to drink or maybe they just don't like me--who want to get to me or get to my teammates through me. But I'm not going to let them. You get judged by history. That's what I focus on."
Rare is the athlete who takes the long view, but then, for Bryant, the short view is bleaker than a Rimbaud poem. A 102--100 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics on Sunday at Staples Center was the Lakers' fifth in a row, leaving them 32--34 and 31/2 games behind the Denver Nuggets for the final Western Conference playoff spot. With one of the league's toughest schedules over the final month of the season, an offense best described as a malformed triangle, a porous defense that is last in the league in steals and a reserve unit that should see duty only in times of national emergency, the Lakers will probably find themselves--for the first time since 1994--on the outside looking in when the postseason starts. And the blame will fall on you-know-who.
For Bryant and L.A. are being measured not only against their opposition in the West, but also against a team three time zones and one conference removed. Indeed, the Heat's rise to the top of the NBA would be his worst nightmare, had he not so many others. Now clad in the hemisphere's largest guayaberas, Shaq has been roaming unbridled through Quote Land--rarely mentioning Bryant by name but always by implication, calling Wade his favorite playing partner and Miami his version of paradise. (Why not? All he and Kobe did in L.A. was win three straight championships.) Among the indignities Bryant had to bear in Miami was a scoreboard showing Shaq beside a giant box of Wheaties that bore his likeness; Kobe, by contrast, couldn't get his mug onto the side panel of Count Chocula.
As for the three players who went from the Heat to the Lakers in the O'Neal deal--Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant--they wear L.A. purple-and-gold but moon for Miami. They have not yet vilified Bryant in public, but their gloom is evident and twofold. First, they feel that Bryant doesn't have faith in them to run the triangle, a complaint made by Michael Jordan's teammates before the Chicago Bulls started winning titles. "When you're in a trust situation, you know somebody's got your back," says Grant, a power forward. "That's what we're trying to get here." Implication? Bryant has only his own back. Odom, who strained his left shoulder in a 103--97 loss to the Indiana Pacers last Friday and missed Sunday's game, has made repeated variations on this statement: "Kobe's going to be on the court; he's going to be shooting the ball 20 times; and you need to learn how to be comfortable with that." Implication? They have to change because Kobe won't.
Second, the three players miss the "family atmosphere" they felt with the Heat. As he described how it felt to be back in Miami last Thursday, Butler was almost in tears after the game. "Leaving the court, grown men were out there kissing each other on the cheek," he said of Heat teammates congratulating each other. "It's just unbelievable." Implication? The atmosphere in L.A. is cold if not dysfunctional.
But before all that is put on Kobe, consider the man who has escaped blame: Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who green-lighted the O'Neal deal and chose not to retain coach Phil Jackson. You may love Buss's image as the poker-playing, skirt-chasing maverick septuagenarian, but he made bottom-line decisions that broke up a championship combination.
Then, too, it's not all Bryant's fault that the Lakers are lost in triangulation. They began the season in Rudy Tomjanovich's call-almost-every-play offense (he called most of them for Bryant), which was based on isolations and mismatches. When the team sputtered, it was Bryant who suggested changing to a system, such as the Princeton offense. Tomjanovich countered by returning to the triangle, Jackson's offense of choice. Six weeks later, in early February, Rudy T resigned for medical reasons.
Fully versed in geometry as Jackson's longtime assistant, interim coach Frank Hamblen has stayed with the triangle. (He calls it the overload.) But he figures the Lakers are collectively "at the end of training camp" in terms of knowing the offense. "Because of that, his teammates defer to Kobe far too much," says Hamblen. "We tell them not to worry about Kobe, because he knows how to get his shots within the offense. But a lot of times they're standing around watching him."
Even Bryant, as much as he might enjoy people standing around and watching him, looks uncomfortable. At week's end his 27.9 points per game were second in the league to Allen Iverson's 30.3, but his shooting percentage (.424) was his worst since his rookie year. He also ranked third in the NBA in turnovers per game (4.1). Los Angeles center Vlade Divac, who's been on the injured list since Dec. 22 following back surgery, understands that playing with Bryant is an adjustment, but that the newcomers must be willing to make it. "Kobe's basketball IQ is at the highest level," Divac says. "He just wants to win, and he knows how to win. I would love to be out there playing with him."
If the Lakers are going to get anything out of this trade--which at present looks like one of the worst in recent NBA history--the 6'10" Odom is going to have to contribute more. True, he's a perimeter player poorly cast at power forward. But he's a spectator far too often on offense, and in trying to stay out of foul trouble on defense, he spends so much time with his hands in the air he appears to be auditioning for an NFL refereeing job.
Even with the losing, the atmosphere would be better if Bryant were a little more like Jordan off the court, someone who knows how to be one of the guys, but it's against his loner nature. As the captain and the man who wanted a Shaqless team, it also falls on Bryant to dissect everyone's performance, which he does unfailingly. There is always an air of tension in the Bryant bull sessions, however. He feels it, too, so he bobs and weaves and keeps smiling, as the anti-Kobe circus goes on all around him. Some bonehead fan in Philadelphia wore jailhouse pinstripes with chains and handcuffs to mock him. In Indianapolis a fan walked by Bryant during a timeout huddle with a sign that read kobe, myself and i. He noticed it and briefly flashed that inscrutable smile.
"Basketball is my refuge, my sanctuary," Bryant insists. "I go back to being a kid on the playground. When I get here, it's all good." But what happens when even that turns bad?