In Los Angeles allthe loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tiltedand everything that wasn't tightly screwed down had slid into SouthernCalifornia.
—SAUL BELLOW, Seize the Day
This is an article from the March 17, 2008 issue
IT IS October2007, the middle of NBA training camp, and the Lakers are the perfect team forLos Angeles, a city that has inspired countless disdainful musings such asBellow's. The once-proud franchise, which has not advanced past the first roundof the playoffs since 2004, is a couple of weeks into what promises to be afull-blown autumn of discontent, followed hard by a winter of the same. ¬∂Superstar forward Kobe Bryant, unhappy that management hasn't upgraded hissupporting cast, wants to be traded. Phil Jackson, four months removed from aleft-hip replacement (which came eight months after a right-hip replacement),isn't sure that he's up to the arduous task of coaching the team and itslightning-rod leader. And general manager Mitch Kupchak, facing an even largerfusillade of ditch-Mitch criticism, is, as always, stiff-upper-lipping itthrough the chaos.
"You don'trealize how bad things had gotten when you're not here," says guard DerekFisher, a reliable member of Los Angeles's three-peat teams of 2000, '01 and'02 who had returned after three seasons with the Golden State Warriors and theUtah Jazz. "We had some work to do, no doubt about it."
It is now March,and that work has been completed. The Lakers, whose 44--19 record throughSunday was the best in the Western Conference, are bona fide title contenders.Bryant, playing with a torn ligament in his right pinkie that requires dailytaping and probably postseason surgery, is a top MVP candidate. Jackson, hisZen master mojo having returned, is again managing the team like someone whohas won nine championships. And Kupchak, having pulled off a blockbuster tradelast month, is likely to cause Executive of the Year voters to think beyond theBoston Celtics' Danny Ainge. Everyone is happy and harmonious, and the teamsong could be (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?
It is indeed anastounding turnaround, especially given that it is taking place in a town wherea thousand deals fall apart every day, where breaking up is never hard to do.How did it happen? How did the Lakers become that rare Humpty Dumpty that wasput together again?
"Apart from what was going on with Kobe," Jackson said last week,relaxing in the team's El Segundo facility after practice, "I had to see ifI was even ready to do this job. I was walking with a cane for a while. Andthen we go to camp and everything is disheveled, everything is dissipating.Doctor Buss"—Jackson still refers to owner Jerry Buss in that formal mannereven though he is romantically involved with Buss's daughter Jeanie, theLakers' executive vice president of business operations—"and Mitch haddecided they would try to accommodate Kobe with a trade if they could, so I[held Bryant out of workouts] for a while and let the business part run itscourse.
"This processeventually got me animated and reenergized. I had to assure everybody that wewere going to be all right. I had to tell the team, 'Kobe's not going topractice with us for a while, but don't feel like he's deserting you or that hedoesn't feel you're not good enough.'" (Which, at the time, is exactly whatBryant felt. Coaches have to stretch the truth once in a while.)
Meanwhile, Kupchak worked the phones, using a list of teams that Bryant, theonly player in the league with a no-trade clause, had provided. (Kupchak,reliably closemouthed, would not name the prospective trading partners, butsources say that they were the Dallas Mavericks, the Phoenix Suns and the SanAntonio Spurs in the West, and the Celtics and the Chicago Bulls in the East.)But in every case Kupchak wanted—as he should—the club's best players inreturn. On Oct. 29, the day before L.A.'s season-opener against the HoustonRockets at Staples Center, Buss, Kupchak and Jackson sat Bryant down anddelivered the news: Nothing had worked out and he was going to remain aLaker.
"We told Kobethat even if a deal could be done, he would be going to a team that would be sodepleted it wouldn't be as strong as the one he was leaving," says Kupchak."Kobe is smart. He understood."
Somewhere along the line, a franchise player will call out his bosses. MagicJohnson got a coach (Paul Westhead) fired early in his career, and MichaelJordan used to routinely torch his general manager (Jerry Krause). But they didso subtly, mostly privately. It takes a particular kind of person (arrogant?ballsy?) to do it as openly as Bryant did, then clam up and compete like thefirst-ballot Hall of Famer that he is.
"At the end ofthe day, you still have a job to do," says Bryant. "All I ever wantedwas to win. We went three years here when that wasn't going on and no moveswhatsoever were being made. That's where my frustration came from.
"When ouryoung players heard what was going on in the summertime [including the nowinfamous parking-lot video in which Bryant trashed young center Andrew Bynum],they took it as a personal challenge. They saw how hard I work, how much I wantto win, and gradually the focus shifted. It got away from us maybe being aplayoff team to, We gotta aim for a championship."
Jackson took Bryant aside before the first game and told him, "You have tobe in this wholeheartedly." And Bryant replied, "I'm in."
Over the last twoseasons Jackson and Bryant had worked hard to repair their relationship, whichhad been damaged by criticism leveled at Bryant in Jackson's 2004 book The LastSeason. Jackson gives Bryant, as he gave Jordan in Chicago, room to voice hisopinions, particularly on offense, and Bryant has become a de facto assistantcoach. "Lots of times, usually in a timeout, Kobe will say to me, 'We canrun this.' And I let him run it," says Jackson. "Kobe has a real goodvision of what he wants to do."
"For me, once [the trade discussion] was over, it was over," saysBryant. "Remember that I never said, 'I'm not going to play for thisorganization,' or, 'I'm not going to show up at camp if they don't trade me.' Ihave a responsibility, and I'm going to bust my ass the way I alwaysdo."
If Bryantregretted having popped off, he never showed it. His legendary ability to playthrough distractions was made clear during the 2003--04 season, when on severaloccasions he jumped on a morning flight to Colorado to appear at courtproceedings involving his rape case (charges were eventually dropped) andarrived back at Staples Center right before tip-off. Then he would drop, oh, 40points on a defender who appeared more tired than he did. "There is noplayer in the history of our game," says Fisher, "who cancompartmentalize and separate on-court and off-court like Kobe. It was like all[the trade talk] never happened."
Indeed, withBryant willingly sharing the ball but still taking over when he had to, theLakers became one of the league's surprise teams. Bynum, Kobe's whipping boy,was a particular revelation, averaging 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.06blocked shots to spark a 24--11 start before he went down with a dislocatedleft kneecap and bone bruise on Jan. 13. With sieve-handed Kwame Brown—whocalls to mind Yeats's words, "Things fall apart; the centre cannothold"—replacing Bynum, L.A. seemed likely to tumble from the playoffrace.
"Butthen," says Bryant, "came the coup de gr√¢ce."
Front-office types make their bones on big deals that produce contenders.Unlike his predecessor and mentor Jerry West, who before bringing ShaquilleO'Neal and Bryant to L.A. pulled off several smaller trades that helped theShowtime Lakers own the 1980s, Kupchak hadn't made any blockbusters in hisseven years at the helm. But on the first day of February he snagged talentedfrontcourtman Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies, while dumping the underachievingBrown. True, Memphis was in full fire-sale mode, but the deal was still solarcenously one-sided that Kupchak's picture should be in post officescoast-to-coast. Suddenly, Kupchak was the toast of the message boards insteadof the guy who couldn't carry West's valise.
Predictably, thedeal made him even more uncomfortable and desirous of a background role.
"There's aword that describes you," a reporter told him last week."Self-effacing."
"I'll have tolook that up," said Kupchak.
While Bryant hadlong let it be known that he was happier when West was in charge, Kupchak neverreturned fire, and so there was no scorched earth to irrigate when his starfinally got happy. "I understand where Kobe is coming from and alwayshave," says Kupchak. "He tasted winning early in his career, then beganto think he wouldn't taste it again. He didn't want to get to that stage whenthe window was starting to shut and he was in another rebuildingsituation."
Kupchak points tothe big board in his El Segundo office listing the personnel of every NBA team,a G.M.'s standard wall accoutrement. "Kobe's not the first player to voicefrustration with his team," he says. He stops there, but he could havethrown out names such as Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and PaulPierce. Though none did it as loudly as Bryant.
Gasol and Bryant "hit the ground running," in Bryant's words, partlybecause both have high basketball IQs, partly because the center position,which the 7-foot Gasol will occupy until Bynum returns (possibly in earlyApril), is the easiest one to learn in Jackson's triangle offense. Bryant feelsthat he now has his ideal supporting cast: two established vets who don't wantthe responsibility of leading (Gasol and forward Lamar Odom); a bunch of young"gym rats," as he calls forwards Luke Walton and Ronny Turiaf andguards Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic; and an old pro in Fisher, whose steadyprofessionalism leavens Bryant's grinding, get-after-it-every-minute M.O."I don't have to be as in-your-face as I used to," says Bryant. "Ihad to do it in the past because guys weren't working as hard as I was. Noweverybody's on the same page."
"Leadership is something I've always talked about with Kobe," saysJackson, "sometimes in conversations, sometimes through books I've givenhim. [One was John Heider's The Tao of Leadership.] Kobe's not big on subtlety,but his style of leadership has matured, gotten less confrontational. Of his[league-leading 12] technicals this season, half have come from fighting forhis teammates, not from calls that even involved him."
Asked what his MVP ballot would look like, Bryant says, "I'm not eventhinking about that." But when somebody mentions that the ClevelandCavaliers' James is a favorite because he's a near one-man team, Bryant, whowas averaging 28.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists through Sunday, snaps,"Put me in the East and see what happens."
Bryant has takensteps to repair his image, mostly by communicating "with [his] fans aroundthe world" on his website (KB24.com). He gets gentle grief from teammatesfor the Nike "Pure Genius" spots that appear on there, featuring Bryantdressed as different historical characters—George Washington Carver, Leonardoda Vinci, Albert Einstein and his favorite, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why thecomposer?
"He was themost talented among them, right?" says Bryant. (That could be debated, ofcourse.) Then Bryant adds this: "And I've known more than my share ofSalieris."
He does notelaborate. Chances are, though, that he sees Mozart in himself, thecontroversial wunderkind (Bryant had just turned 18 when his NBA career beganin '96) trying to play through the jealousy and rage of those less talented,which is pretty much everyone.
Bryant'sredemption is a good L.A. story, but it's not the main one playing out atStaples Center right now. That one's about a team which discovers that, asJackson says, "adversity made us a little more resilient and appreciativeof the things we have." It is also an unfinished tale, as the G.M. begseveryone to remember, but one that will be compelling to the end.
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More on the architect of this Lakers team, generalmanager Mitch Kupchak, from Steve Aschburner.