Kobe Bryant Indeed a Man on a Mission
"I don't even hear,'' says ABC analyst Mark Jackson, speaking for Bryant. "I'm on a mission.''
Jackson was right. Speaking Friday, the day after his Lakers beat Boston 102-89 in Game 1, Bryant said he didn't "know anything about it until it was mentioned to me after the game'' that Rock was trying to speak with him.
And, as far as Bryant being a man on a mission, that's been the case for a while. He rarely has smiled during this postseason. At press conferences, he often gives answers with one or just a few words.
Actually, it's been that way for a while. Bryant, 31, hasn't been cracking many jokes at three Finals in a row.
Not that he was the life of the party back when the Lakers were winning titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and Bryant was in his early 20s, teaming with center Shaquille O'Neal. But he's clearly brought a different temperament to the Finals in 2008, lost by the Lakers to Boston; 2009, won by the Lakers over Orlando; and to this one.
"(It) just comes from understanding opportunities not coming along very often and making sure you focus in and take full advantage of it,'' Bryant, averaging 29.5 points this postseason, said of the difference. "I want to make sure we don't leave any stones unturned. ... You can't let any opportunities go to waste (when getting older).''
Maturing has much to do with Bryant's super-serious attitude in his 30s. But it's also because he went through plenty in his mid-to-late 20s.
In the summer of 2003, Bryant was charged with sexual assault for an alleged incident in Colorado. The situation hung over Bryant throughout the 2003-04 season, one that ended with the Lakers being stunned 4-1 by Detroit in the Finals and O'Neal being traded to Miami. Charges were dropped late in the summer of 2004, but plenty of damage had been done.
"I'm sure it did,'' guard Derek Fisher, a Lakers teammate of Bryant from 1996-2004 and for the last three seasons, said of that playing a role in Bryant becoming more serious. "That's not something I've spoken on very much, but I can only imagine going through that type of situation would definitely change the way you view yourself, the way you view other people. And he's grown a great deal since that.''
Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons agrees.
"You realize once again we're all blessed individuals and these things can be taken away,'' Cleamons said. "It's a privilege every day you're in the league. You cannot take it for granted.''
If the Colorado situation began to change Bryant, the next three years accelerated the process. With Phil Jackson taking a year off from coaching, the Lakers didn't even make the playoffs in the spring of 2005. Then they lost in the first round in 2006 and 2007.
"He couldn't live with it,'' Jackson said of that three-year stretch of Bryant not being on the winning side in a single playoff series. "Kobe can't live with not competing at the top level. He understands that. We had many conversations early in his career about what it would be like when Shaq had retired (or, in this case, traded from the Lakers) and they weren't going on together as a combo, and he never, ever saw himself in the position not to win. He thought that was his destiny.''
So frustrating were those times for Bryant he asked to be traded. The Lakers eventually were able to appease Bryant by dealing Feb. 1, 2008 for star forward Pau Gasol, and they've since made three straight Finals.
Shouldn't that be putting a smile on Bryant's face much more these days? But it isn't.
"I just think that he understands he's not immortal in terms of basketball, and how long from 2002 to 2009 things (took to) get back to this point,'' said Fisher, also saying Bryant having been married the past decade and having two daughters has made a difference in his very serious attitude. "I don't know if he joked around more (while the Lakers were wining the three straight titles early last decade), but I think that his responsibilities have changed.
"He just understands there were differences in what he had to do in order for us to win then as opposed to now. Now, the defense is geared toward stopping him. Then the defense was geared toward stopping Shaq. So he has to think of the game in a different way.''
Former NBA player Jalen Rose, now an ESPN analyst, agrees Bryant taking more responsible in addition to maturing has led to his man-on-a-mission persona.
"As a young player, as talented as he was, he could rely on his physical attributes and his skill to be a great player,'' Rose said. "Now, he's using his brain and he's training his physical skills to become a champion. And that's all he's playing for. It's not numbers. It's not acclaim. It's all about the ring for him."
Indeed. When Bryant won his only two scoring titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07; in neither season did the Lakers win a playoff series. In 2005-06, when Bryant had his legendary 81-point game, his 35.4 average was the highest any player has had since 1986-87.
"Kobe could score 40 to 50 points a night,'' said forward Luke Walton, Bryant's Lakers teammate since Walton was a rookie in 2003-04. "But he sacrifices now because he's grown and he realizes we're a more dangerous team when they have to guard everybody.''
Walton said Bryant, who didn't pay much attention to Walton during that 2003-04 rookie season, also now heeds all his teammates more. In fact, Boston forward Tony Gaffney recently talked about bonding with Bryant when Gaffney was an undrafted rookie last fall in the Lakers' training camp, something Walton agreed probably wouldn't have happened early in Bryant's career.
But that doesn't mean Bryant is bonding more with the media or with Rock during games. It's all business in his quest for his fifth ring.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson