Rebuilding the Lakers: Kobe Ruins the Lakers Summer


Rebuilding the Lakers is a five part series focusing on the Lakers efforts to regain championship glory. In Part 3, Kobe Bryant’s bitterness hijacks the Lakers summer. So how did they get to the Finals?

The elite expectations of Kobe Bryant did not include a first round playoff exit. That was a fall from grace. At 28, Bryant was unchanged, no different than he was at 21. He revered work ethic, loathed laziness, accepted winning as a birthright. But, he neglected to add up the linear sum of everything else, such as how do you bring your teammates with you? All he knew was what he did not want and that was twofold. Misery for misery’s sake, and more wasted time on a losing team. Three years of failure and defeat left him with a bitter education. He knew what was in front of him and it was not appealing. But, and this was the conflict: he was out of choices. It was the summer of 2007 and Kobe Bryant was letting go.

January 4, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) shoots against the defense of Indiana Pacers forward Solomon Hill (44) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

All throughout the 2006-07 season, his third without Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant was as powerful and electric as his legacy suggests: 32 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists. But, as the Lakers wilted, the whispers continued to haunt him like a bad dream he couldn’t escape from, what he described as Chinese water torture: he could not lead a team. He would never win a title without Shaq. He could never be compared to Michael Jordan.

A 42 win season was all Bryant and his teammates could muster in 2006-07. They were fifth in the NBA in scoring, 6th in assists, 11th in rebounding but near the bottom of the league in defense. The team had injuries to Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Luke Walton. In early February through early March, they were absolutely miserable, losing 12 out of 15 games. Predictably, it sent Bryant into basketball psychotic mode.

He scored 65 points against Portland. 50 points against Minnesota. 60 points against Memphis. 50 points against New Orleans. 43 against the Warriors. 50 against the Warriors. The Lakers were 5-1 in those games. But, he alienated the rest of the team with his usage rate. Whatever chemistry existed was suddenly and quickly buried, and of course, on cue, Bryant was blamed for what had been wrought. Subsequently, when the Lakers made the playoffs they barely made a ripple. It was the sort of failure that did not disappear as the weeks passed.

"“I’m tired of being a one-man show”, Bryant said after the playoff elimination and he was entirely correct. He was a one-man show, a progressive talent that was like a fine piece of glass you admire but you can never, really change. Or, break. At the age of 28, the narrative he had self-written, all of a sudden, had exhausted him. It was mental fatigue. “I’m about winning. I want to win championships and win them now…so the Lakers have some decisions to make.”"

It was a threatening overture, a derivative of Bryant’s rising frustration. Bryant put into a game and a season, velocity. He pushed his body hard. He had the singular focus of a savant. He manipulated those around him to dizzying but unattainable heights. His desire could never meet his teammate’s capacity. What he thought of himself was indeed true in one sense and it was very false in another. You can’t push and pull at the same time. It wasn’t an accident that he was unhappy, gravely so. This was a long time coming, this frustration reaching the point of no-return.

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2002 was the last perfect June for Kobe Bryant. Since then, in five years, he had devolved into a writ of anger and bloodthirsty angst. A long time ago, Bryant had almost defected to the Clippers but at the eleventh hour someone reminded him he couldn’t trust Donald Sterling. In this new version, it was Jerry Buss he didn’t trust.

It was all so one-sided. Bryant had done his part, taking the team and putting it on his shoulders, scoring 50, scoring 40, scoring 81, playing ungodly minutes, doing everything he could possibly do to lead the team to wins while neutering his pride. But, what he received in return for his excellence was nightmarish: Smush Parker, Chucky Atkins, Devin Green, Tony Bobbitt, Tierre Brown, Von Wafer, a very old Jim Jackson, Sun Yue. Bryant was appropriately pissed off and willing to wallow in it.

When someone from the Lakers leaked to the Los Angeles Times as if to embarrass him, or worse, put him in his place, that it was all Bryant’s fault, well that was it, the last straw. Bryant was filled with rage. He took his anger and contempt with him to Barcelona. It would be the summer of letting go. If the Lakers collapsed, to hell with them.

Like Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson had his own private army of critics. While appreciating his championship mythology, many of his coaching peers found Jackson aloof, arrogant, strange and privileged. With Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Jackson won titles. They were three of the top 10 players in NBA history. But, when had Jackson ever taken an average team and developed them into a contender? It was pretty clear that Jackson and his triangle offense was overly dependent upon stars.

But in the 2006-07 season, his only star, Kobe Bryant, was killing himself trying to win games.

Apr 5, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Phil Jackson court side at game between the New York Knicks and the Milwaukee Bucks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant had an uneasy truce from the very beginning. Their relationship was hot and cold, varying by degrees, depending on the situation. Kobe was young and aggressive, arrogant and so confident in his abilities while Jackson was intent on ridding Bryant of his selfish instincts

"Kobe was one of the most creative shooting guards I’d ever seen, capable of dazzling moves comparable in many ways to those of his idol, Michael Jordan. I admired Kobe’s intense desire to win, but he still had a lot to learn about teamwork and self-sacrifice. Though he was a brilliant passer, his first instinct was to penetrate off the dribble and dunk over whoever was in his way. Like many younger players, he tried to force the action rather than letting the play come to him. I was toying with having him play point guard but I questioned whether he’d be able to contain his ego long enough to master the triangle system. (Phil Jackson)."

His first year as the Lakers head coach, Jackson split duties between Bryant and his nemesis, Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant ran the floor while O’Neal was the primary offensive threat. Jackson didn’t always trust Bryant’s ability to include his teammates and so he wasn’t a team captain.

Bryant was only 21 years old, an age he took for granted, as if he would always be young. Because he had coached Michael Jordan, Jackson had a particular understanding of how Bryant differed from almost every player in the NBA. “He (Kobe) would have to experience failure directly”, Jackson wrote in his biography.

And so it was. Kobe Bryant was in Barcelona in the summer of 2007 because he had experienced failure directly. He was less humbled by it then he was agitated and annoyed, like a rich man who suddenly found out someone had stolen his watch. Although this was a turning point for Bryant, it only made him ordinary. Every man has a crises at one point in his life, he falls down. Most happen in middle age. But an athlete’s time line is skewed towards a different decade. Bryant was not thirty years old. He was rarely sentimental. He hardly gazed back.

But everyone else did. So many years had passed since Bryant won his first title coached by Jackson, so many heartbreaks and beautiful moments and fulfilling endings, so much drama and trauma and second guessing. But, for Bryant, this was where the rubber met the road. He simply could not do it anymore, he could not be Kobe and have the rest of the team be average, he could not be the tyrant and have the rest of the team be free- spirits, he could not be great around the horribly average and, God forbid, the low-level competitors who didn’t feel the same way about winning as Bryant did.

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He wanted out and there was no appeasing him.

Jerry Buss went to Barcelona in the summer of 2007 to try to placate his star. Buss was a natural salesman with a gifted tongue; no one ever said no to his big personality, deep intelligence, wit, sense of humor and incredible extroversion. Buss made his fortune in real estate, buying and selling. He had affection on his side. He looked upon Bryant and all of his star players as his sons, part of his family. But families split up over the smallest, most inconsequential things. Children leave home for good and swear they are never coming back. Bryant was like that child who wanted to leave the nest, who suddenly hated his father. Nothing Dr. Buss said mattered in the slightest. Kobe Bryant had made up his mind. His Lakers days were over.

Feb 8, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol (16) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. The Chicago Bulls defeated the Orlando Magic 98-97. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

In the fall of 2007, Pau Gasol was 27 years old. He was the best player on the Memphis Grizzlies team. A remarkable player at seven feet, Gasol who was from Barcelona and always dreamed of being a doctor, had incredible footwork, he could finish right or left, he was athletic with soft hands and an offensive skill set that is rarely found in American born seven footers. He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the third pick in the 2001 draft and then traded on draft night to Memphis. He was Rookie of the Year.

But was Pau Gasol a star? Being drafted third seemed to say yes but in six seasons he had yet to lead his team to a playoff victory which grated on Memphis fans who were just beginning to use social media to air frustrations. As the fans grew more vocal and disenchanted, Gasol became passive and withdrawn on the court, sensitive to the public rebuke of him.

It was a relief for both sides to abruptly end the marriage, even if it seemed the Grizzlies received the short end of the stick. The Grizzlies obtained the rights to Pau’s brother, Marc, who was a 2007 Lakers draft pick and had been stashed in Europe. Pau was heading west to play with Kobe Bryant whose emotions had cooled.

In fact, in 2008, even before Gasol arrived, Bryant no longer wanted to be traded.

Andrew Bynum had emerged as a quality center in the 2007-08 season. The Lakers started off hot and were 27-13. By the time Gasol joined the team, the Lakers had established an identity, of which Gasol was the missing piece. They won 57 games that year, Bryant was the MVP.

In the 2008 Western Conference playoffs the Lakers rolled, losing only three games. In the NBA Finals, against the Celtics, they had a rude awakening. Unprepared for the brutal physicality of the Eastern Conference champions, the Lakers were beaten up all series long, especially Pau Gasol.

The Spaniard, whose courage was repeatedly questioned, was a punching bag for the unrelenting fierceness and hostility of Kevin Garnett who was desperate for his own title. But, Gasol was punished twice. First by the Celtics big men who treated him as if he was nothing more than a mistake on a page, and then by the media and fans who ripped Gasol’s basketball character and repeatedly labeled him as “soft” and “weak.” And then “loser.”

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  • But, something changed within Gasol over that difficult summer after he lost in the Finals to the Celtics. Perhaps it was the presence of Bryant that had rubbed off on him, perhaps Bryant had released a hunger and drive Gasol had always buried in order to be civil and polite.

    In Memphis, criticism caused Gasol to withdraw. In Los Angeles, criticism made him angry. He came back stronger. When Gasol and his teammates returned in 2008-09 no one had forgotten June. What happened to them in Game 6 in Boston was still in the air.

    "“We went into the off-season questioning everything because we had come this close but we were still so far away. I think that loss forced us to all ask ourselves, Do we really want this? There wasn’t anything that was going to hold us back. No matter what we faced, no matter how many ups and downs, we knew we were tough enough- mentally and physically-to figure this out. And we did” (Derek Fisher)"

    A believer in Native American mythology, Phil Jackson wanted his players to evolve as a group, a tribe. He frequently used the phrase Dancing with the Spirit. As a phrase it conjures up religious imagery but Jackson meant it in another light, for players to push through when they had been previously denied. Dancing with the Spirit meant connecting with each other to reach a common goal. It meant nothing else mattered. It meant losing selfishness. It meant playing for one another, regardless of the individual cost. It meant sacrifice.

    Apr 2, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) smiles at power forward Pau Gasol (16) after he completed a triple double in the second half of the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the Staples Center. Lakers won 101-81. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    Bryant, was one of Jackson’s converts. A few years earlier, Bryant had been notoriously self-driven to the point of exclusion. In 2009, he had evolved into the type of leader Phil Jackson had wanted to see in 2000 when he was 21 years old. Bryant was less critical, more encouraging. The three losing seasons of 2004-2006 impacted Bryant’s psyche in one sense; failure teaches. His self-absorption which bordered on narcissism was submerged beneath a maturity in which Bryant could see the world outside of himself.

    The Lakers began the season winning 17 out of their first 19 games. They were a team on a mission, as if every game was a reminder of being throttled in Boston. Bryant had a terrific season but so did Gasol and the Lakers won 65 games.

    The NBA Finals is always a spectacle and often it doesn’t fall the way fans want it to. There was no Lakers-Celtics rematch. Orlando was the new kid on the block with young center Dwight Howard. Bryant scored 40 points in game 1 as the Lakers cruised. Game 2 was close: Courtney Lee missed a gimme layup and the Lakers walked off with an overtime victory. The Magic won game three and choked away game 4 when Howard missed two free throws late and Derek Fisher tied the game with an uncontested three.

    Before game 5 in Orlando, assistant coach Brian Shaw was in front of the white board in the Lakers locker room. Shaw was a member of that 2000 Lakers championship team that was trailing by 13 points in the 4th quarter in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. His three pointers helped stage the Lakers comeback and win.

    He faced the team. Only Bryant remained from 2000. Still, he looked at each of them. Kobe Bryant. Pau Gasol. Andrew Bynum. Trevor Ariza. Shannon Brown. Derek Fisher. Luke Walton. Sasha Vujacic. He remembered last year in Boston. Shaw angled the white board so all the players could see it, see what keys he had written down. But the board was empty.

    "“I didn’t write anything down because you guys already know what you need to do to beat this team. Go out there and play with the idea of playing for and with each other and we’ll end these playoffs tonight.” (Brian Shaw)"

    As if Shaw scripted it, the Lakers took control early in the second quarter and never, ever let up. By the time the 4th quarter rolled around and J.J. Reddick was guarding Kobe Bryant, it was over, Bryant had finally chased away the ghosts, the defilers who never, ever believed in his game, who said he would never win without Shaq.

    It was his greatest moment on the basketball court because it wasn’t a moment at all, it wasn’t something temporary from which he could vault somewhere. He already was somewhere, he was special. This only meant he was great. He had come from Italy and then high school and managed a bruising, tough, glorious and epic ride. He won and then broke up with O’Neal. He forgave Jackson. He started from scratch. He did the unthinkable. He got all the way back here. Seven years was a long, long time.

    He didn’t cry like Jordan did on Father’s Day in 1996. He didn’t roll on the court and hug the trophy; he saved his emotion for Phil Jackson.

    "I don’t remember exactly what we said to each other but the look in his eyes touched me the most. This was our moment of triumph, a moment of total reconciliation that had been seven long years in coming. The look of pride and joy in Kobe’s eyes made all the pain we’d endured in our journey together worth it. (Phil Jackson)"

    If Bryant was redeemed than Jackson could also exhale. For years, he had been taunted by Red Auerbach who accused Jackson of stacking the deck. But this was different, this was a rebuild job, this was supposed to be Jackson at his worst. The 2008-09 team was not the best team he had ever coached, not by a long shot. They were not the most talented. They were not the most feared. They were not the most historical.

    Oct 28, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) dives to the basket against Houston Rockets guard Trevor Ariza (1) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    But, they believed in Jackson with a holy sort of faith that knit them to one another, all of these cast offs. Kobe Bryant who was never going to win. Lamar Odom who was lazy. Trevor Ariza who couldn’t shoot. Luke Walton who was overpaid. Shannon Brown who was just a dunker. Andrew Bynum who had bad knees. Derek Fisher who was not athletic. It was a moment of reciprocity, the giver was given. The players had learned the art of  success because of trust, sharing, love, respect, forgiveness. It was everything Jackson had preached, so as a coach, it was his great, moral triumph. It was an extraordinary moment.

    And for Kobe Bryant it was paradise, pure and simple. Two years earlier, he demanded to be traded. But, that was impossible. He was a member of the ruling class. In 2007 he was the NBA’s best player.

    He wasn’t Gasol. He couldn’t join a ready made team as the last piece. Once he realized any team acquiring him would have to gut their roster and he would be in the same exact position as he was in Los Angeles, a one-man show, a circus act, he lost his desire and his rage disappeared.

    Besides, he had a lesson to learn about time. And what happens when you don’t expect the best out of the people you work with. People (and organizations) grow in unheard of ways. Patience matters.

    "“Kobe had to learn to give in order to get back in return. Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.” (Phil Jackson)"

    (Acknowledgements: Eleven Rings the Soul of Success, Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty)

    Rebuilding the Lakers, Part 4: Dwight Howard Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

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