A Contender To Call His Own

by February 05, 2008

Mutoni has already written about this. Holly has referenced it once or twice. And Myles has been threatening to give his own iconic take, which I hope he does very soon. So this may be overkill, but I’ll throw it into the pot anyway…

Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol. That’s what this Lakers-Grizzlies trade boils down to, and that’s why this Laker team goes from a probable first- or second-round KO to a very real shot at an NBA Finals berth. (Though it says here they could still lose in the first or second round. But whatever.)

Fact is, the Los Angeles Lakers just went from pretty good to, potentially, really really good. If nothing else, they seem to have upgraded their biggest weakness at essentially no cost. Apparently, you don’t always have to pay to play, at least not if you’re Mitch “I Love It When A Plan Comes Together, Even if It Was More Dumb Luck Than A ‘Plan’ Per Se, and Let’s Be Honest, I Was Due For a F*ckin’ Break” Kupchak. However it went down, it’s done, and now comes the long hard work of turning potential into reality. This Laker team appears good enough to pull the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. That’s real, and I for one am excited about it.


My personal Laker history isn’t really relevant to this post, except that it is. In a nutshell: From childhood ’til I was about 30, I loved the Los Angeles Lakers. A few years ago, I stopped loving them and started actively rooting against them. But that is neither here nor there.

As a fan of the game in general, my time at Slam also altered my focus, in that I now tend to root for two things: 1, Guys I sort of know, and 2, interesting sh*t to happen. The first is self-explanatory. If I meet a guy and like him, I root for him to succeed. This explains why I root for LeBron James, Derek Fisher, Morris Peterson, and Kevin Love, among others. The second is more of a strict journalistic thing, I guess: When interesting sh*t happens, like the Celtics going from doormats to powerhouse in one offseason, or the Miami Heat losing 98 games before Christmas for no apparent reason, I think it’s cool. It’s something to write and talk about, and so it’s good for business.

This whole Pau Gasol business falls into Category 2.

I recently decided I don’t hate the Lakers anymore. I’m not trying to scramble back on the bandwagon, honest. I just don’t care enough. Maybe because my day-to-day existence is less basketball-drenched than it used to be, or maybe because I’m old and cynical and think I should have better targets for my hate. Regardless, I don’t really care that much either way, and the fact that this trade means new storylines for basketball fans like us to discuss and fight over is pretty cool. So, I’m glad the Lakers are the hot new midseason contender.

I still won’t root for them, but I’m glad nonetheless.

Anyhoo, when the trade went down the other day, it got me thinking about this conversation I had with Kobe Bryant a little more than five years ago. I believe I have referenced this conversation previously on this site, though I haven’t had a chance to make it as relevant as I hopefully do now.

To set the scene: It’s October 2002, and I’m supposed to interview Kobe for the cover of Slam 66. I actually timed the interview partially around my honeymoon, which allowed me to fly back from Hawaii with my new wife and spend a day and a half in L.A. to get the interview done. (She actually sat on the fringe of the photo shoot and interview the whole time. I introduced her to Kobe. He was very nice. Perhaps she thought I’d be introducing her to NBA superstars on a regular basis now that we were married. It hasn’t worked out that way. She seems OK with it.)

The Lakers were fresh off their third straight NBA championship, but as most of us probably remember, there were still rumblings about disharmony between Kobe and Shaq, to the extent that Kobe had been considering bailing on the whole operation for a chance to spread his wings. At the moment though, all was well. Kobe was looking bigger and stronger than he’d ever been (the requisite 15 lbs. of muscle), he was out of the adidas deal that had started so promisingly and ended so sour, and he was, it seemed, all Nike’d out and content with his place in the basketball universe.

The Q&A took place after the photo shoot, at the Lakers’ El Segundo practice facility. Kobe was great, for both the camera and for me. He said “motherf*cker” a lot, which surprised me, but whatever. He had never not played with Shaq. He had not yet been accused of rape. His flesh was still tattoo-free. There were questions about his image, and we talked about them, but they were mostly different questions than the ones people ask now. A lot of what we think about Kobe Bryant today, on and off the court, didn’t yet apply.

I won’t print the whole thing for you freeloaders, but here’s the stuff that seems relevant today:

SLAM: Do you feel like you’ve quieted the doubters about your priorities, let them know what you’re about?

KB: Well, that’s funny, and that brings us to another point. Let’s rewind a little bit… I read that somebody said, “Kobe would never do it on his own.” Well, do what? What are you talking about? Because if you’re talking about scoring 30, 35 points, I could do that for you. Now, if you’re talking about winning rings, on my own? I can’t do that for you. Who can? Nobody has. You know, Shaquille hasn’t done it on his own. Jordan. You know, if you go back in history, you can run this down for days. So if you’re talking about individual success, I can give that to you on another team. But if you’re talking about rings, nah, I won’t even touch that. I need the big fella.

(Worth noting: When he said, “I read that somebody said,” Kobe was referring to Trash Talk, the letters to the editor section of Slam. A lot of what we talked about in this interview was initially inspired by reader feedback Kobe claimed to have read in the magazine. I still think this is pretty cool.

Also worth noting: Pau Gasol is now “the big fella.” I mean, he’s not, but you see my point.

And now we’ll skip ahead in the interview, past some Shaq-related stuff that doth not bear on the topic at hand…)

SLAM: All right, but he’s gonna be gone someday. Is there a part of you that’s looking forward to that, to finally show what you can do on your own?

KB: Not at all. I’m kinda past that. I know what I can do individually, but that’s not what it’s about. I mean, you take a player—McGrady’s a great example of that. You put him in Orlando, and he’s having great individual success down there. But you gotta give up something to gain something. He gave up playing in Toronto—which, I think, if he would’ve stayed in Toronto, we probably would’ve played them in the Finals the last two years. I mean, you’re talkin’ about McGrady and Vince. Those two motherf*ckers can hoop, man. They’d definitely be a championship contending team. But he knows how much talent he has, and it was difficult for him to play with somebody else who was the primary focus. So he felt like, in order to do his thing, he had to get out of there. I was facing a similar situation.

(Worth noting: Just a few years ago, many considered Tracy McGrady to be Kobe’s equal on the basketball court. As I write this, I’m not sure if Tracy McGrady is still on a roster. D-League, maybe? I’ll look into it.

Also worth noting: It was not crazy, five or six years ago, to think that the pairing of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady would’ve made the Toronto Raptors an unstoppable trophy-consuming monster. Obviously, it’s crazy now.

Also worth noting: It’s true — those two motherf*ckers really could hoop.)

SLAM: Looking back on that now, how close were you really to leaving L.A.?

KB: Oh [holds thumb and forefinger thisclose together]. So close. It was just getting out, someplace like Tracy said, where he could do his thing. I know what would’ve happened. I would’ve went to another team, I would’ve become a great individual player. And then everybody would be saying, “OK, he’s a great player, but can he win?” So I said, Man, f*ck that. I’d rather have people say, “He’s winning, but can he be a great player on his own?” That’s in my control. I can do that. But if it was the other way around… like, Damn, I need some help to win these ma’f*ckin’ rings.

(Worth noting: It turns out Kobe didn’t actually have to leave L.A. to hear people say that about him. This may be ironic, but I’m never sure what qualifies for irony, so I’ll just say it’s interesting.

Also worth noting: He really did say ‘ma’f*ckin’. I still have the tape. You can check.

And now, skipping ahead again, to the penultimate Q&A)

SLAM: Anything else on your mind, that we didn’t cover?

KB: Yeah. I hear some players say, “Well, Kobe couldn’t do this on his own,” or whatever. I saw that sh*t coming a mile away. All they’re trying to do is derail my focus. If I go out there and I start trying to prove people wrong, like I can do this on my own, then maybe we don’t get a ring. And I’m not gonna do that. So if that’s their strategy, they need a new one.

(Worth noting: Quite the question there, huh? “Anything else on your mind?” I’m like a regular Wolf Blitzer. I should’ve asked him if he wanted a cold drink, too.

Also worth noting: Kobe’s focus has indeed proven difficult to derail. You could argue that he may have derailed it himself at some point, but outsiders have no chance. He is a man of his word.)

So you can see why this jogged my memory. Back in October ’02, I had no desire to see Shaq and Kobe part as long as they were still piling up hardware. At the same time, some part of me was excited about the possibility of Kobe going solo, if only to see just how good he might be. Five years later, we know: He’s gone solo and he’s been amazing, and he hasn’t won sh*t. It’s a team game, after all.

Kobe knew this even then. He knew it last summer when said all those interesting things he said and then retracted them and then sort of implied them again, and he knew it five-plus years ago. He knew what would happen if he ever had to go it alone, and then Shaq left, and it happened just like he thought it would.

Now, finally, he’s got a team around him that might be good enough to contend again. For the first time, though, it’s his team. And this, as a fan of the game, is what I’m excited about: Arguably the best player of his era, a dude with a potential claim to top-10 (top-5? top-1?) all-time, finally in charge of a legitimate contender. Even then, it occured to me that it wouldn’t be right if a guy like Kobe never had the chance to lead a great team. He, and we, had to wait damn near 12 years, but now, finally, we get to see if he can take them to a title.

I’m looking forward to watching him try.