Is that you, Kobe? Bryant in rare form at exit interviews
Not long after the Lakers captured the 2010 NBA title with a Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant shook himself out of playoff mode. For the last two months, he'd worn that familiar face, giving clipped answers to reporters, scowling on the court and shutting himself off from the outside world. That included turning off his cellphone to avoid any distractions as he chased his fifth ring.
When Bryant finally turned his phone back on, he had 500 messages. "I irresponsibly deleted all of them," he said, laughing.
It served as just the beginning of what Bryant termed "getting back to civilization." He watched the tail end of the U.S. victory over Algeria in the World Cup. He plans to travel to South Africa soon for the tournament and also has other unspecified international trips in the offing. During the team's exit interview Wednesday, he spoke in a genial, jovial, comedic and introspective manner to reporters, something the media rarely sees during the season. "This is probably as honest as I'll get with ya'll," Bryant said.
And was he ever honest.
Bryant said he remained open to getting surgery to treat his assorted injuries -- the right index finger, the left ankle, the right knee -- as well as to sitting out USA Basketball, decisions he'll make after consulting with Lakers trainer Gary Vitti and General Manager Mitch Kupchak. "This summer for me is about getting healthy," Bryant said. "I think that will give us the best opportunity to defend our title again."
He acknowledged having tried to do too much in Game 7, when he didn't seem to be the invincible player fans were used to seeing. He said for inspiration he drew on a state finals game at his alma mater, Pennsylvania's Lower Merion High. "At that time, that was my Game 7," Bryant said. "The emotions are the same. When that happens, you just have to figure out how to help us win. It's not numbers. It's figuring out what you can do to help us win this game."
Bryant said that, indeed, this playoff run -- against Oklahoma City, Utah, Phoenix and Boston -- was a good way to, as one reporter termed it, "battle his demons." The Thunder series cemented the storyline of age versus youth. The Lakers have eliminated the Jazz in three consecutive playoff appearances, but the team's struggles against Utah early in Bryant's career still bother him. The West Finals match-up with Phoenix served as redemption for the Lakers' first-round exits to the Suns in 2006 and 2007. And the Lakers' Finals match-up with the Celtics helped make up for the team's 2008 Finals loss. "That makes it that much sweeter, being down 3-2 and all those rowdy fans in Boston being one game away" from winning the title, Bryant said. Coming back and "sticking it to" the Celtics "felt good."
Wednesday's exit interviews showed what Bryant was capable of in communicating with the media. There are some, including some Lakers fans, who lament the persona he projects, saying he comes off as undemonstrative and unlikable. But don't expect him to change. He remarked that, once the season started, he wouldn't be using the word "three-peat." And, chances are, he won't be forthcoming about his injuries. He'll likely keep his answers short and not particularly sweet.
Perhaps, past incidents have contributed to his present attitude; one could point to his drama with Shaq, the legal incident in Colorado and his contentiousness with the organization from 2005 to 2007. He also been known to be extremely controlling of his image and media access. But it also speaks to his game mindset and how he locks in, mentally, to the task before him.
"You have to put yourself in a space where you can focus on the task at hand and not the hype of it," Bryant said. "The hype's not going to win the series. It's execution. You have to have a form of detachment, at least to me."
A good example of that detachment was when he behaved and spoke as though he could not have cared less about the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, a stance he later admitted was false.
The media may not like Bryant's approach, but his teammates do. Forward Pau Gasol likes how the two are always finding ways to strengthen their on-court chemistry. Lakers guard Derek Fisher likes observing Bryant's routine in case he can pick up any pointers. And forward Ron Artest appreciates Bryant's work ethic.
As for Bryant?
"It's just fun for me," said Bryant, who had recently worked with Lakers shooting coach Chuck Person and former Celtics scout Mike Procopio. "I enjoy what I do. So you love what you do, you're constantly looking for ways to do it better or do it different. I just love the game so I'm constantly around it."
That answer will come as no surprise to people who have long observed Bryant play. But on Wednesday,he wore it all on his sleeve: His passion for the game appeared so pure, his enthusiasm felt so infectious and his explanations sounded so interesting. Enjoy it while it lasts.
"I give you guys really generic answers anyway," he told reporters. Still, it's that mindset that he says helps him play the game the best way he knows how.-- Mark Medina