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Matt Barnes eager to follow in Kobe Bryant's shadows

July 27, 2010 |  7:05 pm

At some point in his playing career at UCLA from 1998 to 2002, Matt Barnes witnessed Kobe Bryantworking out at Pauley Pavilion and performing a feat only he could pull off.

"I remember he had a broken right hand and I was just amazed he did his whole workout left-handed," Barnes recalled with a laugh Tuesday when was introduced at the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo as the team's newest member. "It was kind of crazy."

That makes two of them.

Bryant and Barnes are nowhere near each other in playing stature. The former has collected five championship rings. The latter agreed to a two-year deal worth $3.6 million, with a player option for his second season, so he could realistically pursue a first title. Bryant continues to fuel conversation on the Lakers' greatest-all-time players list. Barnes joins his eighth NBA team since leaving UCLA and the Northern California native finally landed in a place that he called a "lifelong dream." Bryant is arguably bigger than the Lakers' franchise, as indicated by the admission by Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak that Bryant works with his own medical staff at times, and that the GM wasn't completely sure whether Bryant would have surgery this off-season for his right index finger. Barnes accepted less money to join the Lakers after rejecting the guaranteed $7 million Cleveland offered, expressed no expectations on minutes and said, "I hope I'm one of those small pieces that helps get that third straight title."

But as far as the crazy part? Yeah, they've both got it. Barnes is crazy enough not to have felt intimidated while testily guarding Bryant, most recently in the Orlando Magic's 96-94 regular-season victory in March when Barnes pretended to inbound the ball toward Bryant's face. Bryant's crazy enough to see that as a sign that Barnes would be a good teammate. Therefore, it's no coincidence that the two used the word "crazy" when they exchanged text messages this off-season.

"He told me anyone crazy enough to (explicit word)  mess with me is crazy enough to play with me," Barnes recalled. "Let’s get it done. He’s one of the best competitors to play the game. I played with a lot of the same fire he does. Finally after eight years in my career, I’m finally done guarding him except in practice. I’m glad he’s going to be on my side hitting those game winners rather than hitting them on me or see him hit them on my team."

Yet, Barnes is still in the transition phase of transforming from foe to teammate. Barnes tweeted last nighta question to Lakers fans that still leaves them conflicted: "Quick question?? All those LAKER fans that hated me you rolln or yall still cool on me. . .Hahahaa We family now rite???????????????????????" There are rumblings that Orlando's refusal even to offer Barnes a contract indicated he disrupted the Magic's locker room. But there's excitement that his relentless work ethic and energy will help maintain the Lakers' excitement level, particularly during the NBA dog days. There's a hesitation to forgive what Barnes did to Bryant last season. But there's consideration that Bryant doesn't care one bit for a very simple reason.

"I think he respects the people that compete the hardest," Kupchak said of Bryant's view toward Barnes, whom Kupchak said "has been on our radar for years."

"I think what it says about him is he’s not really in a popularity contest to make friends with players," Kupchak said. "He wants players that will stand beside him and behind him and compete as hard as he competes no matter what historical background they have. I think that’s what it is. He just wants to win."

That's why Bryant immediately answered Barnes' text message, as he recalled, expressing interest in becoming a Laker. Barnes had grown up rooting for the Lakers, idolized Magic Johnson and longingly respected Bryant from afar even through those contentious matchups. Bryant's immediate response demonstrated the feeling was mutual. The conversations temporarily stopped once it appeared Barnes would join Toronto after agreeing to a two-year, $9-million contract through a sign-and-trade, but the deal fell through after the league's salary-cap rules prevented the Magic from offering that money. The two immediately picked up the texting, a factor Kupchak said "didn't matter" in securing Barnes, but one he acknowledged helped keep the GM in the loop.

"His approach was kind of like, 'This is what I’m hearing,' " Kupchak said of Bryant. "He never said, 'What are you going to do, this is what I want you to do.' It was, 'This is what I’m hearing.' Apparently, they had a dialog that went on for quite some time."

And the reasons are obvious. They are fairly similar. Bryant may be the team's leading scorer, and Barnes may only be expected to back up Ron Artest and provide insurance in case Luke Walton is limited next season because of back issues. But the intense exterior and the relentless work ethic tie the two together and hold more bearing than any heated matchups. It's the kind of mind-set that attracted Bryant to Artest, convinced Bryant to visit Raja Bell and enticed him to text Barnes. It was simply a small piece to the championship puzzle, but an important one.

"Me and Kobe are cool," Barnes said. "We’ve been cool. I think the media made it more than it was. We were just two competitors competing. We both wanted our teams to win. It got a little feisty. Neither of us backed down and last year we got the win, but this year I’m fighting with them. I couldn’t ask to fight with a better competitor."

--Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com


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