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Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher display balancing act with co-captain role

April 16, 2011 |  6:36 pm


An annoyed look crossed his face. His tone was agitated. And the reasons the Lakers' co-captain felt so unhappy became very clear: "These games mean more to our opponents than they do to us. I think we need to get that straight. We need to play with more focus and put more importance on these games. I don't like it."

An annoyed look crossed his face. His tone was agitated. And the reasons the Lakers' co-captain felt so unhappy became very clear: "The way we played tonight was irresponsible and it was reckless and it was disrespectful. I can't get any clearer than that. There was an air of complacency, of arrogance, of 'we don't have to play as hard as the other team to win' that I didn't like tonight."

The set-up to the quotes in the first two paragraphs read precisely the same because it appropriately described the setting. The quotes hit on the same theme and carried the same tone. And the one conveying that body language and delivering that message seemed to be the same person.

Except it wasn't.

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant publicly ripped his team following the team's embarrassing 96-80 Christmas Day loss to the Miami Heat with the quote mentioned in the first paragraph, believing the team's lackluster play against elite teams and its general complacency should no longer be tolerated. Lakers guard Derek Fisher publicly ripped the team after its subpar 99-94 victory on Nov. 9 against Minnesota with the quote mentioned in the second paragraph, arguing the Lakers' 8-0 effort shouldn't give them false comfort in believing they can simply mail in performances and always expect a victory. And the examples cited above show how the Lakers' co-captains have shared equal duties entering the team's first-round playoff series beginning Sunday against New Orleans by setting the team's agenda and trying to ensure the team remains on track toward a three-peat.

"We've been around each other for so long," Bryant said regarding Fisher, who has shared a bond with him since entering the NBA in 1996, won all five of their NBA titles together, became the team's co-leaders the last three seasons and share the same agent in Rob Pelinka. "I can gauge Derek, too, we can gauge the personalities of what we need at that moment."

"Regarding specifically Kobe and myself, you figure it out," Fisher said. "Regardless of how ugly it looks and how bad you look, you figure out how to turn it around, flip things and get it in your favor at some point."

The result: a never-ending mixed and nuanced exercise on finding a perfect balance between holding the team accountable and pleading patience. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson didn't completely characterize Fisher and Bryant as the team's leaders, also citing Lamar Odom's popular standing in the locker room and Pau Gasol's polite demeanor as examples that show the Lakers' identity features plenty of veteran players with similar qualities. But Jackson reserved specific praise for Bryant and Fisher being "good spokesmen."

Let Lakers forward Ron Artest, of all people, explain how they fulfill that quality.

"They’re both different," he said. "They both work well together. They work really well together. Fish is more Xs and O’s type of the co-captain and Kobe is more of the ...."

Then Artest stopped, trailed off for perhaps an infinite amount of reasons that can only be speculated. But then he came to a realization. "Oh man," he said to himself. "They might be the same."

Don't ask Artest for an explanation. He blamed faulty memory numerous times when asked to recall what they've emphasized to him, how the team receives what they say and any specific examples on how they've tried leading the team. But this might fill in the details.

Bryant and Fisher are both similar and different. Both have collected five championship rings and come through with clutch playoff performances. But Bryant enters each postseason adding what Fisher calls a "layer of foundation to his legacy," while Fisher enters the playoffs eager to prove his worth to an always doubting public. Bryant is a two-time Finals MVP, ranks sixth on the league's all-time scoring list, is a 2008 Olympic gold medalist, a 14-time All-Star, a four-time All-Star MVP and a lock for both the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and a Lakers statue. Fisher has never been an All-Star, has never reached double digits in points per game, never played in the Olympics and likely won't reach the Hall of Fame.

But Bryant appeared adamant about the Lakers re-acquiring Fisher as a free agent in 2007 after he spent the four previous seasons with Golden State and Utah, arguing his championship experience, willingness to challenge him publicly and privately and the veteran point guard's commanding locker-room presence makes his job easier. Likewise, Fisher acknowledged Bryant's presence as a reason for his willingness to return to the Lakers last summer despite prolonged contract negotiations, citing Bryant's never-ending support and how his abundant talent helps him reach that championship level.

Both demonstrate plenty of pride and confidence in what they offer on the court. They both hit big shots, but Bryant carries the team with his scoring mentality, while Fisher carries the team with unselfish plays, including taking charges, deflecting passes, calling out defensive rotations and lobbying for teammates' calls. Both demonstrate plenty of pride and confidence in how they interact with the media. What they say carries weight, but they say things differently. Bryant presents an indifferent persona as he speaks in short and crisp one-word to one-sentence answers, while Fisher appears engaging as he offers paragraphs of soundbytes reserved for politicians.

"There's always value," Lakers backup center Theo Ratliff said. "It's like fire and ice. You need both. You need that person who will jump in your face and sometimes that person who needs to calm everything down. That's a great combination."

But their combination doesn't fall into that category all the time. Consider that Fisher's calm reaction to the Miami loss contradicted Bryant's angry demeanor demonstrated to the media and on the court where he drew a technical foul for the second consecutive game. "Even though the game didn't get out of hand until the fourth quarter," Fisher said, "we seemed to play frustrated, tense and angry as opposed to settling into the game." Consider that Bryant's calm reaction to the underperforming Minnesota win contradicted Fisher's frustrated tone. "I don't want to be too harsh," Bryant said. "I don't think it's one way or the other. When Derek gets upset, sometimes his temper is a lot quicker than mine." Then there are instances where both of them have pleaded patience through the Lakers'  inconsistency, but then called a team meeting, such as last week, where Lakers forward Luke Walton said they emphasized the danger that losing two consecutive games in a playoff series alone can seriously jeopardize a season.

"Even when we were expressing frustration or disappointment with ourselves and with our team, we're still always keeping the larger picture in perspective and always in full recognition of what's required to get the job done," Fisher said. "For us, we've been here before and understand the process that comes along with this. You have to be willing to adjust and adapt and do what's required and be able to read your teammates, read the situation and understand when it's necessary to say something and what it is you need to say and then other times when to shut up and let guys figure it out for themselves. I think largely we've learned a lot of that from Phil, from playing for him for so many years. We've taken some of that into our own."

That's also come with a realization that sometimes what they say is met with resistance or indifference. After Fisher expressed his disappointment for the effort against Minnesota, the team didn't bring up his comments in practice and Jackson found the characterization too harsh. After Bryant issued his anger over the Lakers' loss to Miami, Jackson went so far to say that he didn't listen or read his statements and Odom reacted somewhat testily, "We don't need shoutouts in the media."

But these aren't instances of a fractured locker room, inconsistent messages from the co-captains or disagreement among them. Teammates say Bryant and Fisher don't resort to good-cop, bad-cop roles, but just act as their own person while complementing each other's actions. As indicated by his 15 technical fouls, constant jawing with officials and tendency to lift his team on his back, Bryant's uber competitiveness has often boiled into frustration. As indicated by his encouraging attitude and constant interaction with teammates, Fisher's on-court play often shows him making sure everyone feels tied together. And then there's instances where they both take over, such as in the Lakers' 84-80 victory March 2 over Portland. The two drew up plays in the final quarter and proved largely instrumental in securing the win. In addition to Fisher's two field goals and two steals, he "made sense out of chaos," as Jackson put it, a reference to the Lakers' stagnant offense. Meanwhile, Bryant scored 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter.

The approach in setting the right tone always becomes a balancing effect. Following the Lakers' consecutive losses to Charlotte and Cleveland before the All-Star break, Bryant refused to speak with any reporters. But during the All-Star break, he stressed everything would work out. After the Lakers secured their second consecutive win following the All-Star break, Bryant expressed confidence the team "showed they're capable of playing at a championship level," before noting the team "has been a mind [expletive]." Meanwhile, Fisher expressed disappointment at the team's 14-6 mark and remained unsatisfied with the team's 17-1 record following the All-Star break. He often mentioned the latest season always proves the hardest to win a championship, but cited past season's adversities as reasons why the Lakers can secure a third title in a row for the second time.

It's a role the Lakers' co-captains have filled for quite some time, but the science behind providing that role remains forever evolving.

"I have to focus on the challenge in getting us to win another championship. To do that, I have to take the temperature of the guys and realize what they need at that particular moment," Bryant said. "Sometimes it requires patience. Sometimes it requires understanding. I have to keep my finger on the pulse of this team. As a result, sometimes we go on a few stretches where we're not playing well, but I don't lose these guys and scare them to death."

--Mark Medina

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