Only moments prior to the Lakers' 2001 championship parade, Tex Winter approached Kobe Bryant and a number of his teammates.
He made no small talk about the upcoming festivities, gave zero praise for individual performances and offered no congratulations for securing a back-to-back title. Instead he fixated on something so minutely detailed, it left plenty of the Lakers wondering why Winter would bring this up just as they were about to celebrate securing a title.
"We're all sitting around and he's talking about us not making fundamentally correct chess passes," Bryant recalled, drawing a few laughs from reporters. "He was serious. We all started laughing. He couldn't understand why we were laughing. That's just Tex."
Bryant shared that anecdote out of admiration for Winter's tendency "not going to sugarcoat anything," as Bryant put it, neither showing a hesitancy to criticize a player's performance or even Phil Jackson. Everyone ranging from Jackson, Bryant and to assistant coach Jim Cleamons argued Winter's induction this year to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame was long overdue mainly because his role in teaching the triangle offense proved instrumental in all of their development. And Winter did so with his unrestrained honesty.
The squeaking from the Lakers' shoes remained audible throughout the tail end of a five-on-five scrimmage.
It sounded as loud as Derek Fisher's swished jumper that sparked an expletive from an opposing player on the reserves. It sounded as loud as the shrieking whistle when Shannon Brownfouled Luke Walton when he drove into the lane. And it sounded as loud as the cheer let out when Pau Gasol's winning shot ended a practice that Coach Phil Jackson described as "high velocity."
Jackson had planned for Wednesday's practice to be more intense with the Lakers in a three-day stretch since their last game, a 102-84 victory Sunday against the New Orleans Hornets. With a day off Monday and a lighter session Tuesday, Jackson had earlier expressed concern about how the Lakers would play with the same energy in their matchup Thursday with the Dallas Mavericks as they have in their 15-1 run since the All-Star break. That's because their next game could have significant implications when it comes to playoff seedings, with the Lakers (53-20) holding a one-game lead over Dallas (52-21) going into the Mavericks' game against the Clippers on Wednesday night and trailing the first-place San Antonio Spurs (57-17) by 3 1/2 games in the Western Conference standings.
"It's as important as the last game we played against Dallas," Jackson said, referencing the Lakers' 96-91 victory over the Mavericks on March 12, which ended a 4-1 trip. "It was a game we keyed on our schedule and have guys thinking about it. It creates an opportunity to get some space between us and Dallas but it's still not the end, obviously."
The crowd gasped in frustration, pleading for Lakers forward Ron Artest not to shoot the wide-open three-pointer.
He did anyway.
The shot dropped in the bucket, gave the Lakers a three-point lead in the first overtime Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns and the 18,997 at Staples Center reacted hysterically. In return, Artest blew kisses in the air, soaking in all the adulation.
The image surely represents the never-ending anxieties and fickle relationship Laker fans have with Artest, swinging in frustration over his trigger-happy tendencies and distracted persona to admiration for his fearless mindset and goofball behavior. But the latter image was present all night long in the Lakers' 139-137 triple overtime victory Monday over the Phoenix Suns, a performance that featured Artest scoring seven of his 18 points on seven of 14 shooting and one of his three steals in extra regulation with funny antics along the way.
When he stole the ball from Suns guard Steve Nash in the third overtime, Artest drove for a fast break, finished with a one-handed dunk that gave the Lakers a 135-132 lead with 1:53 remaining and flexed and kissed his biceps afterward. Moments later, Artest pulled up for an off-balance 15-foot fade-away that somehow went in, giving the Lakers a 137-132 edge with 1:08 remaining and prompting him and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant to embrace at center court.
If those plays weren't entertaining enough, Artest's post-game interview surely was. He proclaimed the Lakers game lasted for three hours and nine minutes because he and boxing promoter Bob Arum thought it'd give him a plug to promote a possible Manny Paquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight.
"I knew it was going to happen so half the time I was just on roller skates," Artest said. "Did you see me skating? I was back skating because I knew what was going to happen."
An official word is far from definitive. But the Lakers enter Sunday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers expecting both Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynumwill suit up.
Bryant sat out of practice Saturday in favor of treatment for his sprained left ankle and a stiff neck after he accidentally knocked heads with Minnesota's Martell Webster late in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 106-98 victory Friday over the Timberwolves. Despite Phil Jackson's revelation after the game that he would talk to Bryant about whether he would scale back his minutes or even ask him to sit, Jackson conceded after Saturday's practice he didn't address Bryant's playing status against Portland and that it remains a game-time decision.
"He's doing OK today," Jackson said of Bryant, who observed the Lakers' defensive schemes in practice. "He has a stiff neck. Obviously he's working with a stiff ankle."
Bynum's playing status also remains in question, although it has little to do with anything surrounding his surgically repaired right knee. The NBA hasn't contacted the Lakers about whether Bynum's flagrant foul, type 2 on Minnesota forward Michael Beasley will earn him a suspension. Since they haven't been told otherwise, the Lakers are assuming Bynum won't face consequences for leveling Beasley with his right forearm with 6:16 remaining.
"Either they go home or else they'll give us a call," Jackson said.
The crowd sounds like a distant whisper. The remaining pain in his right knee becomes an afterthought. And the focus on his responsibility remains clear.
Everything surrounding Andrew Bynum's consistently increased presence during the Lakers' 10-1 mark since the All-Star break points to those three factors. It's enabled him to average 12.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks during that stretch, including a career-high tying 18 points against the Orlando Magic, and remain a strong defensive presence. It's enabled him to "have fun" as he put it. And it's enabled him to feel like he more empowered despite all the surrounding talent around him.
"I just made an effort," Bynum said. "It had nothing to do with clicking. It was the effort. I put energy into the defense. The defensive side of the basketball makes a difference. It helps us get more opportunities offensively. We're stil an offensive power house."
If there was any such exercise that's the equivalent of throwing red meat to the masses to devour, this would be the perfect item.
Sure, there are plenty of Laker stories that cause division and uprising. There's an Andrew Bynum injury, questioning of Kobe Bryant's shot selection, debating the Lakers' all-time greatest players, Luke Walton's contract and any praise for the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat. But this one surpasses them all -- questioning the Lakers' fanhood. The latest issue of GQ Magazine ranks the top 15 worst sports fans in the country and to no one's surprise, Lakers fans are on that list. Below is the excerpt:
Congratulations, Angelenos! You are the fairest of America's fair-weather fans! The Lakers unfaithful abandoned their team en masse when Magic retired in 1991, then reconfirmed their fickleness by sending local TV ratings plummeting 30 percent after Shaq departed in 2004. Meanwhile, in these championship days, the Staples Center is more bar scene than sports complex, where fans can't be bothered to clap -- their hands are too busy texting. "The focus is sometimes not on the court," coach Phil Jackson has said. "It's on the people in the crowd." Which explains why eight box suites were recently combined into an offshoot of an abominable nightclub, the Hyde Lounge. After VIPs pass a clipboard gauntlet -- at a sports stadium -- they can eat $21 nachos at a crocodile-skin bar while waiting for the space to transform into a postbuzzer dance club. When it's time to leave, a valet will even bring around their bandwagon.
Really? GQ goes through such a "heavily researched, highly scientific account of the bleacher creatures, bottle-throwers, couch-torchers, sexual harassers, projectile vomiters, and serially indifferent bandwagon-hoppers marring our national landscape" and that's their conclusion? Spare all the homework. I could've given you that synopsis in 30 or fewer seconds and then presented it as some undiscovered observation. Too bad it's as boring and predictable a stereotype as Kendrick Perkins calling Phil Jackson"arrogant" and Pau Gasol "soft."
"I think they're accustomed to success," Jackson said in amusement about the rankings. "That's kind of a natural reaction when you have a lot of success. People enjoy the show rather than feeling they have to encourage the team in an element of fanatacism."
Kobe Bryant hadn't met Robert Rodriguez before he called him up on the phone last summer. But Bryant isn't known to be shy about much of anything.
His product team at Nike got Rodriguez's phone number and the man known as the Black Mamba dialed up the filmmaker.
Bryant wanted to recruit the groundbreaking filmmaker to direct a series of commercials for his new sneaker, the Nike Zoom Kobe VI.
Rodriguez said Sunday, at a press event at the Nike Vault, that he was in on the project from the first call.
Bryant, who scored 41 points in the Lakers loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday, said Rodriguez is a filmmaker unlike any other, someone who could set the ads apart from other shoe commercials.
"I wanted it to kind of jump off the screen," Bryant said on Sunday of his vision for the ad campaign. "And there's nobody better to do it than Robert."
Bryant then called up rapper-producer Kanye West.
"He and I had something in the works a couple years ago with Nike that just never materialized, so the opportunity came up again and he and I always kind of talk back and forth," Bryant said of West.
And Rodriguez too made a couple of phone calls of his own.
One to Danny Trejo, the cult-film actor who has played villains and heroes in many of Rodriguez's movies, and another call into Bruce Willis.
But while Bryant knew West and Trejo were in, Willis was a pleasant surprise when the Lakers guard stepped on Rodriguez's makeshift L.A. set for two days of filming last off season.
"Bruce was -- that was a surprise to me," Bryant said of Willis. "I had no idea about that until I showed up and then I was like oh ... damn."
Rodriguez made a six-minute film, titled appropriately "The Black Mamba." West plays a villain known as the Boss, with Willis as his henchman. And the Boss wants Bryant's shoes.
In typical over-the-top Rodriguez style, Bryant ends up playing a game of basketball against Danny Trejo and a mutant-like defense, on top of a skyscraper in downtown L.A.
In the film, out of bounds mean falling off the roof.
The process of shooting the film in two days also fits with Rodriguez's method of making films at a lower-than-normal cost, quickly, using a lot of special effects to create environments that would otherwise take a lot of time and money to build.
Getting Bryant up to speed as a thespian wasn't a problem either, Rodriguez said.
"He can act because he just knows how to get in the zone," he said of Bryant. "You throw him the basketball, you better have the cameras running. You better have the cameras running because then you see him doing what we does best which is truly unbelievable."
Bryant said he saw parallels between acting and what he does on the hardwood.
"It's always about the details and the passion for what you do and kind of letting things to flow naturally -- a lot of the same things I do on the court," Bryant said.
The film will air on TV during the NBA All-Star break, Bryant said, not offering details on what channels just yet.
Also being released around the All-Star Game, which will take place at the Staples Center on Feb. 19, will be a set of Zoom Kobe VI sneakers called the Neighborhood Pack. The pack, made up of three colorways of Bryant's shoe, represents different parts of the L.A. metropolitan area -- East L.A., Hollywood and Orange County.
The East L.A. shoe is drenched in Dodger Blue. The Hollywood Pack features a 3-D reptile print that pops out when viewed with a pair of old-school red-and-blue glasses that come with the kicks. And the OC shoe is orange with a translucent green sole -- printed with a yellow and orange sunset.
Bryant is hoping the ad campaign with Rodriguez will be something people remember and he might be looking to do more with the filmmaker.
"We'll see," he said. "Robert [and] I talked about doing something. But in terms of the spot itself having a sequel it's -- we may, we may not. We'll see."
Top video: Kobe Bryant talks about the project. Credit: Nathan Olivarez-Giles / Los Angeles Times
Bottom video: Kobe Bryant and Robert Rodriguez talk about the making of "The Black Mamba" film and ad campaign at a press event at the Nike Vault on Sunday. Credit: Nathan Olivarez-Giles / Los Angeles Times
Top image: "The Black Mamba" movie poster. Credit: Nike
Second image: Nike Zoom Kobe East L.A. Credit: Nike
Third image: Nike Zoom Kobe Hollywood. Credit: Nike
Standing by his locker, Kobe Bryant engaged in something he rarely does.
He had fun with the media.
A devastating loss to Memphis carried all the same problematic characteristics in poor offensive execution, defensive lapses and shoddy effort. It was followed by the same endless questions about the Lakers' current state of being. But instead of sticking to the script, Bryant made an in-game adjustment.
He had spent the previous week finding endless ways to challenge the team, ranging from publicly criticizing them after a Miami loss, carrying the team albeit with negative results against San Antonio and then just having fun against New Orleans. The latter approach worked, except the effort proved unsustaining as he carried the team to victory against Philadelphia but then couldn't jolt them enough against Memphis. So Bryant asked for help.
"That's the role that you guys [the press] play in this thing," Bryant said when asked what can motivate the Lakers. "You guys write doom-and-gloom stories. I think that actually builds up a lot of tension. Most of the guys don't read them, but you can feel the energy from the crowd when you go out there, how concerned everybody is, so that does put a lot of pressure on us."
Well, Bryant received his wish.
Various reports surfaced that kept the media surely occupied enough before what became a Lakers' 108-83 victory Tuesday over the Detroit Pistons.
Those reports include the following: Forward Ron Artest confronted Coach Phil Jackson, expressing frustration of Jackson's public zinging regarding Artest's performances and goofy antics, with Jackson confirming most of the story and Artest remaining mum about the details. Several Lakers arrived late or missed Sunday's shoot-around completely, with forward Pau Gasol admitting afterwards he was one of them. There was Jackson's misconstrued quote that suggested Bryant "screwed up the game" against Memphis by scoring 17 third-quarter points, a charge both later said was accurate and appropriate. And then, of course, there was a shot delivered from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban toward Jackson for being the "boy toy" of Lakers executive vice president and girlfriend Jeanie Buss after Jackson speculated that Caron Butler's season-ending knee injury would severely hurt Dallas' chances to remain competitive in the West, a banter both Jackson and Buss embraced with one-liners of their own.
The stories made for one entertaining pre-game news conference for Jackson, but it surely validated charges expressed by Jackson and Bryant that off-court distractions have surrounded the Lakers for the past month. With all these stories as a backdrop, Bryant said he addressed his teammates before walking on the court about using this as a teachable moment.
"Listen to how everybody talks to you. Embrace this," Bryant recalled saying. "This is L.A. It comes with the territory of being back-to-back champs. You have to deal with it and you have to embrace it and you have to use it as fuel and motivation, because what matters the most are the people that are in this huddle right here. If we stay focused on that, we'll be fine."
Every few seconds, the shrill sound of a whistle reverberated throughout the Lakers' facility in El Segundo. Because the practice session was closed to the media, it remained unclear what prompted Coach Phil Jackson or perhaps his assistants Jim Cleamons, Brian Shaw, Frank Hamblen and Chuck Person to blow their whistles so frequently. But accounts from Jackson and his players make it presumably safe to conclude that the coaching staff's frequent use of the whistle served as an audio reminder that this practice would be different than others.
The Lakers' 2½-hour practice emphasized the re-teaching of defensive concepts because of the staff's displeasure with the team's poor communication on screen-and-rolls and help defense, poor rotations and poor transition defense. All those factors have contributed to the Lakers (23-11) entering Tuesday's game at Staples Center against the Detroit Pistons allowing 97.68 points per game, which ranks 15th overall out of 30 teams. "The message was we have to respond with better energy defensively," Jackson summed up.
The practice session involved, according to center Andrew Bynum, the team having to make 82 layups within a span of two minutes. It took the team six times before successfully completing the drill. Jackson remarked that the team trading Sasha Vujacic to the New Jersey Nets for Joe Smith, and Devin Ebank's recent departure to the Development League made the drill more difficult for team to complete than in training camp. But it's telling that conditioning remains an issue 34 games into the season. "Much more aggressive," Bynum described before saying he was going to recover by sitting in a hot tub. "Much more teaching going on as far as the defensive side of basketball, and we played 5-on-5 today."
But that's not all. There were more undisclosed running drills and more focus on sharpening fundamental concepts surrounding the triangle offense, a practice Lakers forward Lamar Odom described as "pretty hard" and "intense." "I don't know if we were doing that for conditioning or punishment," Odom said. "But hopefully it worked."