Phoenix When checking in with a buddy who now lives in Arizona to say I’d be in the area this weekend to cover the Lakers-Suns game on Sunday, I got quite a jolt. He volunteered this surprising news: “I’m coming around on Kobe.”
What the ... ?!
When people haven’t liked Kobe Bryant in the past, their stances have been more concrete than Hoover Dam. You had more chance of getting Kwame Brown to score 81 points in a game than you had of getting a Kobe-hater to start “coming around.”
But here was the crux of my friend J.T.’s rationale: “What I like about him now is that he’s focused on winning with his team and not just winning by himself.”
J.T. is not an NBA diehard but is an educated sports fan. He remembers being awed by Bryant as far back as his high-school days but never became a Kobe guy. Like many, J.T. didn’t see Bryant as tackling the challenge of winning championships as much as stretching his personal limits.
“I think fans hate that,” J.T. said. “They say, ’Yeah, it’s exciting to see a physical freak jump through the roof and shoot the ball while triple-teamed, but not at the cost of winning for your team.”
Whether Bryant’s lust for self-improvement actually cost the Lakers more than it helped them is very much debatable. Yet J.T.’s point is that he sees the latter-day Bryant providing both: highlight-reel thrills and a winning brand of leadership.
So I approached Bryant after practice Saturday with the gist of J.T.’s take. I asked Bryant if he cared about getting a non-fan to “come around,” and he said he definitely did. I asked Bryant about changing as a player, but there he did not agree.
“I’ve been playing the same way since I came in this league,” Bryant said. “I think the thing that has changed is my role on the team, so now things that I would’ve done when Shaquille (O’Neal) was here in terms of getting in people’s faces and demanding stuff from them or calling guys out or whatever, it’s viewed as leadership. Back then, it was viewed as a young kid stepping out of line.”
Bryant was committed to playing team ball when it needed to be played to win championships, something few outsiders understand fully.
“I see Kobe with Kevin Garnett’s intensity about his team — rather than about Kobe,” J.T. said.
How much has Kobe Bryant changed his leadership and his image for the better? Enough to change the opinion of at least one fan.