KOBE QUESTIONS

May 16, 2010

The LA guys are taking hard looks at Kobe Bryant. Plaschke, who never has been a Kobe fan, asked in the LA Times if Kobe “tanked” a game 7 against
Phoenix in the 2006 playoffs.
Chris Erskine, also of the LA Times, tried to look inside Kobe’s head.

First from Plaschke:

“He hated the question, his jaw tightening, his eyes flaring.

“C’mon,” Kobe Bryant said.

He hated the question, it touching on the deepest, darkest perceptions about his ethics and effort.

“Seriously,” Bryant said.

He hated the question. But, two days before revisiting the setting of the alleged crime, he couldn’t wait to answer it.

In the spring of 2006, did you tank the second half of Game 7 of the first-round series against the Phoenix Suns?

“People who say that are stupid,” Bryant said. “That’s just stupid.”

It has been the most renowned on-court controversy of his career. For four years it has trailed him and nagged him like a scrap of toilet paper dancing under his high-tops.

So perhaps it should be no surprise that, in a rare interview about the painful subject Saturday, Bryant attacked it like it was Kevin Durant and plowed over it like it was Wesley Matthews.

“It’s outlandish, the amount of irresponsibility people have, throwing out statements like that,” he said.

The question is news again because on Monday, the Lakers begin a Western Conference finals series against the Suns. The issue is topical again because last week, folks accused LeBron James of sabotaging the Cleveland Cavaliers in a halfhearted effort in Game 5 of their losing series against the Boston Celtics.

Many thought Bryant did the same thing four years ago in the eighth-seeded Lakers showdown game against the top-seeded Suns.

Attempting to finish one of the greatest upsets in Laker history in Game 7, Bryant scored 23 points in the first half, yet the Lakers trailed 60-45. It was clear then that Bryant just didn’t have enough help. He was burdened with Kwame Brown’s slowness, Smush Parker’s foolishness, and other pieces that just didn’t fit.

In the second half, a frustrated Bryant seemingly made this point when he stopped shooting and, some say, stopped playing. He took only three shots in the half, scored but one point, and the Lakers lost the game, 121-90.

I was there. I thought it was Bryant making a statement. I don’t think he purposely tried to lose, but I thought he was sending a message to the front office to clean up this mess.

“It was selfish, it was silly,” I wrote.

Turns out, I was being kind. Many others around the league openly accused him of openly tanking the game, their chorus led by TNT’s Charles Barkley, who called Bryant selfish and ranted enough that Bryant later appeared on the TNT show to defend himself.

Four years later, even after leading the Lakers to a Shaq-less title, Bryant continues to be haunted by the perception that Barkley was right.

“Barkley was stupid, he didn’t watch the game, lots of people who were critical of me didn’t even watch the game,” Bryant said.

So what happened?

“To get back in the game, we needed somebody else to start making shots,” Bryant said. “I was just trying to get the other guys going, turn the momentum around.”

It didn’t work. The Lakers scored four baskets in the first eight minutes of the third quarter, trailed by 22, and the game was over.

‘”I really tried to help everyone else, it just never happened, we missed shots, they got run-outs, three, three, three, and all of the sudden, the game was out of reach,” Bryant said. “I had been successful doing that before, other guys start making shots, the energy picks up, we get back in the game. But nobody saw those games.”

So what about the idea that he was making a statement? And that maybe that statement worked? Because of that loss, and the following year’s first-round loss to Phoenix, the Lakers eventually rid themselves of Parker and Brown, and acquired Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol.

“Hell, no,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. “That’s not my thought process. I don’t think like that. I think about one thing and one thing only, and that’s kicking butt.”

Bryant shook his head in apparent amazement.

“If I’m going to send a message to the front office, I’m going to do it by going up there and raising hell,” he said. “There is no way I’m going to be doing it on the court, losing a game. That’s not who I am.”

There have been other times when I thought that’s exactly who Bryant was, most notably in April of 2004, when he took one shot in the first half of a game in Sacramento after Coach Phil Jackson had criticized his ball hogging. Since then, he has been known to occasionally and briefly pout, even as recently as Game 4 of the first-round series against Oklahoma City, when he didn’t take a shot for the first 15 minutes.

But knowing what we know now about his unnatural drive and his unreal competitiveness, it does seem silly to think he would purposely lose a Game 7, doesn’t it?

“That’s just not my nature, you just have to know me,” said Bryant.

We’re trying, we’re trying.”

Next we hear from Erskine:

“OK, like any good shrink I’m going to give you a word, and you tell me what pops into your mind.

Kobe?

Magnificent.

Kobe?

Baronial.

Kobe?

Enigmatic.

For those of you who spend all day listening to sports talk radio, enigmatic is a word of Greek origin meaning “mysterious and tough to pin down.” Like many of L.A.’s resident geniuses — Scully and Wooden come to mind — Kobe Bryant seems to want to protect a part of himself in some sort of personal
safehouse. I don’t blame a single one of them.

But His Toothiness seems as much a mystery now as ever. On his wings, the Lakers fail or soar. No player in all of sports can will a team to victory the way Kobe can. Michael Jordan used to do it. Joe Montana? Of course. Bronko Nagurski? Well, you saw that game against the Redskins, right?

Where have we seen a season like this? Well, how about last year, when the Lakers were a Class 5 hurricane one game and cupcakes the next. We buried
them with a shovel several times — in Houston, in Denver — only to have them bounce back again and again. The cast, the plot lines, a whiff of hemlock, it’s all vaguely Shakespearean. Lakers games shouldn’t run four quarters. They should come in three acts. The refs should carry swords.

Now they’re at it again, these passive-aggressive-aggressive Lakers. Some nights, they are fierce. Some nights they are scary. I’m a lot like that myself.

Thing is, for the casual fan, the season doesn’t really start till now. So here’s our guide to the Lakers as we see them today, the Lady Gagas of the NBA:

Who are these guys?

Well, they’re led by Bryant, who nominally reports to Coach Phil Jackson, who answers to owner Jerry Buss, father of Jackson’s girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, a
team executive vice president. If Jackson could manage to pony up an engagement ring, he could one day inherit the franchise.

How’s that for Shakespearean? Let’s move on.

Pau! You’re dead

The Lakers’ second-best player — and sometimes their best — is a shaggy dog out of Spain by the name of Pau Gasol.

Just when opponents think they have the Lakers beaten, the quick-handed Spaniard sneaks up from behind and slits their throats. It’s the perfect crime,
because there are so many other suspects. “I was 20 miles away at the time,” he tells the refs with a shrug. “Besides, I wore gloves.”

If the Spaniard ever goes, so will the Lakers. Gasol is the best thing to happen to L.A. since movie nudity.

The supporting cast

Ron Artest? Liked him better as a blond. Honestly, were those crop patterns carved into his head, or was he wearing a poodle hat? His own coach recently
dubbed him a “naive lamb,” a rare yet interesting description for a pro athlete.

I’m a naive lamb too, but I’m thinking it’s been a dud of an acquisition. Artest doesn’t even go into the stands anymore to confront fans. What fun is that? At least we’d know he was awake.

Derek Fisher? Nice beard — if you’re a jazz bassist. To us, it’s too reminiscent of Baron Davis. Or some radical kook about to occupy the poly sci wing at
Berkeley. The thing about Fish the Swish is the colossal three-pointers he hits at critical junctures. Some of the game’s connoisseurs think he is done. I think he can play till he’s 60.

Lamar Odom? The ultimate middle child, one moment goofy, another invisible. Like Fisher, he’s got a knack for the dramatic, a gift for stepping up at just the right time. But why wait?

Andrew Bynum? Apparently, his bones are hollow in the middle, much like a sparrow’s. It’s the only thing that explains the constant injuries. Were he actually to have bone inside his bones . . . well, they would probably still snap like a breadstick.

Test for success

Meanwhile, the Lakers are bound to bring in some fresh faces next year. They would do well to give them the new Wonderlic test I’m proposing for the entire NBA:

1. Down by a deuce with three seconds to play, the best thing to do would be:

A. Call time out.

B. Call a cab.

C. Go into the stands to confront a heckler.

2. If it takes two hours to fly from Chicago to Philly, how many hours would it take to fly from Philly to Chicago?

A. That depends.

B. Beats me.

C. Where’s Chicago?

3. You know your sidearm is loaded when:

A. It goes off in your pants.

B. Your teammate starts bleeding.

C. The cops arrive.

4. Dennis Rodman was to basketball:

A. What Germany is to Poland.

B. What sugar is to tea.

C. What brides are to weddings.

5. 2+2+3+2+3+2 equals:

A. 14.

B. 22,3232.

C. A rare off-night for Kobe.”

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