The difference between expectations and reality for this Lakers’ season and team has been enormous. As days go by far too quickly on the NBA calendar, the Lakers have alas come to the realization that time is running out on the fading chances of simply making it into the playoffs. The days where Laker fans were planning on making a trip to downtown LA to witness the parade celebrating a championship are long gone, as clinching a playoff spot is now the fans’ hope.
With the constant overflowing of problems surrounding the Lakers, Kobe Bryant has remained steadfast and calm, to the point where it’s almost eerie. Even after finally airing direct frustrations of the system, he did it in a calm way. As the outright leader and face of not only the Lakers but of Los Angeles basketball as well, Bryant’s response, demeanor and approach to the apocalyptic season for the team has proved his growth as a leader and as a person.
I’m sure most of you have already read the interview article from last week by ESPN’s Chris Palmer with Kobe Bryant. It was a pretty in-depth interview from Kobe, which covered a wide range of topics from on the court to off of it. One of the topics that stood out to me was when Palmer discussed Bryant’s calm demeanor despite the struggles currently facing his Lakers. Below is an excerpt from that article.
There’s something different about you. You seem so … calm.
Because I am. That’s just the maturation. That’s 17 years of seeing everything the game can dish out. I’ve seen it all before. There’s no need to get too crazy or bent out of shape. There are still challenges every day. But I’m still having fun. I was born to play this game. I still love it.
So you’re not a ticking time bomb?
[Laughs.] No, not at all. This is all stuff we’re going to work through. I know I don’t have much longer to do this so I’m going to enjoy it. I’m still going to find those challenges.
I couldn’t help but not thinking about how times have changed for Kobe as a player and as a leader. Bryant is currently having his best season individually in years. However, that is overshadowed with the disappointing performance and the fact that the Lakers are currently well out of playoff contention with an almost $130 million payroll. With the Lakers unable to make any true progress, Bryant’s leadership is certainly being tested.
Bryant’s calm and collected approach is a testament to his growth and maturity as a leader. Bryant knows how his words influence not only how his teammates react, but how the front office reacts as well. In this situation, the younger Kobe might have thrown his hands up, taken a step back from responsibility as a leader from the situation or might have even played the blame game. Any frustration that he does shows is a different type like the one he showed after the loss in Chicago.
Instead he is looking within himself to find answers; a very Zen-like thing. After all, Bryant has learned from the Zen Master himself, Phil Jackson. As Bryant told reporters when the Lakers downward spiral got vey serious:
“I’ve been through tough situations in the past, and I’d always blow my top. Then I had a head coach who always kept calm, always focused on the X’s and O’s of things, and I learned from that. I’m trying to do the exact same thing here.”
However, don’t doubt that Kobe feels frustrated inside; he’s too much of a competitor not to. He is still unafraid to light a fire under a player to get him going. Yet, it is important to channel the Zen methods because his teammates feed and react to the way he responds. That’s a part of being a leader. We have all seen his frustration slip on the court, i.e.. the Death Stare, but in the locker room and around his teammates, keeping it together and fighting to find a solution is essential to build chemistry, unity and morale. In other words, he is seeking answers within.
That can be seen with his beliefs of what he needs to do as the leader on the court, as seen in Adrian Wojnarowski’s piece on Tuesday morning:
“We need to go back to basics,” Bryant said. “We need to put guys in positions to do what they do best. We need to strip it down. Steve is best in pick-and-roll. Pau is best in the post. I’m best from the free-throw line extended down. Let’s go back to basics.”
The Lakers have enough problems on the court as it is. Can you imagine if their leader broke down? Not only would any chance o playoff hopes cease to exist, but crucial free agents next summer would most likely have a change of heart of where they’ll play in the future (if they haven’t already).
Phil Jackson wrote in Sacred Hoops, “The secret [of basketball] is not thinking…it means quieting the endless jabbering of thoughts so that your body can do instinctively what it’s been trained to do without the mind getting in the way.” This Zen practice is being used by Bryant right now as a leader. He is filtering all the talk, pressure and critiques of the Lakers out of his mind and preaching to himself and his teammates to just play basketball and find answers within themselves.
That is all he can do on the court and as a leader. The team needs to except the reality they are playing in, and find it within themselves to fight and take charge of their destiny as a team. There are no real excuses. The talent is there. The knowledge is there. Desire and commitment must take control now. As Kobe said, “Everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise.” Let’s hope the front office and Mike D’Antoni will as well.