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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Who's Next?

At 24, Bryant continues to reinvent himself, with his streak of 40-point games as latest exhibit

March 02, 2003|Mark Heisler

Kobe, en fuego, puts himself out in the nick of time.

Kobe, Kobe, burning bright.

It was like acetylene aflame, the brightest light from the hottest fire, as Kobe Bryant ascended to yet another level, at least until his string of 40-point games took on a life of its own.

It was about basketball when it started, then survival as he tried to keep the Lakers from falling back when Shaquille O'Neal went out, but by games No. 8 and 9, Bryant's ego was plainly involved, before he realized where this was heading. Happily for all concerned, when he saw that No. 10 wasn't happening, he didn't chase it out the door, he just let it go.

If the hype around such an obscure record was overblown, its real significance lay in what it revealed about the relentless, ever-evolving and still only 24-year-old Bryant.

Every season seems to bring a new Kobe, striking out boldly in a different direction, encountering new adventures, so that we're always wondering, "Who is he now?"

As usual, for him, the game is the easy part, it's everything else that has to be sorted out. As he noted matter-of-factly after the streak ended, "Oh, I can play better basketball."

Of course, he has always said that. The amazing thing is, he hasn't been proven wrong yet.

"I'm depressed, to tell you the truth," Jerry Reynolds, personnel director of the arch-rival Sacramento Kings, said last week. "I have nothing but admiration for the young man, but at this stage of my life, I didn't need to see this happen....

"I'm hoping maybe he'll lose interest in the game. Maybe he could play baseball. I think we could get the River Cats [Sacramento's minor league team] to sign him. He can live at my house, if he wants to."

In Indianapolis, Pacer President Donnie Walsh watched Bryant getting 52 in the double-overtime victory over the Rockets, and raved about it for days.

"I know guys get 50," Walsh said. "I was at a game [as a Denver assistant in 1978] when David Thompson got 73 or something. But this 52 was a real 52. I was telling Isiah [Thomas, Pacer coach], the guy was making one big shot after another, the whole fourth quarter and two overtimes....

"This is the kind of stuff legends are made of."

Unfortunately for the Lakers, as the chants of "Kobe!" and "MVP!" wafted down -- even in the Delta Center -- and the media heavies flew in to interview him, it was also becoming the kind of stuff problems are made of.

They went 7-2 in Bryant's nine 40-point games. He shot 49% and 47% on three-pointers. However, they looked solid at the beginning, then wobbly at the end in unimpressive victories over the Trail Blazers and SuperSonics.

The role players, whose production is modest but key, were all but sidelined as the sideshow became the show. They stuck to the house line -- it was OK -- but O'Neal's studied responses ("Kobe's all about making history") suggested there were limits.

Bryant will make his share of NBA history. Of course, it will be better if it inspires awe, without snickers.

You Robin, Me Batman,

or Is It Vice Versa?

"Everyone compares [Bryant] to Michael Jordan. Well, he's just 24. I know one thing, he's better than Jordan was when he was 24."

-- Jerry Reynolds

Of course, we've seen Bryant make these quantum leaps before. In the beginning, they were annual.

It wasn't only Bryant's skill level that impressed Jerry West in 1996, but his poise -- which was always confused with maturity, a very different quality -- and commitment.

Kobe would finish the season as one kind of player and come back the next fall better than he'd ever been. The remarkable thing was, the people who knew him weren't surprised.

"I think he's Old School, personally," says Clipper Coach Alvin Gentry, one of Bryant's foremost admirers. "Old School with a touch of Generation X there....

"He works incredibly hard. I think the other thing that's good about Kobe is that the guy works on things that he actually uses in the game.

"When I was at Detroit, [former Laker assistant] Larry Drew was my assistant and we often talked about players. And the one thing that Larry Drew said to me, the guy is a no-nonsense guy. A no-nonsense guy when it comes to working on his game. He takes it very seriously and he wants to be the best player in the world."

Drew told other stories -- the one when then-coach Kurt Rambis tried to heal a split, calling a meeting in which teammates ripped Bryant, one after another ... and, by way of reply, Kobe went out that night and put up 25 shots.

Phil Jackson's arrival in Bryant's fourth season changed things. Jackson insisted that Bryant's being all he could be couldn't interfere with O'Neal's being all he could be.

The principals thrashed it out, succeeding well enough to win three titles, but it wasn't until the third season that Kobe could easily accept his role and Shaq could accept Kobe.

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