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Under Wraps

Bryant gives his all, and some still want more

May 13, 2008|Mark Heisler

Kobe Bryant will play Wednesday, I learned Monday.

Actually, I didn't learn it as much as divine it from years of watching Bryant, who would play if they had to wrap him from head to foot like a mummy.

Two things are certain with Bryant: 1) he's the gamer of gamers and 2) he'll never take a breath without creating a controversy, as he did once more Sunday.

Only one thing kept Bryant's performance in Game 4 from rising to the mythic level of Willis Reed limping out for Game 7 in 1970 and the flu-ridden Michael Jordan beating the Jazz in 1997 . . .

The Lakers didn't win.

Otherwise, it would have been one for the ages: Bryant looking like Charlton Heston in "El Cid" whose body was tied to his horse and sent back into battle, leading them back from a 12-point deficit in the last 3:59 of regulation.

If Lamar Odom had made his three-pointer to put them ahead with :13 left and they'd gone on to win, people would have talked about this game as long as there was an NBA.

Instead, the Lakers lost in overtime . . . and Bryant was critiqued for all the shots he took in overtime?

We're not getting a little hard-boiled, are we?

An ordinary player wouldn't have even seen the fourth quarter, much less found a way to lead the rally that forced the overtime.

Gee, haven't we been at this point before . . . annually? Or to put it another way, welcome to Bryant's career.

After all the soap operas he has starred in, he's perceived more as a cartoon character than a person.

The all-timer was last week's most-valuable-player ceremony when ESPNews anchor David Lloyd was apparently surprised to learn Bryant actually knew his teammates.

"I don't think I knew that Kobe was a well-liked guy on that team until this press conference," said Lloyd after watching him joke with the other Lakers.

"He's become a part of that team. I'm not sure he was before."

He's become a part of that team?

Who do people think the Lakers are, some crew out of a video game such as "Grand Theft Auto"?

Their soap opera notwithstanding, Bryant turned the corner playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal years ago, with his assist totals rising annually until he set his career-best of 481 in 2002-03.

Of course, being Kobe Bryant meant he could also go back and turn that corner heading the other way. Nevertheless, since Phil Jackson's return in 2005, Bryant's leadership of, and involvement with, his teammates has been unquestionable.

Actually, since Bryant tried to trade this set of teammates for another in Chicago last fall, I should say since Kobe's return in 2007, his leadership has been unquestionable.

Here's the part that's taking a while to sink in: This isn't the old Bryant or the Bryant of last fall. These aren't the Shaq-Kobe Lakers or any of the overmatched little teams that followed.

This is Kobe on Top of His Game, not only willing to play with teammates but be brilliant at it and as excited as anyone in the Lakers' organization at their future.

These aren't the precariously balanced Shaq-Kobe Lakers. This team isn't as dominating, for one thing, but for harmony and cohesion, it's day-and-night better.

So if the offense broke down and/or Bryant took too many shots, he was still great Sunday, playing 46 minutes with a back that seized up on three separate occasions.

On the last, Bryant charged into Andrei Kirilenko and sank to his knees in pain, looking as if he couldn't stay in, although, of course, he did.

Someone asked Monday whether he knew he could continue.

"I don't know how I made it through the game to begin with, to be honest with you," Bryant said.

He was even trouper enough to go to the interview room after the game although he couldn't sit down, and conducted the interview standing up, talking into a hand-held microphone.

"I'm Don Cornelius," he said, laughing.

Bryant was also wearing a portable stimulation unit -- which he brushed by accident, turning it up all the way and sending another jolt up his beleaguered spine.

So even if it was memorable, Sunday definitely didn't go down as a good day for him.

Officially, Bryant is listed as day-to-day. Unofficially, it's only a matter of what he'll bring because he'll be there.

"Even talking about him possibly not playing," said Derek Fisher, "I mean, I'll entertain questions, but it's not an option, really. I mean for him."

Who cares what anyone else would do in this situation?

This is Kobe Bryant and there's only one of him.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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