Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and General Manager Mitch Kupchak have come a long… (Luis Sinco / LAT )
The phone in Kobe Bryant's pocket trembled at an unexpected time.
He had been in the middle of overseeing his basketball camp in Santa Barbara and had just wrapped a clinic at the local Boys & Girls Club. And he was just days away from beginning practice with Team USA in preparation for the 2012 London Olympics.
But a phone call brought him back from all the non-Lakers-related pursuits. Team General Manager Mitch Kupchak was checking in, alerting him that the front office was in serious pursuit of veteran point guard Steve Nash.
"You think you really have a chance?" Bryant asked.
"I think, but I'm not sure it's going to be easy," Kupchak said, alluding to the financial constraints stemming from the league's new labor deal. "But the first step is we have to convince him this is the place he wants to be. The second step is trying to get a deal done with Phoenix."
And that's where Bryant came into the picture. Kupchak had Bryant talk with Nash directly. The Lakers star expressed enthusiasm at such a possible pairing because it would relieve him of ball-handling duties and increase the team's chances of winning a championship. Two days later, the Lakers had Nash in the fold with a three-year, $27-million deal.
Bryant's phone conversation with Nash showed that the two could forget their deeply rooted rivalry for the sake of a common goal — winning a title. It also showed that Bryant still has enough cache to convince both top tier and reserve players alike to join the Lakers.
But more importantly, it showed how Bryant has a stronger bond with the front office than even a year ago, when the Lakers hired Coach Mike Brown without consulting Bryant, who learned about it through media reports.
After criticizing the Lamar Odom trade on the first day of training camp, Bryant spoke with Kupchak for 15 minutes. But he said weeks later he still didn't understand the rationale of the trade, let alone agree with it. In what many viewed as a plea for the Lakers' front office at least to keep him aware on the team's general direction, Bryant blasted the front office in February for not providing clarity on Pau Gasol's standing with the team.
Of course, this was all nowhere near Bryant's frustration level during his infamous trade demands in 2007, where he once called owner Jerry Buss an "idiot" and suggested that former General Manager Jerry West should return to the Lakers to replace Kupchak.
But it was Bryant who said that "Mitch has earned the license to do whatever the hell he wants" after the Lakers acquired Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008 for Kwame Brown, Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton, two first-round picks and the rights to Pau's brother Marc, who the Lakers had drafted with a second-round pick in 2007. Bryant still insisted the Lakers had a championship-caliber team. He stressed for his teammates not to get wrapped up in the roster uncertainty.
Still, Bryant showed signs of frustration. He remained silent regarding the Brown hire. Bryant often suggested to reporters in jest that they knew more about the team's direction than Brown did. He told the New York Post last December that he hadn't seen team executive Jim Buss in years.
But that changed.
Both Bryant and Buss told ESPN Radio that the two had dinner and came away with a better mutual understanding about the team. Bryant delayed his exit interview so he could have a more intimate and prolonged conversation with Kupchak this summer over breakfast, a meeting Kupchak said was "positive" and "had no agenda." And Kupchak said Bryant frequently texts him when he hears a player might be interested in the Lakers.
"He's not trying to send a message," Kupchak said. "He's just saying this is what I heard because the players talk."