The smiles are few and sometimes seem as forced as his jump shots.
On court by night, in court by day, Kobe Bryant is trying to find his way among his teammates and his attorneys. In a season of uncertainty, moods change like the leads in a game.
One moment Bryant is a loner, the next he’s hugging everyone in sight. He squabbles with Shaquille O’Neal, then makes nice-nice. He declares this his walk-year with the Los Angeles Lakers, but no one’s sure if he means it.
He has high-amp flashes, the old moves, but can’t sustain it quite yet. There are games when he pushes too hard, the old selfishness, and others when he slips in so seamlessly he’s almost invisible.
On a night of wacky weather in Los Angeles, rare lightning and a thunderstorm, Bryant found his balance on the court with O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
Granted they had easy pickings in the Toronto Raptors — the NBA’s worst offensive team — and couldn’t cluck too cockily about winning 94-79. But there were times on this otherwise ugly Wednesday evening — “a flat game for a rainy day,” as coach Phil Jackson called it — that were beautiful to watch. Hints of what may come.
On the eve of his first hearing before the judge who will preside over his sexual assault trial, Bryant played smoothly, as though nothing were amiss.
He sat quietly through the brief procedural hearing Thursday morning in Eagle, Colo., with his 19-year-old accuser’s parents and two brothers in court. The judge set a pretrial hearing for Dec. 19 and another for Jan. 23 to settle various motions.
The defense waived Bryant’s rights to be advised of the sexual assault charge against him and the penalty he faces if convicted — four years to life in prison and 20 years to life on probation. Bryant’s $25,000 bail was left unchanged and his plea was put off until his arraignment, which hasn’t been scheduled.
The pressure of his legal ordeal, the argument with O’Neal, the frowns from his teammates and Jackson over Monday night’s shooting binge in a loss in Memphis — on court he shed it all as if he were shaking off a little rain.
Bryant’s 19 points and four assists in 37 minutes Wednesday seemed effortless, the way they should. As the expression goes, he let the game come to him. The triangle, this time at least, wasn’t stretched on one side.
“It’s one of these victories where we just kind of coasted,” Bryant said. “We’re going to get much, much better.”
They will get enormously better if Bryant keeps playing with the kind of contained aggression the Lakers need from him. They want his jumpers and drives, but they also want more assists from him. They want the ball moving inside to O’Neal, in and out to Malone, over to Payton and Derek Fisher and Devean George.
“I want a team that has the ability to differentiate between who’s hot and who’s not, who has the advantage and who doesn’t,” Jackson said. “That’s really the key.”
For most of the first three quarters against the Raptors, Bryant deferred to O’Neal and Malone, staying in the background on offense, letting the big men bull their way to the basket. He had a quiet nine points by halftime and a 3-pointer on one of his few shots in the third quarter.
When O’Neal (23 points), Malone (17) and Payton (16) went to the bench for a long stretch with a 74-60 lead after three quarters, Bryant asserted himself, scoring six straight points. It was as if, separated from his superstar brethren, he decided it was his time to show his stuff. In games like this, that’s fine.
Not every game, though, will be against the likes of the Raptors. What’s important to the Lakers now is not the victories so much as the manner in which they’re won. The Lakers are 6-2, but they’re not even close to being the power they can become.
That will depend largely on Bryant — the course of his travails in Colorado and his willingness to yoke his talents with his teammates so they’re pulling in the same direction.
“It’s something he hasn’t been used to in the past, having big-name all-star players that he can go to or that he can trust,” George said.
Or as Malone put it: “On this team here, I don’t think you want to put that pressure on yourself because you don’t really have to.”
Extra pressure is the last thing Bryant needs. He has already reacted to his legal troubles in ways that seemed out of character for him, covering himself with tattoos and religious references.
The world is watching and weighing in on his every move. Legal and public relation experts feed off him daily.
“Kobe’s attitude needs serious adjustment for both his court appearances, especially during his away games with the Lakers this season,” said Mike Paul, an adjunct professor of reputation management and crisis PR at New York University. “Kobe has not taken advantage of public opportunities to be humble and accountable.”
Bryant has bigger problems than any phony “reputation management.” He has a long jail term to worry about. He has a career that could collapse.
Bryant is playing to friendly audiences at home. He’s shrugged off some unpleasantness so far on the road but the worst, Paul believes, is yet to come.