Every morning, it seems, Kobe Bryant wakes up and has to pull an arrow out of his backside. From the east Shaq takes aim every few days, though it's usually comical and we've grown used to Shaq poking Kobe with a stick, now from 3,000 miles away in Miami. But these newest shots are being fired from Big Sky Country or wherever Phil Jackson was summering when he took the entries from his daily diary and made them into a book called "The Last Season, a Team in Search of Its Soul."
There's nothing lighthearted or comical about Jackson's assessment of Bryant, whom the former Lakers coach portrays as a egomaniac who ultimately undermined last season's team. Jackson says in the book he grew so tired of battling with Bryant he tried to get him traded before last season's trade deadline. Jackson recalled one conversation with GM Mitch Kupchack in which he said, "I won't coach this team next year if he is still here. He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid."
Okay, it's one thing to hear Shaq or some former teammate take shots at a peer; that happens in every locker room in America. But to hear a coach with Jackson's credentials and credibility rip Bryant on the record and in great detail is a stunner and amounts to an indictment. What is Kobe going to say to refute Jackson? "He's jealous!" I don't think so, since Jackson has 11 NBA championship rings (nine as a coach, two as a player). What this also means is that even though Jackson is up in his cabin and Shaq is in Miami, and Kobe is the only one left in Los Angeles, we will still have the Phil- Kobe-Shaq Triangle of Doom for at least as long as Jackson is stumping to promote his book.
Jackson's revelations and Shaq's pointed criticisms make it clear that the stories of the friction on that team were, if anything, underreported. And it raises the question of just how deep and intense their dislike for Kobe was. Apparently all of Jackson's Zen couldn't balance him when it came to dealing with Kobe, and the coach hired a therapist to consult during the season after coming to the conclusion that "a major confrontation between the two of us [seemed] unavoidable."
I completely disagree with the notion that Jackson should somehow be above the fray and shouldn't have put the criticism of Kobe in ink because it's indisputable now that Kobe, favored by owner Jerry Buss, drove Shaq to Miami and Phil to a shrink. All three tend their images very carefully. So, Phil and Shaq get to shoot arrows if they want, and what does it hurt anybody anyway since it's just the adult version of sticks-and-stones?
Even so, the most fascinating, difficult-to-peg figure in all of this, easily, is Kobe. I've spent enough time with him over the past four years to find him thoughtful, engaging, diverse and usually charming. But I've talked to enough of his teammates to know many of them, even if we exclude Shaq, feel he's self-absorbed, high-handed, agenda-driven and condescending. I've defended Kobe in this space after he was booed in his home town of Philadelphia for no good reason at the conclusion of a recent all-star game. And I've ripped into him for playing disturbingly selfish basketball during last June's NBA Finals between the Lakers and Pistons when it seemed winning was secondary to proving his point.
And none of this even touches the allegation, since dropped, that he sexually assaulted a woman in Colorado and all the melodrama that flowed from thatepisode.
He appears to be a young man of whom a lot of stuff, much of it conflicting, is true. And he also appears to be a public figure who will live the next dozen years in the spotlight, playing and living in Hollywood, where everything he does in and out of basketball will be examined to death. And it's tough not to wonder how in the world a kid with so much going for him has run afoul of so many people and become so resented despite his talents.
First, it's too bad the kid wasn't made by his parents to go to college. And yes, I mean made to go. Several times, after playing fabulously or hitting a dramatic shot to lift the Lakers to victory, Bryant, knowing my position on skipping college, has said to me in the locker room, "Still think I needed to go to college?"
The answer, louder than ever now, is yes, both for basketball and personal growth. He needed very desperately to negotiate that formal transition in his life from childhood to manhood. He needed a college coach who could ride him and not fear for his job. He needed to learn how, literally, to play with others. He needed to learn not how to pass a basketball, but when. He needed to learn how and why it is necessary to rely on teammates.
These are holes in his résumé that have been there all along, just covered up because he played for a great coach, with a great big man who has a tremendous amount of talent and creativity himself. Still, there's so much he doesn't appear to get, and at 26 when you've got all the money in the world, three championship rings, and once again freedom, maybe he'll never get it. If we are to believe Jackson, and I do to an extent, there's a basic immaturity in Bryant that makes him ill-suited to a team sport, at the very least.
Okay, he doesn't get a do-over on a decision he made nine years ago and given his riches one he probably wouldn't make any differently anyway.
But at some point he's going to have to deal with criticism from those close to him in some way other than, "I'm right and everybody else is wrong."
He goes into a season in a couple of weeks with a team dramatically less than the teams he played on that included Jackson and Shaq. The Lakers look to be the sixth or seventh best team in the West, doomed to the middle-of-the pack no matter how many points Kobe scores. In the first preseason game he played 41 minutes and took 13 three-pointers, which suggests he'd rather play his way than another way that gives him a better chance to win.
Jackson's book confirms to many of us what all the signs from last season pointed to: that Bryant wanted to give it a go without Shaq and without Jackson. And as talented and as willful as Bryant is, he will find out through a grueling and closely watched season whether he ought to have been more careful about what he asked for.