Kobe Bryant: Phase 3

By Jerold Wells
Updated: February 9, 2006

MINNESOTA—Mr. Bryant, I presume. Nice to meet you sir, the pleasure’s all mine. You must be the guy everyone’s been raving about for the last 10 years. Glad to have finally met you.

The maturation of Kobe Bryant is now in phase three and it’s proving to be more exciting than the previous two phases combined. This very public growth process is causing every basketball fan to reconsider the Bryant they thought they knew and become familiar with the newest version of the Los Angeles superstar, KB8 version 3.0.

Phase 1: The wide-eyed, tight-lipped rookie with the east coast swagger and the west coast future is long gone. The role player with too much talent to squander sitting on anyone’s bench is a distant memory.

What did his early vocational trials teach Kobe? They taught him that nothing would be given to him in L.A. They taught him that just because he was anointed by General Manager and Laker great Jerry West to be worthy of the mantle Magic Johnson left behind that no one would bestow that mantle upon him without struggle.

They taught him another lesson as well, perhaps more important than the others in his first phase. Kobe Bryant learned that no one in the league could stop him. The realization he could get any shot he wanted against any defender in the NBA, even with the game on the line, was a painful one. Sure he tossed up air balls against the Utah Jazz during the Conference Finals. The resulting losses from those missed shots taught him that if he could improve, he could win games just as easily as he lost them.

Phase 2: The seasoned NBA vet, multiple All-Star selection and 2nd best “Robin” in league history (we miss you Scottie) are all far-away recollections. The 3-time NBA champion and best wing player in the NBA no longer holds either of those prestigious titles. The O’Brien Trophy resides in San Antonio and numerous swingmen make compelling arguments for who is the best in the game right now.

What did the 2nd chapter of the Kobe Bryant story show him? It showed him that winning makes struggle worthwhile. It taught him that he wanted to hold the Finals MVP and championship trophies simultaneously as he’d witnessed Shaquille O’Neal do three times over. It taught him the he wasn’t above the law.

The 2nd part of the Kobe Bryant story gives us insight into the life of a superstar who remained defiant in the face of adversity (even if said adversity was self imposed) and perhaps even better as a result of it. The Kobe we see now feels as though he can do it all himself…. and why shouldn’t he feel that way? Who helped him through the public spats with Phil and Shaq? Who helped him through the humiliation of public criminal proceedings? No one did. He did it himself. In his own mind Kobe Bryant doesn’t feel as though he needs anyone else. Popularity, endorsements, friends, hell even family may help but they aren’t essential. They say no man is an island but Kobe Bryant is darn close…. let’s call him an isthmus. The only side of him not surrounded by water seems to be symbolized by this game of basketball. It is what is keeps him. Quite simply it is he. Kobe Bryant is the perfect example of a man completely consumed by the game of basketball and succeeding in it. He is a latter day Oscar Robinson, Bill Russell, Isaiah Thomas, Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan.

Phase 3: The Los Angeles Lakers hopes hinge on the broad shoulders of #8 night in and night out. Not only has Bryant gladly accepted such responsibility; he’s thriving. Kobe is proving that he can lead a winning (above .500) team. He’s proved that his team will win every other game and he’ll lead the squad in scoring, minutes played, and shots attempted. He’s proved that he can carry a franchise…. even one as weighty as the Lakers.

The 3rd version of Kobe Bryant is one that every basketball fan should see. He is everything good and bad about basketball. First let’s look at the bad. Purists may say that he shoots too much, passes too little, and doesn’t rebound nearly enough. George Gervin shot a lot, so did David Thompson. Michael Jordan shot a lot and so did Dominique Wilkins. Allen Iverson shoots a lot too. Naysayers may mention that he’s a ball hog but in all fairness Kobe has few peers at his position in the NBA. If anyone deserves to take a good number of shots it is Kobe. Since he plays a game in which the ultimate goal is to outscore the opponent, and shoots a relatively good percentage, I think it’s safe to say he has liberty with shot selection.

Now let’s look at the good. If you were to craft an ideal shooting guard, you’re finished product would bear a striking resemblance to Kobe Bryant. No other guard in the league combines the shooting touch, the shooting range, the explosiveness to the basket, the pivot skill, the killer instinct, the experience, or the consistent healthiness that he does. That is why 81 points in a game shouldn’t surprise real fans. He has the goods, the total package. He can put up big numbers every single night. More importantly, if he doesn’t the Lakers are a mediocre team. In this third phase of maturation of Kobe Bryant I see player entering into his prime physically and mentally: a league scoring champion, the most lethal scorer in the NBA.

This leads to an interesting idea and I’ll try to keep it laconic. For all the proficiency that Kobe possesses he can only do so much. He’s going to keep doing yeoman’s work to win games because he wants to win another title. He wants to give his 3rd chapter some interesting subject matter….but what of his team? Lamar Odom was something of a prodigy before personal demons forced him out of L.A. at the beginning of his career. If you’ll notice it was his name that Lebron James just passed for most triple doubles before the age of 23. The question is not whether or not Odom still has the ability to be a dominant player in this league it is if he has the drive. A genuine team leader can bring that out of him.

Devean George, Luke Walton, Chris Mihm, Smush Parker, and Brown all have the ability to form a potent core the Odom and Bryant to work with. The Lakers are only a piece or two away from being an elite team. Can Bryant craft this group into his “Jordanaire’s”? Can he transform them from a group of overwhelmed role players into a well prepared, hard working group that is content (if not proud) to play alongside the best player in the league? Can he add a measure of unselfishness to his already amazing offensive skill set? Can he trust someone other than himself to be accountable for the teams wins or losses? We’ll have to wait a few more years for the fourth chapter to unfold to be absolutely sure.

If the first three chapters provide any clues as to whether or not such a task can be accomplished then smart money should be on the kid in LA, Bryant, number 8. Know that I know him I think it’s safe to say he might just be able to pull it off.