Most professional athletes, especially the otherworldly talented types like basketball’s LeBron James, want nothing to do with the sport once their season ends.
If they can’t be in it, they don’t much care who wins it.
Yet hibernating for the duration of the National Basketball Association playoffs would be a missed opportunity for James, who, no matter which uniform Cleveland’s coveted free agent chooses next season, ought to fixate on Kobe Bryant. Any athlete still learning what it takes to win it all can take away something from watching the sporting world’s most cold and calculating killer.
Get a ticket; sit in the stands and watch. Study Bryant. Just Bryant. Every possession. Every time out. Every interview. Every stare, scowl, glare and grin. Every clenched jaw.
Four quarters. One man.
There’s an understandable tendency among basketball fans to follow the basketball. The student of the game watches everything but.
The real story of any basketball game occurs away from the ball, where 7-footers vie for territory and space for themselves and teammates. It can be beautiful, just like a Ray Allen follow-through.
The real story unfolds in the huddle, where a seething Bryant doesn’t give a damn about trampled feelings while snarling at a less-talented teammate to do better next time, to do more, to do something.
Bryant and his defending champion Los Angeles Lakers entered last night’s game against the Phoenix Suns with a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference final. The Suns, you’ll recall, bounced Bryant from the 2006 and 2007 playoffs, his first tests as team leader after the Lakers made him the face of the franchise by jettisoning Shaquille O’Neal.
Those disappointments left Bryant waiting to exact his revenge on someone, anyone. Even last season’s title didn’t soothe that seething. Not against this team. Here, once again, are the Suns. Or Los Suns. Bryant’s Game 1 performance, in any language, spoke volumes.
Forty points on 13-of-23 shooting. Twelve free-throw attempts. Five rebounds. Five assists.
“Just being aggressive, playing my game,” Bryant said. “Got shots, took them. Got lanes to the basket, took them.”
Taking is the key.
Bryant takes what he wants, which is to win. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who coached Michael Jordan, another competitor beyond compare, said Bryant shouldered the game.
“He was going to take it on,” the coach said.
There’s that take word again.
Bryant controlled the game, from start to finish, was the assessment of Suns coach Alvin Gentry.
James, meantime, took and shouldered nothing in the pivotal Game 5 against the Boston Celtics, shrinking instead of rising. Watching Bryant makes clear there are no respites. Not during the playoffs.
There are no excuses, either.
James had a sore elbow. Bryant has a sore knee, a bad finger on his shooting hand and who knows what else. Not that you’d ever know.
Maybe James was looking past the Celtics to the Orlando Magic, who ousted the Cavs from last season’s Eastern Conference final. James was so upset that he refused to congratulate the victors. There will be no rematch. Not this season. Maybe not ever.
Apparently James didn’t digest enough of Bryant’s how-to-win tutorial at the Olympics in Beijing, where the Lakers star embraced his role as team sage.
Celtics star Kevin Garnett says James, a native of Akron, Ohio, shouldn’t let hometown loyalty stand in the way of winning. Bryant made lots of noise about his team’s shortcomings, but he stuck with the Lakers. Here they are. Again.
There’s no way that Bryant would say anything derogatory about James, whose free agency seems to be a bigger storyline than even the games themselves.
Surely Bryant, who has four championship rings and the chance at another, must marvel at all the fawning that surrounds a so-called king who has never been crowned a champion.
Man, oh, man, if we could ever coax an honest assessment of James from Bryant, who hasn’t always been the best teammate.
Maybe James is too good of a teammate, wanting to be one of the fellas, wanting to be liked by everyone.
Bryant doesn’t care about being liked. He only cares about the scoreboard. So did Jordan, who once punched teammate Steve Kerr in the face during practice.
The Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert, has, at long last, come to the realization that regular-season records don’t much matter. The playoffs are a different animal.
What James must understand is that winning is a learning process.
It will be difficult emotionally, but James’s summer school should really include Kobe 101.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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