I spent five hours with Bill Russell last week and thought of Kobe Bryant twice and only twice. One time, we were discussing a revelation from Russell’s extraordinary biography, Second Wind, that Russell scouted the Celtics after joining them in 1956. Why would you scout your own teammates? What does that even mean? Russell wanted to play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses, which you can’t do without figuring out exactly what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he studied them. He studied them during practices, shooting drills, scrimmages, even those rare moments when Red Auerbach rested him during games. He built a mental filing cabinet that stored everything they could and couldn’t do, then determined how to boost them accordingly. It was HIS job to make THEM better. That’s what he believed.
So when Russell mentioned a current star devouring his book and stealing that specific concept — then thanking Russell for the help — naturally, I expected the player to be LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, maybe even Kevin Durant. Nope.
“Really?” I said incredulously.
And that’s how I learned that basketball’s greatest teammate ever held something of a soft spot for Kobe, someone who’s battled more coworkers over the years than Chevy Chase. Russell enjoys his competitiveness, loves his work ethic, appreciates his respect for history, and over anything else, loves how he borrowed that scouting idea. No other player ever mentioned it to him. Just Kobe. Which didn’t make sense to me. After all, Kobe regards his teammates the same way President Obama regards the Secret Service — these guys are here to serve and protect ME. Why would he need to scout them? What was I missing?
(Hold that thought. Please.)
Later in the day, we were discussing leadership and Russell revealed that he never criticized a teammate publicly or privately. Not once. Not during his entire 13-year career. What was the point? Everyone already knew Russell was their best player — why undermine their confidence by making them doubt themselves, or even worse, making them wonder if he believed in them? How was that productive? Russell believed, and still believes, that a basketball team only achieves its potential if everyone embraces their roles — you figure out what you have, split the responsibilities and you’re off. The less thinking, the better. Early in their playing partnership, Russell asked Bob Cousy to find a specific spot every time an opponent attempted a shot — about 25 feet away from the basket, on the left or right side — so Russell could snare the rebound, whirl around and throw Cousy an outlet pass in one motion. After a few months, they didn’t even think about it anymore. Shot, spot, rebound, release, go. In time, Tommy Heinsohn took off right before Russell grabbed that rebound, as did everyone else wearing white-and-green, and suddenly, the greatest fast break in basketball history was off and running.
But that would have failed unless everyone embraced their role, and that’s the thing — everyone has to have a role. In Boston, Cousy ran the break, Heinsohn ran the lane and crashed the boards, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones and (later) John Havlicek handled the scoring, K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders handled the perimeter defense, and Russell handled everything else. So it was the “everything else” that varied from season to season, or even month to month — Russell assessed what his team needed and tailored his game accordingly. That’s what made him Bill Russell.
OK, so how do you challenge your teammates without undermining them? Russell’s book covers one example with an enlightening section on Sam Jones, one of the league’s first great scoring guards but someone who feared the responsibility of being great every night. Sam couldn’t handle the pressure; the burden was too big, like having the same term paper hanging over your head 100 times per year. That drove Russell crazy. Eventually, he learned to accept that they just weren’t wired the same way. Sam didn’t puke before every big game. He didn’t measure his happiness by the success or failure of his basketball team. But he also happened to be a phenomenally gifted offensive player, someone who loved taking and making pressure shots. Sam’s laconic demeanor worked against him being a legendary player, but for big moments? It was perfect. You could always go to Sam when it mattered. More often than not, Sam came through.
In the wrong hands, Sam’s career might have gone a little differently. Russell always understood that Sam was Sam — he wasn’t going to bleed basketball like Jerry West did, and he would never obsess over every play of every quarter like Oscar Robertson did. You are who you are. Bill Russell left Sam Jones alone.
So that was one example. Russell told the other story in Seattle last week, after I asked him how the aging Celtics won their last two titles without a real point guard. They didn’t run the triangle offense like MJ’s Bulls or Shaq’s Lakers … so how? Russell joked about “making” Larry Siegfried play point guard after K.C. Jones (Cousy’s successor) retired, then explained how it happened. Russell became Boston’s player/coach before the 1966-67 season, which ended unhappily after Wilt’s Sixers demolished the (seemingly) aging Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. During Game 5, Philly’s crowd chanted “BOSTON IS DEAD! BOSTON IS DEAD!” Russell heard that chant ringing in his ears all summer. After winning eight straight titles, he wasn’t ready to be buried as a basketball player yet. He also wasn’t ready to blow up his team. So he asked Siegfried to replace K.C. Jones. Russell wasn’t asking for a Cousy impression, just someone to dribble from Point A to Point B, call plays and start their offense. That’s it.
Siegfried resisted. He wasn’t a point guard. He didn’t want the added responsibility, nor did he want to chase faster players around. Russell gently insisted. No, thanks, Larry Siegfried said. They had reached something of a stalemate. The modern solution would be dealing Siegfried away, but the Celtics never traded back then — they believed continuity was their single biggest advantage other than Russell. During Russell’s entire playing career, the Celtics only swung one real trade in 13 years: Mel Counts for Bailey Howell. Amazing and true.
So Russell kept cajoling Siegfried, never threatening him, just appealing to him as a friend. Russell wore him down. Siegfried relented. After a few weeks, Siegfred decided that he didn’t want to play point anymore. They did the same dance again. And Russell wore him down again, this time by making it clear this was Siegfried’s best chance to play. He didn’t threaten him or anything, just laid out the landscape. We have me, Havlicek, Sam and Bailey (Howell). All four of us need to play. This is your best way to get minutes, Larry. He kept appealing to him as a friend more than anything. You can guess what happened next. And yes, the Celtics won their last two titles of the Russell era with a shooting guard bringing up the ball. So much for Boston being dead.
As Russell was telling the Siegfried story, I couldn’t help but wonder how Kobe would have handled that situation. Would he have cussed him out? Bullied him? Called him out to a reporter? Pushed behind the scenes for the Lakers to dump him? And how would an obviously stubborn guy like Siegfried have handled Kobe’s reaction? My guess: Siegfried would have pushed back … and if he pushed back, he probably wouldn’t have been a Laker for too long. Let’s at least agree that Kobe wouldn’t have handled things like Bill Russell did.
Then again, nobody handled things like Bill Russell did.
Then again, if we’re really comparing Kobe to the greatest players who ever lived — something that seems to be happening more and more lately — you can’t just rattle off his résumé (30,000 points, five titles, 10 first-team All-NBAs, one MVP, two Finals MVPs, etc.) without mentioning the other stuff. Of the 14 greatest players of all time, only Wilt and Kobe needed 10,000-word footnotes to cover “the other stuff.” That list currently looks like this: Jordan, then Russell, then Kareem, then Magic/Bird, then Wilt, then Kobe/Duncan (or Duncan/Kobe), then West/Oscar, then Hakeem/Shaq/Moses. With LeBron lurking in there somewhere. We just don’t know where yet.
You would have loved playing with nine of those guys. The other five? Maybe, maybe not. Wilt was historically selfish, someone who genuinely believed that the best situation for Wilt doubled as the best situation for Wilt’s team (as none other than Jerry West once noted).1 Nobody was moodier or more aloof than Kareem, a brilliant recluse who couldn’t connect with anyone until Magic and Riley came along. Nobody was more demanding than Oscar, the league’s smartest player other than Russell, but someone who treated his teammates like he was an overbearing parent — belittled them for mistakes and left them walking on eggshells. Of course, Oscar was a picnic compared to Jordan, who evolved into a withering, homicidally competitive bully; if you couldn’t handle it, you needed to find another team. And Kobe tried to evolve into a withering, homicidally competitive bully, if only because his idol acted that way once upon a time. Eventually, that’s what he became. For better and worse.
During that day in Seattle, I asked Russell why he stopped playing. The answer came in two parts. First, he didn’t want to keep going if he wasn’t the league’s best player. Once he felt himself slipping imperceptibly, he decided to retire midway through the 1968-69 season, only telling his friend Oscar Robertson and nobody else. It wasn’t about the physical grind for Russell, or even his body breaking down. Before every game, he worked himself into what he described as “a rage.” That was just part of his process. He spent the day visualizing that night’s game, thinking about his opponent, playing out sequences in his head, revving himself up, basically. If you think of basketball like chess, it makes a little more sense — Russell always wanted to be two or three chess moves ahead of everyone else. He didn’t block shots in the moment. He blocked them five hours earlier. By the time he slipped on his uniform, Russell had already played out every possibility and determined every reaction. Carrying that knowledge into the game, and executing it, required an unfathomable amount of mental energy. Once he felt that energy slipping — not his skills, the energy itself — that’s when he knew he needed to leave.
I know that sounds impossible, that no human being could actually think that way. But if you think of Russell as a genius — which he was — it might make more sense. Here’s an example: A few years ago, Russell’s wife2 searched his name on eBay and found someone selling a DVD of one of Russell’s college games. She bought the DVD and surprised him with it. They started watching the game: San Francisco (Russell’s team) and Oregon State.3 Bill Russell could rattle off every play before it happened. Not a few of the plays. Not half of the plays. Every play. For a random college game that happened in 1955.
“I can’t do that anymore,” Russell said last week. “I’m older now. If you showed me an old game now, I couldn’t remember every play, just most of them.”
Anyway, Russell mined that genius through his 35th birthday, winning his final NBA title in his final game — in Los Angeles, in Game 7, with celebratory balloons hanging over the court that never ended up dropping. The greatest winner in sports history learned about those balloons before the game, felt the anger building inside him, embraced it one last time. “I knew we would win,” he says now, and when he says it, you believe him. His career couldn’t have ended any other way.4
Every great basketball player reaches that point differently. Bird and Magic had to retire. Wilt’s body broke down. Same for West. Kareem stayed one year too long. Oscar, Hakeem, Shaq and Moses kept playing until nobody wanted them anymore. Jordan left at the perfect time, missed the attention and (unfortunately) came back. Only Russell nailed his exit. I have a feeling Duncan will do the same. But Kobe? Your guess is as good as mine. He might be wired like a champion boxer, someone so competitive and relentless that you’d have to knock him out (or in Kobe’s case, embarrass him) a few times before he reluctantly called it quits. Or, he might retire for a year or two, then return like Jordan did, unable to accept life after basketball. The romantic version? Kobe wins a sixth title, passes Jordan in career points, then drops the mic and moves back to Italy — playing well into his forties, torching inferior competition, draining six 3s a night, and reinventing himself as Europe’s most famous basketball player.
Many NBA observers believe Kobe will handle his inevitable decline poorly, maybe even more poorly than Jordan’s last two Wizards seasons. That’s the reason Phil Jackson retired two years ago: He even admitted as much during our lunch together, saying that he didn’t want to be coaching Kobe Bryant when Kobe wasn’t Kobe anymore.5 Even with Kobe still slinging his fastball in Year 17, it’s morphed into another unhappy Lakers season — at least so far — and like always, Kobe has emerged as a lightning rod. His defenders maintain that Kobe hasn’t been this efficient offensively in years, that you can’t blame him for Dwight’s back, Nash’s leg, Mike Brown’s brain and the cast of nobodies on his bench. His detractors believe it’s been like watching Kobe Karaoke: As soon as things threatened to go south, Kobe started pushing for a new coach, blasting teammates and hogging the ball in close games. He’s the most polarizing superstar since Wilt for a reason.
And yet …
Even his harshest critics marvel at Kobe’s inspiring battle with Father Time, how he keeps churning out the same numbers — 25 per night, every night, night after night — after reinventing his inside/outside game much like Jordan did. Only Tim Duncan has better footwork. Only LeBron competes as consistently hard. And nobody works harder during the offseason — even now, after playing 17 seasons, after making over $300 million, after battling a slew of injuries ranging from “annoying” to “how the hell is he playing?,” after hitting a point in his career when basketball just shouldn’t mean as much anymore. Unlike Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant can still work himself into that “rage” every night.
We know what’s driving him: Kobe wants seven rings (one more than Jordan); he wants to be remembered as the greatest Laker of all time; he wants to at least be mentioned with Jordan; and he understands the sheer power of numbers better than anyone. You can pick apart his top-five candidacy pretty easily. He was the second-best player on three of those five title teams (not the best). He’s only been voted “Most Valuable” once. He never held the “Best Player Alive” belt as emphatically as Jordan did, or even LeBron or Duncan did. And unlike Bird, Magic and Michael, his team seriously considered trading him one time (in 2007).
But you can’t take two numbers away from him: 30,000 (points) and five (rings). It’s all about pressure over time. He can’t beat Jordan conventionally. Looking at the career regular-season averages …
Jordan: 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG, 50% FG, 84% FT, 27.9 PER, .250 WS/48, 5 MVPs
Magic: 19.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 11.2 APG, 52% FG, 85% FT, 23.0 PER, .208 WS/48, 3 MVPs.
Bryant: 25.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 45% FG, 84% FT, 23.5 PER, .185 WS/48, 1 MVP
… it’s no contest. Jordan wins by any calculation.6 And Magic remains the second-best guard ever, at least if you’re going by those numbers. Career playoff averages don’t help Kobe’s case, either.
Jordan: 33.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.7 APG, 41.8 MPG, 49% FG, 83% FT, 28.6 PER, .255 WS/48, 6 rings, 6 MVPs
Magic: 19.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 12.4 APG, 39.7 MPG, 51/84%, 23.0 PER, .208 WS/48, 5 rings, 3 MVPs
Bryant: 25.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, 39.3 MPG, 45% FG, 82% FT, 22.4 PER, .157 WS/48, 5 rings, 2 MVPs
We’re still not arguing. Jordan’s 33.5 PPG remains the highest ever — nobody else even cracked 30. Magic’s 12.4 APG remains the highest ever — nobody else even cracked 10.2. Remember my 42 Club to account for players who averaged a combined 42-plus points, rebounds and assists in the same postseason playing at least 13 games? Only Jordan, Wilt, LeBron, Elgin, Pettit and Russell belong to the Career 42 Club. So there’s that.
Back to “pressure over time” — Kobe knows that the totality of his career numbers, along with a certain number of rings (and really, five might be enough), might be enough to sway history his way. Look at this …
Jordan: 13 All-Stars (3 MVPs), 10 first-team All-NBAs (1 second-team), 1 Defensive P.O.Y.
Magic: 12 All-Stars (2 MVPs), 9 first-team All-NBAs (1 second-team), 0 Defensive P.O.Y.
Bryant: 13 All-Stars (4 MVPs), 10 first-team All-NBAs (2 second-team), 0 Defensive P.O.Y.
… and keep in mind, Kobe is still going. Now look at this.
Jordan: 1,072 games, 41,011 minutes, 32,292 points (fourth all time), 214.0 WS (fourth).
Magic: 906 games, 33,245 minutes, 17,707 points, 10,141 assists (fourth), 155.8 WS (22nd).
Bryant: 1,180 games, 43,077 minutes (17th), 30,016 points (sixth), 166.01 WS (17th)
And the playoff numbers …
Jordan: 179 playoff games, 7,474 minutes, 5,987 points, 1,152 rebounds, 1,022 assists.
Magic: 190 playoff games, 7,538 minutes, 3,701 points, 1,465 rebounds, 2,346 assists.
Bryant: 220 playoff games, 8,641 minutes, 5,640 points, 1,119 rebounds, 1,040 assists.
If you were wondering, Jordan and Kobe are the only members of the 5K/1K/1K Playoff Club AND the 4K/1K/1K Playoff Club. And again, Kobe is still going. Which is an entirely different conversation.
The most durable NBA superstars ever were Kareem and Karl Malone.7 Kareem won Finals MVPs 14 years apart, lasted 20 solid years, started in Finals series 18 years apart, played 1,797 games (including playoffs) and averaged 22.2 points in the ’87 playoffs when he was FORTY years old. (We didn’t need to give Kareem a statue — he’s never going to die. He’s going to live until he’s 400. He’s not human.) And Malone lasted 19 years, played 1,669 games (including playoffs) and averaged 20-plus points for 17 straight seasons. Like Kobe today, Kareem and Malone were maniacal about taking care of themselves (Kareem with yoga, Malone with weights), but Kobe’s era has offered decided advantages in conditioning, dieting, workout equipment, stretching routines, surgical techniques and even goofier advantages like napping (and the science behind it), sneakers (much better today) and the Internet (and the ability to study opponents on sites like Synergy). If ever an NBA player could play for a quarter of a century, and thrive for at least two solid decades, it’s Kobe Bean Bryant. He’s a basketball machine.
And that’s what makes “the other stuff” so frustrating. Nothing that happened this season has been surprising because it’s happened, in various forms, during so many other Laker seasons. Once upon a time, he called out Shaq — now he calls out Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. He still says things like “If it doesn’t get better, I’m going to kick everyone’s asses,” and you still can’t even tell if he’s half-kidding or not. He’s only been successfully coached by one person … the man who happens to be the greatest NBA coach ever.
At this point, it’s easier to remember Kobe’s unhappy Lakers teams (by my count, nine8) than the happy ones. His best teammate (Shaq) left Los Angeles on such hostile terms that they didn’t talk for years. His second-best teammate (Gasol) looks totally broken, just a head case, a totally different player from the one who single-handedly almost vanquished our Olympic team five months ago. His third-best teammate (Andrew Bynum) got shipped to Philly and traded shots with Kobe on his way out. His only great coach (Phil Jackson) quit the Lakers and wrote a 2005 book that fearlessly tore Kobe to shreds with astonishing candor. His two non-Phil coaches since Shaq left have lasted 43 games and 83 games, respectively, before Mike D’Antoni took over. For reasons known only to him, he still takes shots at former teammates like Kwame Brown, Slava Medvedenko and the one and only Smush Parker, who landed in a bizarre Facebook-fueled feud with Kobe in October. I say “bizarre” because Smush was playing in China at the time. And because it was Smush Parker.
It’s just a different way to lead a basketball team: through fear, through conflict, through bullying, through the media. He leads by example, and if you don’t like that example, he reminds you how many rings he has (with the implication being, “Shut up”). When Jackson and Derek Fisher were around, Kobe’s leadership was actually effective — something of a good cop/bad cop dynamic developed, with Kobe pushing the team competitively and the other two guys handling everything else. Now it’s just him.
Sometimes, you wonder if Kobe can see the forest through the trees. He might be turning on Dwight Howard already — you can see it — a crucial development since Dwight could simply flee to Dallas, Houston or Atlanta next summer. Howard’s missed free throws are driving Kobe batty; he can barely hide his disdain on the court anymore. Same for Howard’s trying-too-hard-to-be-jovial routine and a general impression that Howard doesn’t live and die with the result of every basketball game. From what I heard, Kobe already played the “You don’t know anything about winning championships!” card with Howard — during a scrimmage last week, when the second team beat the first team partly because Howard checked out (he wasn’t getting the ball enough), followed by Kobe blistering him. That same week, Kobe needled Gasol publicly for not sucking it up with knee tendinitis, saying he needed to “put your big boy pants.” The whole thing is strange. Really, really weird to watch. Especially for me, just one week after hearing the greatest winner in basketball history say that he never criticized a teammate — not once.
When we were preparing for our NBA Countdown show on Wednesday afternoon, I told Magic that Russell/teammates story if only because I knew he’d appreciate it.9 We started discussing the various ways to lead a basketball team. Magic settled on four, believing you could lead by example, by intimidation, by being a communicator (talking all the time, like Magic did) or by some combination of all three, or even two of the three. He didn’t believe there was a right way or a wrong way. He believes basketball teams assume the personality of their best player, for better or worse. And that’s always been the case. That night on television, Magic declared that Kobe misses Jackson and Fisher, with the implication being, Those guys helped Kobe so much more than anyone realized.10
We’ve never asked Kobe for his feelings on leadership because we know the answer — he posted his thoughts on Facebook during the bizarre Smush Parker embroglio. I thought it was the strangest moment of Kobe’s career, and possibly the most incredible, depending on how you feel about his 81-point game. Here’s what he wrote. My thoughts off his thoughts are in parentheses.
Leadership is responsibility.
(So far so good.)
There comes a point when one must make a decision. Are YOU willing to do what it takes to push the right buttons to elevate those around you? If the answer is YES, are you willing to push the right buttons even if it means being perceived as the villain?
(Translation: I don’t care if I take heat for pushing my teammates. I really don’t. Say what you want. I can take it.)
Here’s where the true responsibility of being a leader lies. Sometimes you must prioritize the success of the team ahead of how your own image is perceived.
(I’d be more prone to believe this if Kobe didn’t spend so much time obsessing over how his image was perceived — he’s the same guy who nicknamed himself “Mamba” and changed his number. Of course, maybe he wanted the perception of his image to include the words “Just as demanding as Jordan was, just as much of a bully, so that’s another thing they had in common!” Who knows?)
The ability to elevate those around you is more than simply sharing the ball or making teammates feel a certain level of comfort.
(Look, I’m trying hard not to get snarky here. I’m trying really, really, really hard.)
It’s pushing them to find their inner beast, even if they end up resenting you for it at the time.
(I think that’s the most fascinating thing Kobe Bryant has ever said. Seriously. He just explained everything. I don’t even think he was exaggerating or writing those words for effect. It might be as simple as “Every time I lay into Gasol or Howard, it’s because I am pushing them to find their inner beast, and I don’t give a shit if they resent me for it.” Does he feel like Gasol responded so beautifully in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals — 19 points, 18 rebounds, nine offensive boards — partly because Kobe pushed him to embrace whatever an “inner beast” is called in Spanish? Why do I feel like he does?)
I’d rather be perceived as a winner than a good teammate.
(WHOA! GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! Are you reading this????)
I wish they both went hand in hand all the time but that’s just not reality.
(Translation: I need to read Second Wind again.)
I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success.
(Translation: Hey, Smush Parker, tell me how my ass tastes.)
Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses.
(That’s a great quote. I couldn’t agree more. I wish I could go back in time and use this as my high school yearbook quote instead of the embarrassing David Bowie passage that I picked.)
This is my way. It might not be right for YOU but all I can do is share my thoughts.
(Hold this thought.)
It’s on YOU to figure out which leadership style suits you best.
(And actually, Magic Johnson agrees — so he might be right.)
Will check back in with you soon.. Till then
(For the record, I end all my e-mails with “Mamba out” now.)
Could Kobe’s Facebook post evolve into his own version of Second Wind? Why not? It’s everything you ever wanted to know about his basketball career in 219 words. Which brings me to one last story involving a Hall of Fame center. Three years ago, I drove down to San Diego to interview Bill Walton for my NBA book and we ended up arguing (in a good-natured way) about Kobe right after he won the 2009 title. My book argued that success hinged on “The Secret” of basketball — that it wasn’t actually about talent, but how you sacrificed your game and meshed with teammates. Walton maintained it was more like a “choice,” saying it was every player’s responsibility to find his own destiny. And that path was going to be different for every player. Walton believed that I didn’t like watching Kobe that much because he didn’t play basketball the way I liked to see basketball played. That was my choice, just like it was Kobe’s choice to play that way.
And that’s what Kobe described in that Facebook post. He’s making it painfully, glaringly clear — after weighing every possibility, interacting with as many people as possible, and reading everything he could read, Kobe made the conscious decision to become this basketball player and this kind of leader. Just know that he put some real thought into it. So we shouldn’t be surprised that he read Second Wind or hijacked that scouting-the-teammates trick. Kobe considered everything — every angle, every nuance, every trick, everything that could possibly help him — and determined what made sense for him and him alone. He wants to keep winning titles. He wants 40,000 points. He wants to be immortal.
He’s also running out of time.
So, if the coach isn’t working? He needs to go. If the new center isn’t trying hard enough? He needs to try harder, or else. If the old center can’t snap out of this crazy funk? Then he needs to put on his big-boy pants and suck it up. Kobe Bryant would rather be perceived as a winner than a good teammate. Kobe Bryant figured out what leadership style suited him best. Kobe Bryant doesn’t care if you think he’s a villain. Kobe Bryant wants to win and keep winning. Like Bill Russell before him, it’s HIS job to make THEM better. He just does it differently. And if you don’t like it? He doesn’t care. This is his way. Mamba out.
This column has been updated.