NBA: For the first time, Bryant is Lakers’ unknown factor
By Mark Heisler
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Of course, if it's all about them, it's really about him.
Kobe Bryant has never stopped changing incarnations, and few were ever probable: Laker at 17 ... All-Star starter at 19 ... feuding with Shaquille O'Neal at 20 ... member of championship teams at 21, 22 and 23 ... accused of running Shaq off at 25 ... scoring 81 points in a game and 62 in three quarters of another at 27 ... accused of tanking a playoff game at 27 ... denouncing the Lakers and demanding a trade at 28 ... returning to the Finals at 29 ... getting his fourth ring at 30.
At 31, there's a new one no one dreamed of:
Kobe as X-factor.
Suddenly, his greatness, matched only by a player or two or three in NBA history, is no longer a given.
Now it's about what he has left after a harrowing season in which he played too hurt too long. In Lakerdom, there's a new sobering reality:
Kobe Bryant is in a bad place at the moment, physically and metaphysically.
He didn't suddenly get old at 31, but everyone, including coach Phil Jackson, remarks on his loss of elevation.
The problem may not be injury — but injuries. Asked if Bryant has a sore knee, a Lakers official said recently, "He has a sore everything."
Bryant has played only four games this month, counting Sunday's playoff opener ... shooting 27 for 89.
If he were Jerry West, who wore his heart on his sleeve, all Southern California would be praying around the clock.
If he were Magic Johnson, we'd still be typing up everything he said, including all the jokes and laugh lines.
Since he's Kobe, everyone is left to wonder if it's his a) broken finger, b) sore knee, c) sore hamstring, d) rust, e) confidence level, or f) all of the above.
After shooting six for 19 in Game 1, Bryant acknowledged "less margin for error" with the splint on his shooting hand.
With anyone else, you'd have thought, "Duh." With Bryant, who has played with it since Dec. 11, the surprise was that he even mentioned it.
"No, it's not a problem," Bryant said, and proceeded to explain it away, or try to.
"You've just got to make adjustments with it. Gotta change your stroke up a little bit. There are times when it (the ball) comes off the wrong way, I can kind of adjust it."
"Maybe I've got to find a new finger, the middle finger, to adjust it with."
I'd call that a problem.
Some Lakers officials worry they should have urged Bryant to sit out or undergo surgery, which would have had him back by the All-Star break.
"I don't think that was the one," Jackson said Monday. "Maybe when he hurt his knee. And a little while later, he had a hamstring (issue)."
That's comforting, in Oklahoma City, anyway.
Whether Bryant had to ice so many body parts or just didn't feel like it, he took so long to come out after practice Saturday, media people waiting for him gave up and left.
After Monday's practice, a subdued Kobe almost reached Shaq's subsonic murmur, which could be heard only by groundhogs.
Q: Is your finger worse than it was 10 days ago?
A: It's fine.
Q: Is this your game face for the playoffs?
A: I don't know. I'll bore you to death, I guess.
Having covered Bryant as long as he's been in the NBA, I never stop marveling at one thing:
With all he has going as a player, with his intelligence, charm and poise, how did he wind up here?
It's said, incorrectly, that he's even unpopular here, based on the local protest at calling him the greatest Laker after he broke West's Lakers scoring record.
Reinforcing the outlaw image, ESPN just did a feature on how much his hometown, Philadelphia, hates him.
As a bad guy, Bryant is as overrated as Allen Iverson was as a gangster.
If Kobe is, was and always will be on his own planet, he has never been impolite, talking after games, win or lose. He may or may not do a one-on-one with the pope, but LeBron James, who's wildly popular, might not, either.
To know Bryant is to know there's a nice person in there, if one who insists things go (exactly) as he thinks they should.
Having known Bryant, part of me roots for him to this day.
It never stopped me from doing my job. He called my quote from a "Laker insider" the straw that broke his back in his 2007 rant. He may still have me among his top 10 press tormenters, even if the Los Angeles Times' T.J. Simers is Nos. 1-3.
As any Lakers fan could tell you, pulling for Bryant is some adventure.
The night he scored 81 points, I wrote he's the greatest high-wire act in NBA history.
This postseason, with a fifth title that would put him beyond Shaq and Tim Duncan in the balance, is the highest-wire act of his career.