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Tuesday, February 18, 2003
Updated: February 19, 5:27 PM ET
Kobe's pulling all the strings

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Note to self: Add another nickname to the list of Kobe the Destroyer and Kobe the Finisher -- Kobe the Puppet Master.

Note to all: Kobe Bryant has become the most unstoppable scoring force in the game, in a line with Wilt, O, Zeke from Cabin Creek, Rick Barry, Abdul-Jabbar, the Iceman, Doc, David, Zeke from West Side Chi, McAdoo, Bird, Jordan.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant has been a one-man show.
Observing Kobe's most recent scoring jag -- 44.6 per in the last five, nine straight with 35 points or more, best scoring run-out the NBA has seen since the mid-'80s, when Mike Jordan was 24 and 25, the same age Kobe is now -- we may conclude Kobe is the greatest scoring force in the league.

Ever.

Sit down. Go with me for a minute. Understand that, just for today, we're leaving Dog and all the other Kobe-haters and Kobe-stoppers and Kobe-controllers home on this op.

We are talking raw ball here, not from the exalted seat of a fan or the controlling seat of a coach, but first from over Kobe's shoulder as he posts us up -- from playing off him as he's facing us, reading his body lean; then with him -- keeping the spacing correct, salivating as our man slides his way and we come open for the 18-footer that can win a game; and finally, from inside his head -- God, it's cluttered in here!

First, any guy who can score 42.3 over five in the NBA, and reference Pinocchio's Gepetto at the same time, is a man to be watched, studied, and possibly feared. "I felt like Gepetto," Kobe said after one of his recent exposés. He felt like the defenders were on the strings he held. Admittedly, many fans didn't get the reference. Maybe Kobe should've said he felt like Brando in "The Godfather" -- "... and I refused ... to dance on the strings, held by the big shots."

Chat wrap: Wiley
Wiley went one-on-one with users in chat to debate the greatness of Kobe Bryant.

Defenders aren't the only ones dancing on the strings held by Kobe the Puppet Master. His teammates and coaches and observers are, too. This shock of the new is often exhilirating, but it invariably causes some to seek balance and comfort in the past. Why, I don't know, but it does.

And what we've seen from Kobe in this scoring streak (not to mention coinciding with Shaq's new mortality; the first seven games of Kobe's 35-plus streak were wins; the last two, against the Spurs and Knicks, were losses) is new. Or it's new to me, I should say. I just have not seen many guys make nine straight 3-pointers in competition, make them with no strain, like they were elbow jumpers; I haven't seen those one-bounce-dive-from-a-wing evasive dunks before. Have you? Oh, we've seen where they got started, but ...

I try not to fear, hate or resent him. Or lecture him, or control him, tell him how he failed at some level of hoop.

Besides, even if I'd been in a mood to try it, I didn't think I could back it up. Maybe Jerry West could talk to him like that. Maybe Broke Daddy, Ol' Jingle-Jangle-Jingle, Phil Jackson, one of my favored old Knicks, could do it, maybe. Jordan, sure. Someone should ask Jordan. Do you have any real big problem with the application of Kobe's game? What do you think Jordan would say? "Yeah, I do. He's not running the offense right, or dreaming about it enough."

Right. Last I looked, at 24, Kobe the Destroyer had won three NBA rings in a row, and now is currently looking for a fourth in a row. So me chastizing him, at my advanced age, despite my long history of watching and being on the beats and studying the NBA, from the Rick Barry, Gus Williams, Silk Wilkes, Phil Smith NBA champion Warriors of 1975 and 1976, on through Bird, Magic, Isiah, Dumars, Akeem, MJ, and on until today ... well, no. But, still, Kobe does not know that, and it would only mildly amuse him if he did.

So me telling him what he was not doing in the process of his three-ring accomplishments would be like Ron Turcotte pulling out a knotted whip and beating Secretariat with it as Big Red was in the process of winning the Belmont Stakes by 28 lengths. It would be not only grandstanding, it could even be seen as cruel. So I said what I said to him -- "Kid, you really put on a show" - and then, later on, I thought about what I'd said, a few days after last Thanksgiving, as the Lakes were trying to get by without Shaquille O'Neal.

Kobe had nodded, not as if he understood me so much as he appreciated me not using the whip on him. And while it is true that a thoroughbred responds to the whip and a mule bucks and sucks, the thoroughbred can also become sick of the whip if misapplied too often, and with too much relish.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe the Destroyer and Kobe the Finisher -- Kobe the Puppet Master.
So a human thoroughbred starts to think about spitting the bit and running elsewhere, where whips and chains and self-important appraisals are not so often forthcoming, for a man without a temper is not worth his salt. Or, if he's Kobe the Finisher, he can also become Kobe the Puppet Master, and let people rant or rave or do St. Vitus' dance however they chose as he pulls the strings and levers of his dominant basketball talents. I'd like to see what Charlie Kaufman could do with this guy's head. In an Association with at least eight other truly great players, and a good 50 or so who can drop 40 on a given night, Kobe rules. As yours truly pointed out in GQ last summer, days after the Lakes had won a third straight NBA title, if Kobe's hands were as big as Michael's, they'd have to shut down the league.

"Would you ever consider playing here?" I asked Kobe the Destroyer. We were in Memphis at the time. He had just dropped 44 on the Griz, yet the Lakes barely won. Jerry West runs the NBA club there in Memphis, as you know. Kobe looked at me strangely. Smart. Didn't say yes or no.

That Gepetto reference he used after one of his recent explosions means not just that he is atypical, but that he also has a much broader frame of reference than one suspected. He must understand what's good for the team, in a ball sense. And also, when someone is reflexively trying to jerk him. He must know that in a perfect world and game of hoop, yes, no question, the ball never touches the floor. It hits all the hands, and when the defense doubles or overcompensates, the perfect team swings it, swings it, swings it, and the last man down gets the look, and makes. So I mentioned this too. "Of course. And you also know we don't live in a perfect world," his look said, "or play on a perfect team for perfect men."

It will still be him who is expected to lift the Lakers, not Shaq, not Phil, not the spear-carriers; and when they lose -- not if, when, because Sacramento is better and deeper, and not even Jordan won them all -- it will all be brought back home to him. I saw it happen to Magic. It is what happens, in the short term, in the day-to-day coverage. The newspaper (and now the website) is going to come out every day, isn't it, Max Mercy?

Kobe the Puppet Master paused. I looked at him and said, "Look, what's good for the team is the ball in the basket."

I did not say he had played stupidly, as Kobe the Puppet Master had made Tex Winter say. I did not look askance at him. I did not feel a disconnect from him, as some fans of the hip-hop generation do, or people in Philly, who despise him because they feel he turned his back on them, or even Jerry Buss, who did not hang out with him and shoot pool and run over to the Playboy mansion or take him under his wing as a business protégé, as Buss did with his boy Magic.

In return, Kobe did not say I spoke stupidly, he did not look askance at me, or act disconnected from me or my boy Cole, also in attendance and studying our brief by-play intently. School was in for everybody. They both looked relieved that such a simple statement would be made by the doddering old man to the youth he could know but never really control, instead of an off-color harangue, or a lecture on some hoop theory on how the greatest scoring machine in basketball could make better use of his court time.

He has been told enough that what's good for the team is getting everybody else looks; well, of course, in a perfect world, that is true. But what's good for the team is the ball in the basket -- if he gets his teammates shots, they have to make. It's not physics, but a much simpler kind of math.

You must understand that Kobe learned from Jordan and West that it is will that carries the day ... and so that same will that is essential to beat such good teams as the Spurs and the Kings is difficult to tamp down when teammates don't hit the open shots that your move has allowed them to see. The player of greatness will takes matters into his own hands.

Especially when you are the greatest scoring weapon in basketball, and possibly the greatest scoring weapon in the history of basketball. He is the greatest because he is the latest. He is the greatest now. He must press that edge.

Walt Frazier and the 1970 Knicks
Frazier, second from left, was a force in his day -- but nothing like Kobe.
There are and always have been great scorers (more today than ever), and great team concept players like Russell, the Celts of the '60s, Clyde Frazier, all the '70 Knicks, Silk Wilkes (when Magic had 42 points in Game 6 in the Finals vs. the Sixers in '80, Wilkes had 37) -- players whose skills are subsumed inside the talents they allow to blossom in other talented players around them. Keyword: talent.

For example, when the '70 Knicks let the ball flow through all five positions, one must never forget, wherever the ball stopped, wherever the defense didn't catch up, that player, be it Reed, DeBusschere, Dollar Bill, Caz, Skull or Clyde, would bury the open 20-footer, bury it again and again and again. That was the beauty and the precision of the team. Had they not hit the shots, the beauty and precision is lost.

Kobe can be and, in fact, will be one of those great team players, but as we have seen, there is only one other great player with him; the other Lakers are terribly limited or, like young Kareem Rush, too young to be of help now.

None of the current three-time world champion Lakers, not Bob Horry, not Derek Fisher, not Samaki Walker, not Rick Fox, can generate his own shot. Horry's shot takes too much time to get up, he shoots it in sections, and any good on-ball defender with enough size -- Keon Clark, let's say -- will close him out on a money look. He is not an all-court star or scorer, a point not lost on Horry when he tried to smother coach Danny Ainge with a towel on the Phoenix bench after Ainge unwisely demanded that he be one.

Samaki Walker ... we won't even discuss.

Rick Fox, great guy, terrific interview, Peja-stopper, but give him the ball, facing, with a Doug Christie in front of him, and the best option is to swing it ASAP.

So, if the ball comes into any other Laker player's hand, can he beat any defender he happens to run into, the way, say, Tracy McGrady can? Don't even take it to that high a level, just say the way an Allan Houston can, and did, when he dropped 53 points on the Lakers last Sunday?

Flatly, no. The other Lakers are utterly dependent on Kobe and Shaq to get their open shots for them. Not a one of them has the one-on-one offensive capabilities of a Dennis Johnson, a Kevin McHale, a Robert Parish, a James Worthy, a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Byron Scott. They are limited.

It's just one man's observation, and open to disagreement, in theory, until it's the fourth quarter and you need to come back from seven down. Then it's no longer just a theory.

The Denver Nuggets and their coach Jeff Bzdilik decided to single Kobe in back-to-backs Feb. 11 and 13. Kobe hit 43 in a 121-93 blowout at the Stapler, then scored 51 in 31 minutes, less than three quarters, in a 113-102 win at Denver, while covered by four players in succession, including Donnell Harvey, a glorified thug who smacked Kobe in the face instead of saying hello, first thing, to set the tone, and Vince Yarbrough, a 6-9 player of some talent. Like they weren't even there. Kobe has come into his own; and there's nothing anybody can do about it -- except double him.

If the opponent doubles him, he's good for 30. If not ... he had 40s in back-to-back home losses to the Knicks and the Spurs. But if he takes 40 shots single-covered, he is going to have 50-, 60- and even 70-point games. He could've had 80 against Denver, without any exaggeration at all.

So, could Kobe average 50 a game, which Wilt did for one season? No. I don't believe he can do that. He could, but it would simply require too many shots, he would take too much of a physical beating, his arm might fall off, etc.

Could Kobe average 40? Oh, yes.

Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant
With Shaq hurting, he'll go as far as Kobe takes him.
If teams continue to single-cover him, with Shaq out and the other Lakers limited, Kobe could average 40. But teams will not continue to single-cover him. During this jag when he has averaged 42.3 points over five, with the nine games in a row over 35 points, he has not drawn the double much. When he does, then we'll see how much the team concept (or the triangle concept, as you like it) has grown rooted in him ... but a clue came in the All-Star Game, and not just from Kobe. In his case, he barely intruded on the game at all for his 22 points, allowing KG, Duncan, Shaq -- the entire Western squad -- their due. On the other side, a different kind of gunner, Alley I., scored 35 points playing a true point guard, while looking to feed Michael Jordan, doing it, dishing dimes, not seeming to look for his shot that much, and along with Jordan, Jason Kidd and T-Mac, nearly beating a West team that had them totally outsized.

Iverson is a great player. McGrady is great player. Garnett, J-Kidd, Duncan, Shaq, all great. And there is the difference between this era and Jordan's, Bird's or Magic's, Wilt's. The physical skill altitude of the game is so much higher.

Yet Kobe still stands above them all. To me, it's not even a question of if he will find the open men once double-teams appear. The question is if the Laker with the open look makes the shot. NBA coaches are not fools. They know if it comes down to a choice of whether Kobe will beat you, or Derek Fisher, or Horry, or Fox, or Devean George will beat you, that's no choice. Last year, during their epic playoff series, Kings guard Bobby Jackson smiled ferally and said of these Lakers, "They're scared of us, man." He wasn't talking about Kobe. He was talking about Derek Fisher.

We all like Fish (especially since he's stopped wearing a headband over his ears). West found him; I remember Jerry saying good things happened when Fish had the ball. Yes, we all like him, me, you, Shaq, Phil, Tex, Kobe. Fish is a great guy, committed, a professional lefty shooter -- when he can get an open look. But the simple facts are these, he's a step slow, can't take off the dribble or defend any guard in the Kings' rotation (Jackson, Christie or Bibby) or the Mavs' (Steve Nash, Michael Finley or Nick Van Exel).

When it comes to winning time in the fourth quarter, Fish can't guard anybody on the defensive end, and can't get his shot off -- unless the Kings or the Mavs or the Spurs double Kobe the Puppet Master. It will be Kobe, if anyone, who will make the Kings, Mavs or Spurs sleep with the Fishers.

They all -- we all -- are dancing on Kobe's strings now.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."