Kobe Bryant ready for new era
With Phil Jackson leaving, Lakers star acknowledges his influence but embraces future
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There was sorrow in their final parting, but nothing left unsaid. The Los Angeles Lakers' season may not have ended as either of them wanted, but Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson left on the best of terms.
Finished as coach and player, but not as friends.
Ready to part and for the next part of their lives, but not to say goodbye.
Against all odds they grew together in their second act, forging an unlikely friendship that left both of them better men. When they parted for good Wednesday afternoon at the Lakers' training facility, Bryant seemed sentimental but not shaken.
He will miss Jackson, but does not need him anymore.
Having listened and learned, he is ready to lead on his own.
"His philosophy on the game, his philosophy on life is something I've adopted, and I carry it with me," Bryant said of his now-former coach. "I don't think that's going to change."
The commonly accepted history is this has been Bryant's team, for better or worse, since Shaquille O'Neal was traded after the 2004 season.
In a thousand ways, that is true. But in a thousand more ways, it is a myth.
Jackson has always kept watch on the Lakers' soul. Bryant has merely personified it. Now he must do both.
In 2004, when the Lakers chose him over O'Neal and Jackson, and handed him a similar responsibility, he was not ready for it. Even a few years ago, when Bryant pouted and sulked after the Celtics pounded the Lakers in the 2008 Finals, he had more maturing to do.
He still needed Jackson to balance his rage and impatience.
But listening to him during these playoffs, watching how he responded to adversity and how his teammates responded to him, something seems different.
He has grown. Enough. Through humility and experience and age. By listening and learning at Jackson's side.
But mostly because he learned to trust.
"The first time around, I learned a lot from him," Bryant said. "But I think the second time around, [Jackson] was more open around me and he had more of a trust or I trusted him more.
"The first time around, I really didn't. The second time around, he and I can have conversations and it would just stay between us. We talked about a great deal of things, and because of that, I learned so much more."
A few years ago, Bryant never would have spoken on this issue. He always has seen information about his emotions or his personal relationships as currency that might later be used against him by opponents.
Reveal little; expose nothing.
But maturity has a way of opening a man. Of revealing the character at his core but not his fears.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bryant calmly sat in front of the cameras and acknowledged his team's failures. He admitted to fatigue and injury, spoke at length about the Lakers' lack of cohesiveness and hunger, and politely declined to offer an opinion on specific changes that might be made going forward.
Three years ago, he'd sat in the same room, at about the same time of year, and had a meltdown of epic proportions.
The contrast was as striking as it was meaningful.
Instead of trying to dictate, he was leading. Instead of bullying the organization to bend to his will, he made sure to let them know he was ready for whatever challenges lie ahead.
For a competitor as obsessive and maniacal as Bryant, it is a staggering reversal that can only be attributed to Jackson's influence.
"He's affected me," Bryant said. "He's impacted my basketball game and how I think about the game and me as a person."
It's hard to say when Bryant's relationship with Jackson began to blossom. But it's undeniable that it has.
In "The Last Season," Jackson's book about the failed 2003-04 season, he famously called Bryant "un-coachable" and said that he "rebels against authority."
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Though Jackson acknowledged his own culpability in the failure of the relationship -- mentioning a newspaper article in which he revealed that Bryant "sabotaged" games in high school and other breaches of trust -- the prevailing issue was always Jackson's favoritism toward O'Neal.
On Wednesday, Bryant revealed for the first time how he and Jackson finally moved past that dysfunctional history.
"I understood the first time around that it was a different dynamic," Bryant said. "He had to appease the big fella [O'Neal] and in doing that, a lot of times I was roadkill. The second time around, we didn't have that issue, so it was pretty easy to stay with just the two of us."
There was no extended meeting to clear the air between them when Jackson returned to coach the Lakers in 2006 after the team missed the playoffs in 2005.
"Once he became our coach and we had one phone conversation where we mentioned it briefly, it was time to move on," Bryant said. "I'm not the type that even wants an 'I'm sorry.' I feel insulted if you even tell me 'I'm sorry,' because that suggests that I was affected by your comment in the first place, which I wasn't.
"I'm not big on giving 'I'm sorrys' either."
It was as much as Bryant has ever said on the past conflict between himself, Jackson and O'Neal. And it was entirely fitting it came on the last day Jackson was his basketball coach.
They parted as friends, on the best of terms. Stronger for having known each other.
Ready for what comes next.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.