- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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Long before Kobe Bryant has the ball in his hands in an end-game situation with the chance to make the winning shot -- he has seven of them this season -- there's a checklist of pregame rituals he needs to complete before the game even begins.
Bryant needs a foot massage as he lies down in a muddled state of intense semi consciousness as the game approaches. He needs to lace up a fresh pair of his signature sneakers. He needs to puff rosin in the direction of the familiar faces of the broadcast team and statistics crew sitting courtside. He needs to dig his toes into the court, the rubber soles of his kicks catching the hardwood so he can stretch his legs out through a spastic circling of his knees that looks kind of like a young Forrest Gump imitating Elvis dancing to "Hound Dog."
And he needs to hug a guy.
The guy is Josh Powell.
When the two meet up before Bryant takes the court, the Lakers reserve forward doesn't just embrace Bryant, he gets in his ear, imparting a final thought for Bryant to consider before tip-off, as if Powell was basketball's Dr. Phil.
"I tell him," Powell explained, "I say, 'We're going to go out to eat at McDonald's after the game and he's like, 'Yeah!' He gets fired up."
"Sometimes I'll be sarcastic. Sometimes I'll say something to really fire him up. Sometimes I'll give a quote from one of the coaches of them being sarcastic, it just all depends. We have fun with it.
"I just try to motivate. I know people wonder, 'How can you motivate guys like Kobe or Pau [Gasol]?' But you know, we're all human."
Now in his second season with the Lakers after spending the first three years of his career with four different teams, Powell has carved out a niche in Los Angeles as a vocal leader even though he is the ninth or 10th man in coach Phil Jackson's regular eight-man rotation.
In his short time with the Lakers, he's become fast friends with Bryant, who can just about count on one hand the amount of teammates he considers personal friends in his 14 seasons in the league.
"We both have a passion to work hard and to practice hard," Bryant said. "I think it started there and it grew from there."
Said Powell: "It's great. I think the biggest thing why we are close is because the hunger and the passion for the game that me and him both have. Granted, the skill level might be different, but you can't -- as far as heart and desire and things like that -- like, I'm up there. And everybody knows that. People can look at that and be like, 'That's my guy.'"
Powell's agent, Jamie Knox, who played at Powell's alma mater, NC State, in the late 1980s and who Powell describes as more of a family member than a business partner, has noticed the relationship grow between his client and the "best player on the planet" as Knox puts it.
"Josh is a teammate of Kobe and he's a fan of Kobe because he sees how hard Kobe works," said Knox, who is the godfather to one of Powell's daughters. "Josh is a hard worker as well, so he appreciates that."
Bryant isn't just about practice, however. He's about performance. And he knows that Powell is capable of helping the team win ballgames.
"He has so much talent," Bryant said. "He can help us out so much. It's just that this team has so much depth. Every time he's had an opportunity to step in and perform, he's performed extremely well. Last year when Lamar [Odom] was out for a stretch, he stepped in in Houston and had a huge game, stepped in in San Antonio and had a huge game. He's extremely professional. Doesn't complain. Doesn't whine. He just comes out and works hard every day."
The games Bryant is referring to against the Rockets and the Spurs happened last March on back-to-back nights, when the Lakers came into the trip having lost three of four games. With Odom out and the team struggling, the Texas two-step looked like a sure way to extend the slump. But Powell had 17 points and nine rebounds in a six-point win against Houston, starting in place of the injured Odom. Powell was back to coming off the bench the next game because Odom returned, but he chipped in four points, three rebounds and an assist in a tight win over San Antonio.
According to Powell, he doesn't give 100 percent or 110 percent, he gives "200 percent." It's that drive that turned him from a player whose framed portrait in the Lakers' practice facility shows him making a pass around Utah's Kyrylo Fesenko -- scrub against scrub in meaningless minutes -- to a player whose first career 3-pointer came in Game 1 of the 2009 NBA Finals.
"I think it's good for guys to watch," Bryant said. "Jordan [Farmar] and Shannon [Brown] and some of the other guys, because Josh is always ready. His number's not called. He can easily be playing, but most of the time his number's not called. When it is called, he's ready to go."
Powell hasn't been used as much this season as he was last season. His minutes have dipped from 11.7 to 8.7 per game and along with the decrease in playing time his points and rebounds per game have trended down from 4.2 and 2.9 per game, respectively, to 2.6 and 1.7.
While the numbers don't support it, Powell is just as important to the team and he's improving as a player.
"He's amazing," Odom said. "His work ethic, his persistence doesn't go unnoticed. It's too bad that he can't that you guys don't really get to see it. We see it every morning. He's amazing.
"His skill level is high. He's gotten better even handling the ball and his range is all the way out to the 3-point range. He's in shape. He's a pro, man."
The overseas education
Five years before Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler went overseas to make some money while honing their games to prepare for the NBA, there was Powell leaving NC State after his sophomore season and heading to play for Lokomotiv-Rostov in the Russian Superleague so he could bank some coin while working on his bank shots from the wing.
"I don't think he felt that he was going to get the playing time that he thought he deserved," Knox said. "That led him to say, 'Hey look, I think it's time for me to explore other options whether it's in the NBA or if it's in Uruguay, I want to be in a situation where I'm maturing.'"
Even if he wasn't ready for the league, he would rather get paid to play for whomever than make no money with the Wolfpack and sit.
He was 20 years old when he packed his bags for Russia.
"It's a culture shock," Powell remembered. "It hits you when you're walking in the airport. It's like, you don't know where to go, you're looking up at the signs and everything's in different languages and you're trying to talk to people and they're just looking at you. It was pretty tough. It could get pretty frustrating, but I guess those types of moments make you become even hungrier because it's like -- no disrespect to the situation because I'm going to do whatever I got to do, but -- it's like I know where I want my ultimate goal and that's to be where I am now [in the NBA]. It just drove me. It was a very humbling experience and it just drove me. Being on my own, being in a different country, it's totally different than college or something like that."
He played just two games in Russia before heading to Italy where he finished the 2003-04 season, averaging 12.1 points and 8.3 rebounds. He stayed another season in Italy and got better, averaging 16.6 points and 11.6 rebounds while thinking about the NBA every day.
"It made him see that it was not where he wanted to be long term," Knox said.
The Mavericks were the first team to give Powell a sniff at the league, signing him to a minimum contract in 2005-06, and he played sparingly on a team that made it all the way to the Finals before losing to Miami.
"He came out for the draft, he just came out a little bit too early," Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson said. "He rolled his sleeves up and cut his teeth in some of the tough European leagues and that was impressive. I guess this was his first NBA stop and it was a great experience for us, I can tell you that.
"I think Stephen Jackson [of the Bobcats] had the same experience. I think sometimes guys that go to college think it's just a natural, easy transition into the NBA and then when they actually get here, it's a bunch of men that there's only a certain amount of jobs and usually some of the young, inexperienced guys get squeezed out and they just have to, whether it's through the D-League or through the overseas opportunities, hone their craft, and now both of those guys are established NBA players."
Before finally latching on to Dallas in '05-06, Powell spent the previous two summers toiling away on the Mavs' summer league entry in Las Vegas and in earning invites to various NBA camps. He wears a pair of green Seattle SuperSonics practice shorts -- one of the teams that passed on him after having him come in for a workout -- every single day under whatever he is wearing as a reminder of all the tough experiences he had to endure to get to where he is.
The Turiaf connection
Powell spent a year in Dallas before being traded to the Pacers in the offseason. Just like what happened in Russia, he played just seven games in Indiana before landing in a better situation. A trade in the wake of the Malice at the Palace at Auburn Hills sent him to Golden State, where he played for Donnie Nelson's father, Don. The same Warriors team that ended up upsetting the Mavericks in one of the greatest 1-8 first-round playoff matchups in NBA history.
After Golden State he headed south to Los Angeles, spending a year with the Clippers and finally receiving steady playing time. He averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds and started 25 games. While in Tinseltown, he made friends with an energetic forward with cornrows in his hair, No. 21 on his jersey and a locker two spots down from Bryant in the Lakers' locker room.
Little did Powell know that he would be filling in as Ronny Turiaf's replacement a season later -- same hairstyle, same uniform, even same locker (there's still a partially torn bumper sticker with the phrase "one people, one destiny" affixed to the cubby from Turiaf's tenure there) -- when Turiaf bolted as a free agent for Powell's old home in Golden State.
Knox likes to rib Powell that as a 27-year-old married man and the father of two daughters (Patience is 3 years old, Hayden is 1) with a son on the way (due May 3), his hair style doesn't quite fit the part.
"He won't cut his just to be cutting it because everybody else is doing it, he'll be cutting it because he's getting older and he's maturing and he's past that phase," Knox said. "That's the reason why he'd be getting rid of them when he just feels like the rappers say, he wants to 'get his grown man on.'"
The corn rows, the tattoos up and down his arms, back and chest and the imposing 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame, hardly fit Powell's role as the "Rudy" of the Lakers at first glance, either. They don't mesh with what you'd expect to see from a guy who doesn't drink or smoke and who spends time donning a Santa Claus hat and donating toys in person to a local children's hospital as part of his charity foundation, "21 Reasons to Give."
But if you take the time to read the ink, you'll see the message of the man is in perfect harmony with his place in life.
Powell's favorite tattoo reads, "As easy as it is given, it is easier to be taken away. Be thankful and count your blessings because God holds the keys to life's doors."
The music man
Bryant and Powell's friendship was also forged through music. When Bryant was a young player on the Lakers he was often isolated from his older teammates. Instead of hanging out with the guys, he lost himself in music. Former teammate John Salley said that Bryant used to sit in his car after practice and listen to a new CD he purchased over and over again on loop until he knew every lyric.
Enter Powell, who in his first season with the team had a recurring feature on the Lakers' official website called "J-Peezy's Playlist," which was an audio podcast with Mike Trudell discussing the latest songs on his iPod. Bryant found a kindred spirit through both work ethic and music. Sweat and ears instead of sweat and tears.
The music at Odom's wedding to Khloe Kardashian last fall overtook Powell so much he stormed the dance floor with a scene-stealing boogie.
While some of Powell's teammates can be found at halftime of games talking to movie stars who are sitting courtside, Powell will often chat up Polow da Don, who sits across from the visitors bench and is a record producer who has worked with artists such as Will Smith, Ludacris, Usher, Fergie and 50 Cent.
Just like Don has impressed some of the biggest stars in the music industry, Powell's close circle of NBA friends reads like a first-team all-NBA roster. Aside from Bryant, Powell lists Toronto's Chris Bosh and Orlando's Dwight Howard as two of his most loyal comrades.
He brought Howard to the tiny town of Vicksburg, Miss., (population 26,407) this past summer to surprise children attending a basketball clinic at Knox's high school.
The third captain
Bryant and Derek Fisher are the Lakers' official co-captains, but Powell takes on a distinct leadership role of his own.
"I think [he's a leader] because of how he carries himself, what he does and what he brings to us in practice," Odom said. "At 10 in the morning, when some guys are tired, Josh will wake your a-- up. Because he will ram you. He will make the extra effort to go get the offensive rebound and so on and so on. He's going to get his. I can't wait to see it."
Nelson isn't surprised that Powell has become an important cog on a championship team like the Lakers five years after he first suited up with Dallas.
"Even when he was young, people liked him and gravitated towards him," Nelson said. "He's smart, he's engaging, intelligent on and off the basketball floor. Guys like that end up just naturally falling into those leadership roles. Like anything else, the more experience that you have, the more skins you have, then the more credibility you have with younger players."
When the Lakers had an air-it-out meeting earlier this season after starting a three-game road trip with losses to Miami and Charlotte, reporters entered the gym and Bryant was alone at one end, isolated from the rest of the team. Powell was the one Lakers player to go over and chat with the visibly frustrated Bryant and he was also one of the last two players, along with Fisher, to stay in the gym and discuss the state of the team while the rest of the players put their headphones on and filed out to the bus.
"Josh's perspective is so different than a lot of us and I think that's very good for our team. A lot of his experiences personally and professionally have put him in a place where he doesn't fear challenges, adversity, tough situations," Fisher said.
It's that perspective that gives Powell the confidence to offer constructive criticism of the team, without fear about losing playing time, something that is motivation for many bench players to keep quiet.
"No matter what it is, whether it's the energy, whether it's the confusion on defense, the confusion on offense or certain things, we just got to find a way to bring it together as a team," Powell said of the Lakers' struggles before the playoffs.
He's afforded himself the right to speak some harsh words, because his hard work helped create the championship culture in the first place.
"Josh is one of the reasons why we were ready to win a championship because, these guys, they come in and they push," Odom said. "They push. There's no time off, even in practice. We practice hard, we compete against each other and he's one of the main reasons why this team is so good."
It quite literally is the million-dollar question: Will Powell be back with the Lakers next year?
Powell made $959,111 this season and becomes a free agent this summer.
After a string of one- and two-year deals, he would love to sign an extended, guaranteed deal and stay in L.A.
"It's a place where, to be honest with you, he really wants to be and he wants to stay," Knox said. "Josh is going to have to make a business decision and we're going to have to make a business decision, but the Lakers is somewhere Josh would like to finish his career."
If you listen to how Phil Jackson talks about Powell, you get the idea that the Lakers want him to stay, too.
"We like him a lot," Jackson said. "We like his attitude. We like his preparation. We like his work ethic. We like the fact that he produces off the bench."
Powell is at peace with what lies ahead of him in terms of contract negotiations. After everything he's already been through, how could he not be?
"I just leave it in God's hands," Powell said. "Of course, I'd like to be able to get something. Some guys are able to get deals, three- or four-year deals, that would definitely be a blessing, but I'll just play it how it comes. More importantly, it's just about having a job and being in the right situation. I love it here with this team. I love the organization. I love the group of guys that I've come to know just from top to bottom. Even with the people in the office and the coaching staff. I hope it works out for the best and I hope I'm able to continue on making this a home."
Even if the game takes him to another city, he'll always be at home wherever there's a court on which can continue to work.
"It's not just like an avocation for him," Jackson said. "It's more than that. It's a lifeblood, really, for him to play basketball."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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