- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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ORLANDO -- There is at least one soul in the NBA universe who doesn't care that Kobe Bryant couldn't close in Game 3, or that he missed 20 shots and needed Derek Fisher to bail him out in Game 4, or that Kobe's kids started calling him Grumpy because he's been so humorless about this championship stuff.
Fortunately for Bryant it's the guy whose opinion he treasures most in this game.
Good luck trying to convince Jerry West that the sight of Bryant hunched over at the waist in a recent courtside interview was the first tangible sign of his decline at age 30.
Or that Kobe's legacy has a Shaquille O'Neal-sized hole until he wins a title without Shaq.
Or that No. 24 shouldn't have waited until Saturday's press conference, with the title just one win away, to finally lighten up and, you know, smile once in a while in these NBA Finals.
"Why the hell would you want to smile?" West bellowed into the phone, still lathered after watching the other player he brought to the Lakers in that magical summer of 1996 -- Fisher -- inspire a coast-to-coast stream of "Fish That Saved L.A." references with two big triples Thursday night that nudged West's old team into a 3-1 series lead/stranglehold.
"I love Kobe's passion," West continued. "People think he's not getting any joy out of this? This game is not about having fun. This is the ultimate competition. You can feel good about it afterward.
"I didn't see Michael Jordan giggling and laughing all the time."
Those responses should help you spot one of the main reasons, if it wasn't already clear, why West was so drawn to Bryant in the '96 draft, so determined to find a way to trade for Kobe's rights even if it meant giving up a proven big man, another one of West's handpicked favorites -- Vlade Divac -- for a cocky, skinny swingman out of high school. As Phil Jackson noted a few days back, that sort of drive was evident from the start with Bryant, even when he was 17. And West, as the Lakers' front-office chief, was hooked instantly.
Jackson was still in Chicago back then, but he's heard all the stories and describes it as Kobe being "desirous of doing everything at once," from the moment Bryant arrived in Lakerland. West, now 71, inevitably couldn't resist once he got a glimpse of that ambition -- to go with all the talent and potential -- because he undoubtedly saw some of his insatiable self.
You'll recall that Mr. Clutch -- long before Pat Riley gave us the famous quote about how coaching pretty much boils down to winning or misery -- played out his entire career on that same frequently miserable basis. So it seems perfectly normal to West that Bryant has been so dour and testy throughout this series, contrived as it might seem to Kobe's many critics, now that he's so close to the title again seven years after the Lakers' last crown in 2002.
If that makes him tough for Jackson or the other Lakers to deal with sometimes or makes it harder for the public to embrace Bryant in this series, well, don't expect to hear Kobe's original NBA mentor register any such complaints. Even West's recent declaration that the younger and bigger LeBron James had surpassed Kobe as a singular force was viewed by some longtime Lakers observers as West merely trying to pump Kobe with some extra fuel for the final push in these playoffs, such is the depth of their bond as well as Bryant's respect for his old boss.
"He's taken hits from everybody, OK?" West said of Bryant. "And I think it's grossly unfair because of the way he approaches the game. Kobe approaches the game the right way. Not smiling around and glad-handing guys on the other team. I watch some of these guys laughing and joking before the game or on the bench. If it's that damn funny maybe that's a sign of weakness.
"I have to laugh when I hear that [Bryant should smile more]. I think that's a facade myself. [Bryant is] that obsessed with winning. This guy is truly one of the greatest players we've ever seen. It would be hard to place a lot of players ahead of him."
The fact remains that Bryant hasn't quite lorded over this series like many of us thought he would after he rumbled for 40 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in Game 1. Another fact: Bryant had five full days of rest between the conference finals and that Game 1 and hasn't flowed at that level of smoothness since, which is mainly attributed to one of two theories:
Kobe is starting to wear down in his 13th season, after going straight from the draining 2008 Finals, where he was brutalized by Boston's defense, to Olympic duty; Or, Kobe is trying too hard to get to four wins, instead of letting Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom do more offensively to help him get there, because he's too obsessed with winning after what happened in his previous two trips to the Finals.
But let's be real.
For whatever dismay you want to voice with his shot selection in the past two games or the five free throws he uncharacteristically clanked in L.A.'s Game 3 defeat, be advised that Bryant is one of just three players ever to average at least 30 points and eight assists through the first four games of the Finals while also shooting a passable 42.9 percent from the floor. The other two are Jordan in the 1991 Finals and West in the 1970 Finals.
West, meanwhile, has his own examples to justify Bryant's all-but-certain forthcoming selection as NBA Finals MVP, unless L.A. becomes the first team out of 30 in Finals history to take a 3-1 lead and then lose the next three games.
Referring to Gasol, who was his franchise player when he was the Grizzlies' team president from 2002 to 2007, West said: "His effort is certainly greater than it was in Memphis, I'll tell you that, and it's because Kobe Bryant has driven him to that point."
With the ever-polarizing Kobe, though, when is his coexistence with teammates ever that simple? Look at the pass he threw out of a double-team for Fisher's second of two dagger 3s late Thursday. It wasn't much different than the unforgettable pitch out from Jordan to Steve Kerr to win Game 6 of the 1997 Finals, but there's a huge difference in the way those plays are portrayed.
You weren't going to read too many "Kerr Bails Out Desperate MJ" headlines in '97. MJ being MJ meant he received almost universal praise for having the savvy to trust an unheralded teammate.
Kobe? As one of my mentors, Mark Heisler, so aptly put it earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times, Bryant generates as much scorn as love because his highs and lows are so outrageous, compared to the virtual lifelong consistency of His Airness.
"Jordan was a straight line across the top of the graph," Heisler wrote, while "Bryant is a wavy line."
Wavy is actually putting it kindly after a wild decade on the Kobe Coaster. Yet there is no shame, here on Earth, in needing help from the likes of Gasol and Fisher to win it all. Julius Erving couldn't win a ring in the NBA until he hooked up with Moses Malone, just like Oscar Robertson went ring-less until he was teamed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaq, for the record, has zero titles without a Kobe or Dwyane Wade to share the burden. That's usually how it works in this universe.
"If people think that's what he needs to validate his career, so be it, but I don't think that's the case at all," West said of Bryant lacking a ring without O'Neal as a sidekick. "This is a unique player.
"Any time you start talking about who the best is, you're always going to have controversy. But Kobe is upper, upper echelon. I'm not talking about the top 10 [of all time]. This franchise has had a lot of good players. Absolutely the greatest leader I've ever seen would be Magic Johnson, and he was also the greatest teammate, but as far as skill Kobe is No. 1 on the list.
"When you're that great, sometimes people don't want to give you the credit. But when Kobe walks away from this game, he's going to leave huge footprints, just as Michael Jordan did.
"This is a once-every-25-years player. Appreciate him while he's here."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Jerry West thinks Kobe Bryant's grim determination is the right touch in these finals, Marc Stein writes.