NEW YORK — Kobe Bryant “does phone interviews about as often as Osama bin Laden strolls through Central Park,” John Black, Lakers VP of public relations, responded by e-mail to my request for an interview. “But I will ask him if he wants to call you.”
Black asked what the interview would be about and I told him “the state of the Lakers. I know what I read. . . . I want to ask questions no one seems to be addressing.”
“I can guarantee you before he calls (if he even agrees to do so) he’s going to want to know the gist of (those questions),” Black replied. “I know it may not be ‘appropriate’ to ask you to do this journalistically, but I’m just letting you know he’s going to ask. I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to do so or not.”
Black was correct. I felt that would be inappropriate. I asked him to remind Kobe of our many impromptu one-on-one interviews when I worked for NBC. After I thought I had asked everything one particular time, Kobe, camera still rolling, harrumphed, “Is that all you got? That’s the toughest questions you can ask? Let’s go, bring it on.”
Kobe was laughing when he said it. But he meant every word. He gets off on confrontations, the pithier the better, whether they take place on the court, in court or against a full-court press of one or more.
“My questions are not all that tough,” I said. “I would just like to get to the bottom of some things I’m hearing, reading and seeing . . . and would like to throw them by Kobe rather than write them without confirmation.”
Kobe jumped all over the challenge. He called the next afternoon after the shootaround. The Lakers have beaten the Pistons and Suns since our conversation but had just absorbed a 19-point home humiliation by the Grizzlies.
That was L.A.’s third uninspired effort (against undermanned Milwaukee and Miami on Christmas Day) in just shy of a fortnight, provoking terminal loyalists to speak in foreign (disapproving) tongues and prompting interplanetary conjecture about what was wrong.
Kobe appeared to know exactly what was ailing his two-time defending champion 25-11 team. Minutes after obligingly being manhandled by the Heat, he pronounced he was going to “kick ass at practice . . . and beat it into their heads. It was time to get team focused.”
That brings us to the crux of my inquiry. How did Kobe propose to pull that off, a Lakers’ legionnaire wondered, “when he hasn’t practiced the whole season (something not one member of L.A.’s media has called him out on)?”
Is that true, I asked Kobe?
“Because I have very little cartilage under my right knee cap, it’s almost bone-on-bone.”
Kobe has undergone three operations on that same knee, one this past offseason, after having it drained several times during last year’s playoffs.
“Until I got it drained the first time during the opening round against the Thunder I could not bend that knee at all!” he revealed. “It was swollen as hell and it hurt like hell. Luckily, things got a lot better once I had the procedure.”
Kobe will turn 33 on Aug. 23. This is his 15th season. Including the regular season, the after party and All-Star Games, he has logged 46,660 minutes.
“I have four seasons left on my contract,” said Kobe, the league’s highest paid entertainer at $24,806,250 a year. Averaging 25.1 points (No. 4, overall), he became No. 12 (26,695) in scoring all-time (combined NBA-ABA) by passing Dominique Wilkins last week. Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Dan Issel are well within this season’s sights.
“You know how competitive and combative I am on the court,” he said. “There’s nothing I like better than to practice. In fact, I like practice more than the games because I get to go at my teammates hard. That’s when you find out what they’re made of, how much you can push some to get the most out of them, and how you have to back off others so you don’t lose them.
“So, in order to protect my knee and avoid a situation like last year we decided before the season to sacrifice the team’s intensity by minimizing wear and tear as much as possible.”
Kobe said Phil Jackson was on board with no practice. However, the Zen Hen supposedly would have preferred not to have him sit on the sidelines as much as he did — no scrimmaging or performing team drills. Instead, Kobe shot around and lifted weights.
At the same time, Kobe’s playing time got cut (presumably by Jackson) six minutes (32.9) per game from the previous two seasons of 39-or-so. His career average is 36.5.
The Christmas Day indignity countermanded the above strategy. The Lakers’ mental and physical lethargy convinced Kobe the team craved his practice presence if it was to regain its passion in time for the playoff pit. In his opinion, some teammates had gotten far too comfortable and it had trickled down as a group that was dangerously looking ahead to June.
Pau Gasol and others need him in their face, chest and game, he submitted, the same way Scottie Pippen and other Bulls needed Michael Jordan in theirs. Kobe hasn’t missed a practice since and has a puffy right knee to show for it.
Peter Vecsey cover the NBAfor the New York Post.