Over the course of the 2015-16 NBA season, Today’s Fastbreak’s Charley Rosen met with New York Knicks president Phil Jackson to discuss the state of the team. However, in Part 8 of “The Phil Jackson Chronicles,” Phil talked Kobe Bryant.
Phil Jackson spent a total of 11 years coaching Kobe Bryant. Here’s PJ’s take on the many twists and turns, as well as the very positive outcome of their long-term relationship.
“Kobe showed up at the press conference that introduced me as the new Lakers coach. He came up to my hotel room afterwards and we had our first face-to-face connection. He said he had read all about my championships with the Bulls and had studied several game tapes, so he was very excited. Kobe was 20 years old and had already played three NBA seasons.
“The Summer League was in Los Angeles that year and we sat together to watch the games that the Lakers had. Jim Cleamons was one of my assistant coaches in Chicago and would also be on my staff with the Lakers. So it was JC who coached the team of free-agent hopefuls and draft choices. As I explained the unfolding of the elementary triangle offense that JC had installed, as well as more of the advanced principles, Kobe was still excited. It was clear to me that he not only was willing to learn, but that he really wanted to learn.
“Then he fell and broke his wrist in our first exhibition game. For several weeks, Kobe had to be sidelined and watch guys like Shaq, Glen Rice, Ron Harper, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, A.C. Green, Brian Shaw and Robert Horry pile up a 10-1 record. Shaq had really bought into the triangle and was well established at the heart of our offense.
“When Kobe was healed and ready to return, I was a bit reluctant to make a major alteration in our winning combination. So I suggested that Kobe come off the bench. ‘I don’t see myself not starting,’ was his response. ‘I don’t want to be known as a bench player.’ Here was a 20-year-old already concerned about his legacy. So we had a little pushback, an indication of what might lie ahead.
“A couple of weeks later, we’re still winning and Shaq is completely motivated. But Kobe was only averaging about 19 points per game. So Kobe called Jerry West and wanted to know how Jerry and Elgin Baylor both averaged 30 points. Kobe also said that he wanted to be traded. Of course, Jerry told me about the conversation. And, for a few minutes I thought about taking the Pistons up on an offer they made to trade Kobe for Grant Hill. Make that a few seconds.
“The thing was that Kobe already saw himself as being one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. I thought that, in time, he would indeed reach that goal.
“Anyway, he was not going to be traded. So we’d talk about being patient, and letting the game come to him. But Kobe would sometimes still go off on his own, disregarding the offense and trying to single-handedly take over the game. When I called him on this, he’d say that for us to keep on winning, there was a lot for him to do.
“Then there was one game against Toronto where Kobe got into a personal one-on-one scoring contest with Vince Carter that made winning the game much more difficult. So I had another conversation with Kobe, telling him that the easiest way for us to win was for him to make sure Shaq got the ball when he had unstoppable position in the pivot. And Kobe gave one of his ‘Yeah, but…’ answers.
“For the rest of that season, Kobe more or less got the message. Still, we had four or five more conversations where my theme was a reprise of what Red Holzman used to say: ‘Hit the open man.’
“We had a nice run in the playoffs until we hooked up with Portland. The Blazers had a physical team that included Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio Harvey, Brian Grant and Jermaine O’Neal. They also had Greg Anthony, Damon Stoudamire, Detlef Schrempf and Stacey Augmon. That was the year of the famous seventh game when we came from 15 behind to win, and then beat Indiana in the Finals. Kobe was terrific throughout that run. He had figured it out and got it done.
“We won the championship again in 2001, but Kobe had something of a setback. He was still dealing with the same me-first versus team-first issue. There was one game where Michael Jordan was on hand and it was easy to see him sitting there in one of the suites. So, to impress Michael, Kobe’s me-first impulse took over and he scored 25 points in the first half, and to show Michael that he could shoot, Kobe made five threes. Then, in a playoff game against Sacramento, Kobe took only one shot in the entire second half. Maybe somebody in the media might have criticized him for shooting too much. I don’t know what got into Kobe’s craw, but it certainly came out in a strange way. And, of course, we lost the game.
“I just could not relate to Kobe’s motivational impulses.
“Kobe also had trouble relating to his teammates. One reason is that they were generally older than he was. They’d invite him to go out with them for a meal or to a club and he’d turn them down.
“When all those sexual assault charges were raised, and Kobe was flying around from court dates to games, he was still able to focus and perform on a very high level. I really give him credit for that. Even so, when Karl Malone got hurt, we lost to Detroit in the Finals.
“Kobe continued to have some difficulty playing with Shaq. Magic was able to adjust playing with Kareem because they had a relationship that was based on mutual respect. But Kobe was always defiant.
“Then Shaq was traded, I didn’t re-sign with the Lakers and I wrote a book. I never really said that Kobe was ‘uncoachable.’ What I did write was that I couldn’t coach him anymore. In any case, Kobe was always sensitive to criticism, so he was hurt by the book.
“When I returned to the Lakers, the job of getting the team back on track enabled Kobe and I to get through all that. Kwame Brown was our holdover center, but he was very inconsistent and unable to carry the offensive load that we needed to succeed. So I got together with Kobe and we worked up a list of big guys he could play with. But we couldn’t come up with anything, and Kobe was very disappointed.
“So disappointed that he sat out the last two weeks of training camp and said that he wanted to be traded. The two of us talked about how we could manage this, and we gave Kobe and his agent the liberty of finding a trade that would be acceptable to the team. In all the trades that I’ve been involved with, when you trade a player who moves the needle, you never get a fair recompense. So nothing came of this.
“But then we had the chance to trade for Pau Gasol. Kobe and I talked about the prospect of doing this. Gasol might not be a good rebounder, and he might not be able to wrestle with opponents in the low post. Well, we did make the trade, Pau played well and we did get to the Finals, but the Celtics physically abused him and we lost the sixth game.
“After the loss, Kobe was very calm. We had a very logical discussion about our simply not having enough tools to win. Sure, he was disappointed, but he wasn’t angry or inconsolable like I’ve seen some guys be in the same circumstances.
“In the offseason (editor’s note: this is the offseason after winning the 2009 Finals), I consulted Kobe about another player we had a chance to sign. Ron Artest. Kobe was agreeable, and with Ronnie’s considerable help, we won another championship.
“By then, my relationship with Kobe had evolved into collaboration.
“The seasons seemed to zoom by and Kobe was now 33 and a veteran of 15 NBA seasons. Preservation had to have priority. With his Achilles problem and the compression tape jobs he needed on his knee, we agreed that he would have to skip any practices that were scheduled on the days before games. It still took him half a day to not only prepare himself physically for games, but also for practices. The problem, then, was to stay connected with his teammates. Which he was able to do.
“Then we got swept by Dallas in the 2011 championship series. I also had some physical problems that made conducting practices difficult in the hands-on manner that I liked to do. Add that to all the traveling and it got to be too much for me, so I retired.
“We still stay in touch, getting together for breakfast whenever I’m in LA. But I missed most of his farewell tour because of the Knicks’ schedule. I know, however, that he had to lose his ‘Black Mamba’ attitude where from the minute he woke up on the morning of a gameday, he focused his body and mind on that night’s opponent. Instead of being a killer on the court, Kobe now had to carefully pick his spots. And the Laker fans were with him all the way, wildly cheering every basket he made. Even when LA was down by 20 points.
“Byron Scott really had no choice except to buy into letting Kobe try to go out in a blaze or a flicker of glory. It was unavoidable that the development of the Lakers’ young players was hampered, but I think that Byron handled the entire situation as well as possible.
“Again, the Knicks’ schedule prevented me from witnessing Kobe’s incredible finale. The night before that game, Utah had lost and been eliminated from the playoffs and were still shell-shocked when Kobe reprised the last act of his ‘Black Mamba’ mode. He reminded us all of what a truly all-time great player Kobe really was.
“I’ll miss him, and the game will miss him.”