When all seems to be crumbling around him, Kobe Bryant maintains his sense of humor. He is one of the game’s most intense competitors, but over the years he has found ways not to take himself so seriously at all times.
On his latest visit to Boston (perhaps one of his last as a player), TD Garden was a chilly place for a morning shootaround because of the ice under the hardwood floor, so Bryant snuggled up on the Lakers bench and addressed the throng of media, mostly smiling.
This season has given him little reason to smile, though. The third coming of the Big Three, with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, has been a nightmare. The Lakers are four games under .500, currently out of playoff position, with a coach whose style is beyond a poor fit for the personnel.
Yet Bryant sat and reflected, fully appreciating that though the end may not be here, his career GPS can see it.
“It’s been like that for every city that we go to, particularly the East Coast cities,” he said about the nostalgia. “It’s always special being in this arena. There’s been a lot of memories for me personally inside this arena and then just in the city as a whole because as a fan growing up.
“It’s always special. The [Celtics-Lakers] rivalry is probably not as strong as it was a few years ago, obviously going back to the ’80s, but there’s still remnants of it.”
Bryant made a concerted effort to connect better with his fans by joining Twitter recently, and one of the pictures he downloaded was of a 1996 predraft workout with the Celtics. A 17-year-old Kobe is smiling for the camera in a Celtics T-shirt with Celtics great Dennis Johnson facing him, his back to the camera.
The picture, which has been released before, shocked a new generation of Lakers fans — and even Celtics fans, who lament passing on Bryant for Antoine Walker in that draft.
“It made a lot of people nauseous,” he said. “It brought back good memories. You have to understand I was like a diehard Laker fan. I didn’t even want to go to the workout. My father made me go.
“So I showed up and DJ was there, which was crazy. I had a chance to meet him. It turned out to be really, really cool. I had a really, really good time. They were nowhere near the evil empire I thought they were going to be. It was pretty fun.”
At 34, Bryant is no longer considered the premier player in the game — that title belongs to LeBron James — but there are times when he will step back in time and return to vintage Kobe, such as Feb. 5 against the Brooklyn Nets, when he drove down the middle and rose for a thunderous one-handed dunk on Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries.
That move sent Twitter into overload.
Bryant, who, like Michael Jordan later in his career, relies more on a midrange game than above the rim, dunked on two bigger men designed to stop him with relative ease, just as he did on countless occasions during the 2000s.
“I kind of surprised myself, to be honest with you,” he said. “I just kind of jumped to see what I had and it went in and that was it. So I appreciate the reaction because I was pretty shocked myself.”
When asked to compare that smiling 17-year-old high schooler without a care to the intense future Hall of Famer attempting to grasp one more taste of glory, he said, “I got pretty much the same haircut, but back then it was by choice. Not much has changed. The love for the game is still there. The passion is still there. The enjoyment is still there. I don’t think there’s much different.”
Strangely, it seems that Bryant put the picture online because it reminded him of simpler times, even though he was donning Celtics green: the opportunity to start over again, audition for interested teams, stun those scouts who were completely unaware of the talent from a prep player from suburban Philadelphia.
The impact of high school products then was in its infancy. Kevin Garnett had just finished his rookie season with the Timberwolves. Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal were mysteries. What’s more, of the 58 picks in the 1996 draft, 52 played in college and four were international products.
“That was just good ol’ fun,” Bryant said of tweeting the picture. “I saw the picture and I was like, ‘Wow, man,’ but I really did have a great, great, great time working out with them, spending time with DJ.”
The picture showed a carefree side of Bryant that we may never see again (or at least not this season).
Stern caught in the middle
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson attended his alma mater Cal’s home basketball game against UCLA Thursday seemingly without a care. Just hours earlier, NBA commissioner David Stern told reporters at All-Star Weekend in Houston that Johnson will have until the April 18 Board of Governors meeting to make a pitch for Sacramento to keep the Kings.
The team’s current owners, the Maloofs, have an agreement to sell the club to a Seattle-based group led by Chris Hansen, the financial wizard who is the front man for the $575 million deal. Johnson has promised to gather a group of local buyers that may include Ron Burkle, co-owner of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, and Mark Mastrov, who founded the popular 24 Hour Fitness health clubs.
Out of loyalty to Johnson and the city of Sacramento, which voted for a new arena project before the Maloofs backed out, Stern appears content to let the process play out instead of simply awarding the team to Seattle.
“If the mayor follows what he told us, we’ll comfortably have [a proposal] by March 1,” Stern said. “Based on conversations that I have had with interested parties, I’m expecting they will deliver something and we’ll see what it looks like.”
It’s apparent that Stern is split. Those close to him believe he wants to leave his post next February with a solution for Seattle, which lost its team to Oklahoma City five years ago in a process regrettable for all sides, but also wants to reward Sacramento for rescuing the Kings from Kansas City 27 years ago and approving the arena deal in a difficult economy.
“That just defines what the horns of a dilemma are,” he said. “Seattle’s a great market. Sacramento’s been a good market. It’s going to be a very difficult decision for the Board of Governors if Sacramento comes up with an offer. That’s why I’m glad I’m not an owner.
“I am not expecting something bad from a legal perspective. There are always issues in any application in either Seattle or Sacramento and we’ll have to vet those; that’s why I’m glad we have the length of time between now and April 17 to have all of our lawyers and experts and analysis vet this entire situation.”
Stern said both cities will be carefully examined and it is no cinch that the Kings are moving to Seattle despite local excitement there.
“Everything is in play,” said Stern. “We look at the size of the market, the size of the television market, the number of other teams in the market. We have everything in play, the strength of the ownership group.”
The fact Stern appears split won’t help the competition between the cities. This is by far Seattle’s best chance to regain a team, since expansion seems out of the question for now. Stern won’t even broach that topic, leaving it up to deputy commissioner Adam Silver, his successor.
Rose is willing to wait it out
There was speculation that Bulls point guard Derrick Rose would be back by month’s end to help his club, which has aspirations of making the NBA Finals. The Bulls advanced to the Eastern Conference finals two years ago with a healthy Rose but fell in the first round last year after he tore his left ACL in Game 1 against Philadelphia.
However, it seems nobody told Rose he was supposed to be back so soon, because he revealed last week that he is not rushing anything.
“Right now I’m feeling pretty good,” he said. “We’re slowly getting back in the mix. The other day, we tried the three-on-three, the one-on-one. I felt good out there.
“Not trying to rush myself, just still trying to be patient and just trying to take my rehab very seriously right now. So that’s a good thing right now, to go in every day just knowing you’re getting better.”
But when asked about a return date, he said, “I don’t really know. I’m feeling good, but like I said, if it’s where it’s taking me a long time and I’m still not feeling right, I wouldn’t mind missing this year.”
While Rajon Rondo is telling Celtics officials he wants to be ready for training camp eight months from now, Rose just passed the nine-month mark of his injury and doesn’t seem close. Meanwhile, the Bulls continue to churn out wins; they are fifth in the Eastern Conference despite nagging injuries to Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah.
“It’s great knowing that they are winning games,” Rose said. “It seems like they are fighting for me out there, so I don’t have anything but respect for how hard they’ve been working out there in practice and when they are going out there playing as a team.”
Rose appears to have a brilliant career ahead, and his game relies so much on the combination of speed, power, and jerky moves that he wants to ensure his knee is sound.
“I would love to play this year — I would love to, I would love to,” he said. “That’s why I approach my rehab and my workout so hard. I’m trying to get back out there on the court as quickly as possible. But if I have anything later on, there’s no point.”
Regardless of how spry he appears in pregame workouts against assistant coaches, he knows he’s not ready for the NBA rigors and until he is, he will stay unavailable. He is such a valuable piece of the Bulls’ future and still only 24 years old. And Tom Thibodeau is coaching the guys who are out there to wins.
“My leg still isn’t feeling right,” said Rose. “Mentally, I think that I’m fine. Just every week try to do something different. Every day, stay on my rehab, do a little bit more, lift a little bit more, squat a little bit more. And taking it very serious.
“Being able to dunk — I can’t dunk right now. So I know if I could dunk off stride I know I’d be out there playing, but I can’t.”
A Hawk may be ready to fly
An intriguing story to follow is the future of forward Josh Smith, who has wanted to explore life outside of Atlanta for a while unless the Hawks want to re-sign him as a maximum-contract player. New general manager Danny Ferry doesn’t have the attachment to Smith previous management did. Smith is a tremendous player who could help a team greatly at the trade deadline, but the Hawks’ asking price may be too high. It will be interesting to see if it comes down in the next five days. Any team that acquires Smith will likely have to sign him to a maximum contract to retain his services. Opinions about Smith around the league vary, but he is one of the league’s more versatile players.
After scoring 20 points against the Celtics in a December game, Houston’s Greg Smith averaged just 3.7 points in January and was sent to the NBADL for a six-day period. The Rockets have used their Rio Grande Valley club as a shuttle service of sorts for their youngsters, including rookie Terrence Jones. Royce White made his NBADL debut against Maine Tuesday and has averaged 6.5 points and 7 rebounds in two games for the Vipers. White finally agreed to play for Rio Grande Valley after coming to an agreement about his anxiety disorder treatment.
It’s almost a given that Brandon Jennings will explore free agency after the Bucks passed on an opportunity to sign him to an extension last summer. Jennings has exceeded expectations during his four years in the NBA but can still be wildly inconsistent with his 3-point shooting and decision-making. Also, guard Monta Ellis has an $11 million player option that he is expected to reject to become a free agent this summer. Ellis, like Josh Smith, has been productive throughout his career but elicits different opinions about whether he can contribute to a championship-caliber team. The Warriors felt they had to move Ellis because of his overall effect on the team and his desire to be the primary scorer despite the presence of Stephen Curry . . . Charlotte’s Ben Gordon, who has a player option for $13.2 million next season, is expected to be traded by the Bobcats because he has not bought into coach Mike Dunlap’s system. The Celtics would be interested in Gordon, but he would be the second-highest-paid player on the team.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.