As DJ Foster noted of the recently concluded NBA Finals, there is much that the Clippers franchise can learn from the Lakers as they enter this year’s draft and free agency market. During Lakers-Celtics series, I became fixated on the opposing personalities of Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant, and what this has meant for the Clippers organization. When the Celtics began to exert their will on the series and grumbling about Lamar’s ineffectiveness from Lakers fans reached a fever pitch, I was reminded of the same refrain from Clippers fans years before, back when Lamar’s heart was lighter and his future seemed brighter.
Lamar was once a beacon of hope for the Clippers franchise, of course. I still remember sitting in the upper reaches of the Staples Center a decade ago, when I first returned to LA, and watching Lamar put up 30 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in his rookie debut against the Sonics. We knew that the 20 year old from Rhode Island was talented, but we never expected that type of dominance and grace in someone so young. Lamar played with a mixture of fear and abandon that day. He played as if he wasn’t sure that he belonged in the league and his life and career depended on it. After the game, Donald Sterling bounded ecstatically into the locker room and embraced his new rookie with whispered promises of future riches and the keys to the Clippers kingdom. At long last, the Clippers seem to have drafted a superstar that had eluded them through all the long years of futility. We left Staples Center that night buzzing about the future of the team and the bright promise of Lamar Odom.
The Clippers would finish that 1999-2000 campaign with a 15-61 record. Lamar would go on brief stretches of dominance interspersed with baffling periods of comatose inactivity. And even in games where he scored 20-25 points, there was a disquieting sense that he was holding something back, as if exerting his will and superiority on the game was an affront to his sensibility and deliberate nature. He would not break the 30 points barrier again until the final game of his rookie campaign. It was a fitting end to a rookie season that had begun with so much promise and ended in hopeful affirmation of Lamar’s great unfulfilled destiny.
Ten years and two teams later, that bright potential of Lamar Odom remain shimmering just beyond the horizon, the distance never getting closer but never quite receding as a mirage. In the few dark days of the Lakers-Celtics series, when Boston exerted their defensive intensity, I heard a lot of angry diatribes against Lamar from hysterical Lakers fans. Here was a guy who doesn’t live up to his considerable talent and contract, they would say. How can someone that long and athletic, disappear so completely within crucial games? How can someone with so much amount to so little?
There is obviously something about Lamar’s nature that makes him a perfect fit on a Lakers team loaded with talent, dominated by the inexorable will of Kobe Bryant. Lamar is a rare player who isn’t envious of his teammate’s success. He is serenely content to play a selfless game, to do the dirty work, and be the fourth option on a team even though he has the skill and talent to be the alpha wolf in another lesser pack. That same sense of selflessness and almost reluctance to seize the spotlight haunts his teammates as much as it benefits them. Lamar is the perfect cog in a well-oiled machine, but when the machine grinds down, when you need Lamar to step up, you don’t know if he is capable of seizing the moment and delivering on the potential that lies dormant within. There is almost a reluctance to showcase his abilities, as if he were unworthy of such blessings or is embarrassed by it.
The media don’t quite know what to do with Lamar. Though many pundits echoed Phil Jackson’s remark about Lamar taking games off, they can’t help but like him. In contrast to the glowering visage of Kobe who treated the media with a palpable disdain, Lamar remained gracious and answered every question, no matter how poorly he played. As reporters overflowed into his locker area, Lamar stood patiently off to the side, waiting for the crowd to disperse, sheepish about claiming his own locker and interrupting a teammate’s interview. In hindsight, Lamar’s nice guy demeanor; his desire to blend in, and his reluctance to lead, should have been clear indications that despite his considerable skills and athleticism, he lacks the crucial competitive intensity to become a star in this league. But none of us knew that then, in November of 1999. We saw only the silky smooth left handed drive to the hoop, that length and ease in which he dominated the game, seemingly without effort.
In contrast with Lamar, Kobe Bryant’s intensity and competitive desire is almost overwhelming. Mental toughness and intense focus is crucial to every great NBA player, of course. It is what drives them in the off-season to seek every edge, to hone their already dominant skills, to become better than the best. But the fierce, angry determination that Kobe displayed in these last two Playoffs has been on a whole other level. It seems to reach beyond pure competitive desire into a darker reservoir of rage. It is almost as if Kobe has grown tired of a charade, of smiling and hiding his fangs for the benefit of his young fans. In these last two playoff runs, which culminated in Lakers championships, Kobe has played the game and sat through the interviews with a barely constrained contempt.
The Lakers’ determination beamed from Bryant’s steely expression during pregame introductions. He did not smile, bounce or skip, or even look at his teammates as he slapped a row of hands. He projected intense focus or mild irritation, perhaps both, after losing two straight games in Boston, despite his own superhuman efforts.
Bryant was serenaded with “M.V.P.” chants all night and left to a standing ovation with 3 minutes 21 seconds left. He is closing in on a fifth championship ring but showing little joy in the moment.
As fans and commentators began buzzing about a Game 7, Bryant practically sneered.
Indeed, the spectacle of Kobe trying to impose his will on these NBA Finals has been awesome to behold. His scoring barrages often erupt like a force of nature, as sublime and terrible as a hurricane. You get the sense that Kobe’s teammates were more terrified of him than the Celtics were. For the Celtics need only to survive the brief barrage of the storm, but his teammates have to live in the aftermath of his fury.
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There are many ways to lead, of course. You can inspire people to embrace a cause larger than themselves, or you can lead them, as Jerry West once did, by selfless sacrifice. Jerry West’s teammates played desperately beyond their abilities because they did not want to let him down, because they knew how much it wounded him to lose, and they would do anything to spare him that pain. You can also lead by fear and intimidation. Many effective American Presidents have that in their back pocket. Intimidation and threat can succeed where charm and cajoling have failed. FDR was a master of it, though he preferred to use the velvet glove before resorting to the hammer. Stalin, on the other hand, had no qualms with the hammer and he was immensely successful with it to the bloody detriment of many.
Kobe’s maniacal focus in these Playoffs is meant not only for himself, but for the benefit of his teammates, opponents, and for the world to see. He is not the first athlete to use fear and intimidation to his advantage. Mike Tyson thrived on it. So did Sonny Liston before him. Old timers talk of the pure meanness of Ty Cobb that bordered on dementia. Both Tyson and Liston (and Stalin, for that matter) grew up in grinding poverty and literally fought in the streets for survival. Ty Cobb and Kobe Bryant grew up in comfortable, seemingly nourishing environments, yet they harbor an almost maniacal competitive spirit and a desire to dominate that seem to spring from some dark, mysterious recess of the human heart.
Whatever else Kobe Bryant has, that burning desire to overwhelm all opposition is perhaps his greatest attribute as a player even as it makes him difficult to like. There is an iron will there, something that Jerry West recognized when he traded Vlade Divac for the teenager who showed no fear, no remorse, and no self doubt. It is what separates Kobe from Lamar. In the 1996 draft, on pure physical talent alone, the Clippers picked Lorenzen Wright at No. 7, six spots ahead of Kobe, who went No. 13. It is difficult to divine the true character and desires of young athletes. It is more alchemy than science. But it is something to keep in mind as the Clippers embark on the 2010 draft and enter the free agency market. The athletic gap between Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant is not that great, but they are light years apart in mental toughness and cold blooded determination.
The Clippers almost got Kobe Bryant in the summer of 2003, the year of his discontent and the final rupture with Shaq. Kobe would later claim that he came very close to signing with Dunleavy’s Clippers. That would have drastically changed the fortunes of the Clippers franchise. Perhaps a championship would have been beyond our reach, but every player on Kobe’s team would have been held accountable or they would have faced his wrath. Just as this Lakers team was driven by Kobe’s intensity, that they began to mimic his persona, where even Pau Gasol started scowling for the first time. Elite athletes look for every edge, both physically and mentally. But there is a fine line between adopting a persona and revealing your true self. Kobe ruthlessly drove his teammates to the championship, there is no doubt about that. When the Lakers won, Gasol started crying. It seems inexplicable. They had just won a championship last year, after all. Perhaps Gasol found some redemption in beating the Celtics and proving his toughness. Or perhaps it was the culmination of the pressure they were under; the pressure of playing not to lose, of avoiding the merciless wrath of their leader and its terrible aftermath.
In the final post game press conferences, the unpredictable Ron Artest exulted:
(Kobe) trusted us and made us feel so good and he passed me the ball. He never passes me the ball, and he passed me the ball. Kobe passed me the ball and I shot a three!
To call Artest a basket case is an understatement, but Artest giddiness in Kobe’s trust in that final moment is quite revealing for what it meant to him and how even the mercurial Artest is in awe of Kobe. (For the record, I believe our Kevin Arnovitz called for a Kobe pass to Artest for a game winning 3 in ESPN’s roundtable discussion prior to Game 7…though it didn’t come down to a dramatic last second shot, it’s spookily close enough).
And more revealing still is Kobe’s own final press conference. He smiled at last and claimed he was lying to the media all along, he had to keep his game face on and stay in the moment, after all. Though when the question came of what this championship meant, he revealed candidly; “Just one more than Shaq! You can take that to the bank. You guys know how I am. I don’t forget anything.” It was a candid answer, icily delivered by a man who cherishes vengeance and the motivating power of rage. And once again the room reverberated with uneasy laughter. For a brief moment, it seems we were back at those awkward press conferences of Games 1 through 6, when Kobe sat glowering and dismissive before the microphone. The room alternating between uncomfortable silences and nervous laughter whenever Kobe offered a sarcastic response. It seems that even members of the media were intimidated by his fierce intensity. Watching Kobe’s barely disguised contempt reminded me of W.H. Auden’s “Epitaph for a Tyrant.”
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
Kobe’s performance in this year’s NBA Finals was unforgettable in more ways than one. But I hope we never see the likes of it again.