- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant nodded knowingly while remembering his quote from exactly one year ago: “Every day is a bad day.”

Not anymore.

“Man, I feel great, just great,” he said, recalling those dark days in a voice just a few octaves north of a whisper. “It’s a little calmer, less frenetic and frantic.”

Having his freedom back, or at least no longer at risk of losing it, has unburdened Bryant as he enters this NBA season. He is the only remaining member of the Los Angeles Lakers’ trio that helped produce three championships and four trips to the NBA Finals over the past five years.

The divorce from Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson is now final, and the only one left standing in purple and gold is Bryant, who always was the most popular of the three among fans in Los Angeles. That was the case even last season when a sexual assault charge was hanging over Bryant’s head and his deteriorating relationships with his teammate and coach were going through their final, irreversible stages.

Now, these new-look Lakers are his team.

“To be putting a team together, it’s fun,” Bryant said. “We understand the position we’re in, we understand the type of pressure we have and I have, and we’re sort of dug down in the trenches together.”

It’s too early to tell whether Bryant’s supporting cast will unite behind his leadership. The group includes offseason imports Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Vlade Divac, Chucky Atkins and Caron Butler, along with holdovers Devean George, Luke Walton, Slava Medvedenko and Kareem Rush.

But there’s no question Bryant will be asked to lead, a responsibility that could be among the toughest of his career given his reputation as one of the most self-centered and undisciplined superstars the league has ever seen.

“From what I heard of Michael and his competitiveness at practices, I see a similarity there,” new Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, referring to Michael Jordan.

“As a leader, his intensity, his work ethic and his desire to win is unparalleled. I’ve had great players, and I’d put him right there at the top.”

Tomjanovich said Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler, for example, were “very professional guys, but there’s something about Kobe that’s just on a different plane.”

“His work ethic, his energy. He’s like a bionic man,” he said.

Bryant described his new responsibilities as “a huge challenge,” but one he is looking forward to.

He eased into his leadership role over the summer by keeping in constant contact with Tomjanovich, quizzing him on offensive and defensive schemes and adding his input to personnel discussions.

Since training camp began, Bryant has tried to lead by example, including arriving early and staying late at practice, and encouraging teammates from the bench during exhibition games.

“Some of the stuff he’s trying to get through to us is to work hard, put extra time in,” George said. “That’s what he does, and it makes his words a little more valuable. He’s practicing what he preaches.”

Not everyone expects Bryant to slide seamlessly into his new role, and there is an underlying current of skepticism to the assertion that Bryant has the personal characteristics necessary to inspire others.

The talent is there, but what about the intangibles?

“He’s going to be very selfish,” Seattle guard Ray Allen said after Bryant hoisted 21 shots, including 13 from 3-point range, in the Lakers’ loss in their exhibition opener against Seattle.

“He feels like he needs to show this league and the people in this country that he is better without Shaq, he can win championships without Shaq. So offensively, he’s going to jump out and say, ‘I can average 30 points. I can still carry the load on this team.’”

Bryant may very well average more than 30 points a game in the upcoming season, something no NBA player did last season. O’Neal, too, is certainly capable of averaging 30 with the Miami Heat in the center-strapped Eastern Conference, while the player who won the last two scoring titles, Tracy McGrady, figures to have a less prominent offensive role with his new team, the Houston Rockets.

Questions concerning O’Neal and Jackson are asked of Bryant with caution, and he consented to a one-on-one interview with the Associated Press only after he cautioned that the back-and-forth would end if there were any questions about Jackson’s new tell-all, Bryant-bashing book.

Told O’Neal described himself as “at peace” with the offseason changes, Bryant latched onto the phrase and said it befits him, too.

“It’s about staying in the moment, really. I’m happy to be in the position I’m in right now, fortunately,” Bryant said. “I look forward to today, and I wake up tomorrow and look forward to that day. So I’m at peace with it, too.”

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