- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Kobe Bryant evokes an astonishing number of superlatives, no ifs, ands or Zen about it.

Zen, in fact, is the least of it with Bryant.

This contradicts the conventional view in La La Land, where the socially advanced aspire to a higher consciousness, if only to deal with the mind-numbing traffic on the freeways.

They put Zen and an impending championship banner together and come up with a fairly gooey proposition. Zen is not everything; it's the only thing.

As a relic of the '60s, the Zen master is a psychedelic salesman who assumes the yoga position and burns incense.

This is corny stuff, and hardly necessary, given the intellectually pedestrian environment. Red Auerbach burned only a cigar while coaching the Celtics to nine NBA championships.

The Zen master pretends to think that one dead philosopher a day keeps the losses away. His arrogance is usually overlooked.

Expanding your mind is fine. Expanding your game is better.

Friedrich Nietzsche is dead, and as far as dead philosophers go, he provides a certain function. His material can help put you to sleep at night.

The same can be said of Bill Bradley, the Zen master's last big loss.

Bryant, no dummy, plays the game within the game and adheres to a simpler philosophy, which is: Make the shot.

Bryant is the product of good genes, a good upbringing and a good head. He plays way beyond his 21 years, partly because he came to the NBA earlier than most.

In this respect, the comparison is not Michael Jordan, although it is one that has been made since Bryant's second season in the NBA. The comparison is Magic Johnson, who, as a 20-year-old rookie, led the Lakers to the NBA championship in 1980.

Bryant beat the Pacers in Game 4, hitting big shot after big shot in overtime, and not an easy shot in the bunch, including a stirring put-back basket near the end.

This was not about Zen or the triangle offense or even Shaquille O'Neal, who had fouled out with 2:33 left. This was about one exceptionally confident athlete deciding to put his fingerprints on a game and having the mental and physical wherewithal to do it.

No ball movement was necessary. No strategy was necessary, either. Just give Bryant the ball. Now get out of his way.

The game can be easy, uncomplicated, depending on the personnel, and it has been the Zen master's good fortune to have transcendent types to prod. His contributions have been worthy, just not miraculous. That is Leonard Hamilton's assignment, Mission: Unbelievably Impossible.

A dead philosopher probably could have led the Lakers to 60 victories this season. A dead philosopher even might have found a way to integrate Glen Rice into the offense.

The Zen master avoided an offseason inquisition only because the Trail Blazers succumbed to lump-in-the-throat condition in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Otherwise, the Zen master would have shared something in common with Kurt Rambis and Del Harris.

The Zen master leads the NBA in head games, and no one, the media included, is above tweaking. The effort often draws grins. It beats being the target of his pet rocks.

In O'Neal and Bryant, the Zen master has the game's two leading players at his disposal. Getting them to see their mutually beneficial properties was the trick. The Zen master's six championship rings from the Bulls eased the resistance.

The O'Neal-Bryant merger, more than any other element, has put the Lakers on the precipice of their first championship since 1988.

You can chalk it up to Zen or to the inevitable maturing of two players.

As a Zen master, the Zen master makes a pretty good shrink.

One way or the other, O'Neal's adventures at the free throw line persist.

That was no Zen master at work in overtime in Game 4. That was a special player who has the joy, audacity and game to carry the sport for the next 10-15 years.

Bryant was something else, and to think he is only 21 and in the beginning stages of what promises to be a Hall of Fame career.

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