- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2001

PHILADELPHIA None of it made sense to Kobe Bryant.
While his teammates spent last summer basking in the euphoria of a world championship, the Los Angeles Lakers most gifted player spent most of his days working out under the sun and sometimes draining as many as 1,000 jumpers a day. He worked painstakingly so he could return for his fifth NBA season an improved player.
"I just wanted to come back and be that much better," said Bryant, whose Lakers face the 76ers tomorrow in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at Philadelphia's First Union Center. "I wasn't satisfied with my game; I'm still not. So I worked hard to make it better. I'll probably do the same thing this summer."
And despite all the hard work and sweat, Bryant's efforts didn't seem appreciated.
"What made it so hard was all the work I put in during the summer," Bryant continued. "My whole goal was to improve this team. Then to be criticized for improving, for working on my game. That was real tough to swallow."
Bryant envisioned stunning coach Phil Jackson with his new and improved game at the start of the season, but instead the prodigy's plan backfired. With teammates like then-reigning MVP Shaquille O'Neal and others woefully out of shape to start the season, Bryant, 22, had five straight games of at least 30 points. In early December he dropped 51 on the Golden State Warriors.
But no one was satisfied. Observers called Bryant selfish and claimed he was more interested in scoring points than winning games.
A rift developed between Bryant and O'Neal and it would fester through most of the season. Jackson took O'Neal's side. The coach attacked Bryant through the media and at one point suggested that Bryant sabotaged some of his high school games so that he could save the day at the end. Jackson admitted that he thought about benching his star and also told Bryant that he would facilitate a trade if the player so desired.
"To be quite honest with you, it looked like a sinking season," Jackson said.
With O'Neal and Jackson inflexible, Bryant ultimately sacrificed for the good of the team. During a five-game stretch in which a foot injury forced Bryant to the bench, the guard watched closely as the Lakers played well without him. He decided that when he returned to the lineup he would do so as a better, more complete player and teammate.
The results have been stunning.
Bryant returned on April 1 and the Lakers put together a 19-game winning streak. Los Angeles, which saw its streak end in Game 1 of the finals, is 13-1 in this postseason. Members of the team have praised each other openly and at the core of all this is the new Bryant.
"I've had to grow a lot," Bryant said. "I've been through so much this season. It was a difficult season. But it has helped me grow a lot as an individual, and I think I'm a better person for it, on and off the court."
Off the court, Bryant recently got married. And on the court he has learned to coexist with O'Neal. Bryant's play of late has drawn comparisons to the player whom he walks like, talks like, and tries sometimes to a fault his best to play like Michael Jordan.
Earlier in the week, Bryant scoffed at the Jordan comparison, no doubt familiar with what happened to other Air-apparents such as Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway. But when Jackson, Jordan's former coach, was asked to compare the two, the answer was somewhat surprising.
"It's the best I've seen a player of mine with an overall court game," Jackson said. "Jordan's the best player I've ever had, but Kobe is headed to that category of a special player."
Bryant's 28.5-point average during the regular season ranked fourth overall. He shot 46.4 percent from the field, averaged 5.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists. But in the playoffs he has taken his game even higher, improving on all of those statistics 30.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists.
Jackson feels Bryant could play at an even higher level, but the coach credits his player for not playing outside the constraints of the triangle offense.
"Kobe is giving up his game," Jackson said. "There are times when he knows he can beat his defender one on one. Earlier in the year when things were problematic he would sometimes do that. But the sacrifices he's made have made us a better team now than we were earlier. He deserves all of the credit."
Said O'Neal: "Kobe is the best player in the NBA. Period."
Jackson pointed out that Bryant's maturity has been crucial in bringing the Lakers to where they are now. Jackson said that even older players sometimes struggle with success or failure in the league, and how a player handles it is crucial to any future success he might have. This quality, says Jackson, is what perhaps separates Bryant from others.
"With Kobe, he's like a duck," Jackson said. "He lets criticism role off his back like rain. He's not concerned with anybody's opinion but his own and his closest allies. He's an insulated person; he's kind of isolated. From that standpoint he's pretty impervious to most criticism."

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