- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

HOUSTON — Think Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant is hard on his fellow NBA players? Think again, because it’s nothing compared to Bryant’s approach to games with his 3-year-old daughter, Natalia.

Whenever he can, Bryant, the NBA’s leading scorer, balls up pieces of paper and shoots them into a wastepaper basket, challenging his daughter to keep up.

“I try to show my daughter that you have to compete at everything,” Bryant said with a serious look on his face yesterday. “You can’t back down. I want my kids to understand that so when somebody puts an obstacle in front of you and says you can’t do something, you don’t back down. You push through that to get something accomplished. I tried to set that tone for her even at an early age. She’s competitive already at the age of 3. Seriously.”

It’s that competitive nature that has Bryant as the center of attention at the All-Star Game once again. Slowly but surely, he is winning back the fans he lost after a messy stretch of his career that saw him accused of sexual assault and blamed for breaking up the Lakers’ dynasty that won three consecutive championships.

The sexual assault case was dismissed, he has mended what looked like a broken relationship with former Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal and his dip in popularity — typified by slumping sales of his jersey (out of the top 20 but now No. 5) — appears to be behind him, so much so that for this All-Star Game only Houston center Yao Ming totaled more votes than Bryant’s 2,271,631.

No one can deny that Bryant has worked on his image since his series of life crisises started to surface. He is cordial with the media, sitting down for one-on-one interviews and allowing reporters as much time as they need. And he was highly visible doing charity work for the NBA after Hurricane Katrina.

But sports fans are a hard sell. Winning their hearts back requires winning, which the Lakers aren’t doing a whole lot of this season, and playing at a high level, which Bryant is doing better than anyone else in the league.

He is averaging 35.0 points a game, the most since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 in the 1986-87 season. The 81 points he scored against Toronto earlier this season are the second-most in league history, behind only fellow Philadelphian Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point effort 44 seasons ago.

Detroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton has been playing against Bryant since they were in the 10th grade. When the former Washington Wizard entered the league, he said the first thing he did was call Bryant and “bounce some ideas off of him” about what it takes to be an NBA standout.

Hamilton, who is playing in his first All-Star Game, says Bryant has always been driven harder than other players. He also says Bryant will probably continue to get better because now that he and O’Neal are no longer teammates Bryant has a burning desire to show he can win a championship without O’Neal as a teammate.

“He’s definitely looking at it as a challenge,” Hamilton said. “A lot of people believe that he can’t win without Shaq. Now he wants to prove to everybody that he can.”

In “The Last Season: A Team In Search of Its Soul,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson’s book released last season, Jackson called Bryant “uncoachable.” Since that book was published, Bryant and Jackson, who left the Lakers following 2004 season before returning to coach the team this season, have mended fences.

“We have a better relationship,” Jackson said earlier this season. “He has grown significantly as a person since his earlier days. He thinks about one thing and that thing is winning.”

For Los Angeles to get back to being the franchise it once was, Bryant knows he can’t do it by himself. And anyone who has seen the Lakers play knows that after Bryant, the roster is filled with question marks.

To that end, Bryant appears to understand that while he might be the best player in the league, he’s not going to win a championship without some help.

“Guys are calling me all the time saying they want to play with me,” he said. “That’s good, because there used to be a rumor that no one would want to play with me. I don’t handle those things, but as long as they want to win I say this is a great place for them to come.”

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