clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Kobe Bryant hopes not to get `stuck in the mud'

Yeah, yeah, Kobe Bryant is an NBA All-Star at the ridiculous age of 19.

And, yeah, he's a SportsCenter darling and a Tiger Beat regular and, just maybe, pro basketball's next intergalactic superstar.Big whoop. When Bryant clanked a 15-foot jumper in a tight game against the Charlotte Hornets a few weeks back, he was just another wild-eyed kid.

How so?

The shot came from Bryant's left hand. Bryant is a natural righty. Pros, generally speaking, don't try such stunts with money on the line.

"Youthfulness," said Laker Head Coach Del Harris, shaking his head and smiling, "It's Kobe's one weakness."

Harris can afford to laugh about Bryant these days. Not only is his phenom the highest scoring nonstarter in the league, but the Lakers (34-11) have the league's second-best record.

Combined, those facts show how Harris has succeeded in the rarest of management coups: He's molded a raw, once-in-a-lifetime talent (Bryant) into a spectacular employee, while simultaneously keeping the rest of his staff (the Lakers) pointed toward success.

Harris' problem is hardly unique. Any manager in any industry where talent and ego collide can face the same questions.

Can you make a prodigy blend in with others? Should you? Ultimately, will the prodigy help you or hurt you?

"In business, it's often possible for individuals to succeed while the organization, overall, fails," said Sam Culbert, a professor who teaches management theory at the University of California, Los Angeles' Anderson School of Management.

"I'm just an outsider, but clearly ... Harris, or somebody over there, has groomed Bryant in tandem with the organization.

"That's a wonderful achievement."

STEP 1: MIX VIGOROUSLY

The first thing Harris did with Bryant was help him find his place on the team.

Oddly, this was made trickier by the team's rising talent pool. Bryant wasn't - and isn't - the team's only prodigy.

Soon after drafting Bryant in June 1996, the Lakers signed free agent center and perennial all-star Shaquille O'Neal. The starting shooting guard, Eddie Jones, was on the verge of his first all-star season. Even the team's emotional leader, point guard Nick Van Exel, was considered a potentially great player held back mostly by his own roller-coaster emotions.

Enter Bryant, a young Einstein about to do some math with a team of world-class scientists.

"When Kobe worked out for us (in two private pre-draft workouts in the spring of 1996), his physical skills at that time graded out to be about even or slightly better than Eddie Jones at that time," Harris said.

Jones, then 24, had four years of college experience and two full seasons in the NBA. Bryant was 17. He didn't yet shave every day.

"That kind of talent simply doesn't happen," Harris said, "at least not in my experience."

Harris, 60, used skills he's picked up in 33 years as a basketball coach. He would be part psychologist and part basketball teacher, with a dash of Darth Vader tossed in for good measure, all in an effort to help Bryant grow.

And for the rest of the team?

"The same," said Harris, laughing.

"When Kobe elected to step into a man's world, he forfeited his right to be treated like a child. I gave him the same slack I'd give any rookie. No more than that."

Harris, who taught psychology during his first long-term stint as a head basketball coach, at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., said the nonstar treatment helped Bryant get along with his older teammates.

Another key was Bryant's other strength - maturity.

Along with their test of basketball skills and raw physical tools, the Lakers grill every would-be draft choice to gaugemental toughness.

"He graded out as well emotionally as he did physically," Harris said. "Maybe better."

STEP 2: WHEN, NOT HOW

A year ago, Bryant was struggling for playing time.

No question he was an exciting player. But, in Harris' eyes, Bryant was perhaps a bit too exciting.

The Bryant of 12 months ago tended to dribble into defenses and force shots, habits that could kill the Lakers' quest for an NBA title.

For Harris, who must blend his natural inclination to teach with the NBA's bottom-line need to win, the situation demanded patience from all parties.

"With Kobe, the problem has never been the ability. It's a matter of when he should do what he can do."

The trick was to find game situations in which Bryant could excel without hurting his confidence.

"My basic philosophy is get a guy into a spot where he can be successful 90 percent of the time, not 65 or 70 percent," Harris said.

"With Kobe, he's so talented he can often succeed even when he doesn't do the right thing."

His former players say the approach is standard Harris.

"You were allowed to do what you could do. But you were also taught how to judge what your strengths were, and what your shortcomings were, as a player," said Avis Stewart, who, like Bryant, was 19 when he played for Harris at Earlham College.

"Coach Harris would give you confidence to do what you could do. That's critical," added Stewart, 46, who today is a full-time fund-raiser for Earlham and a part-time shooting instructor at basketball camps throughout the Midwest.

"Even from a distance, you can see he's treating Kobe the same way."

STEP 3: GET OUT OF THE MUD

Ask Bryant about his left-handed jump shot against the Hornets and he draws a blank.

"I did that? I guess I'm gonna have to take another (left-handed jumper) tonight," he said, scribbling his autograph for maybe the 100th time in an hour.

Then he stops.

"Hey, I'm just kidding."

When Bryant took his left-handed shot, he didn't get sent to the bench immediately. The hook came about a minute later.

Harris almost never pulls a player from a game right after an error. Doesn't want to embarrass anybody.

"You don't yank somebody for one mistake, anyway. If you see a series of errors, then you sit the player down and have an assistant coach talk to him about it right away."

Besides, Harris said getting his players, as a group, to work toward a single goal is his primary objective. If Bryant or any other player was given too much leeway, Harris would lose respect and, eventually, control of the team.

"The learning has to come off the court, at practice. But what you see in the game, the maturation, is sort of a pay-off for the work you've done in practice. That's certainly been the case with Kobe," Harris said.

Individual maturation, eventually, is good for the team.

"Suppose you have a potentially great but very young real estate salesman who can't quite close every deal. Eventually, if you teach him to be a better closer, it's good for everybody in the office because you'll get more listings and such," said Harris, who, in 1976, spent a summer selling houses in Salt Lake City while waiting for a new coaching job.

Bryant - who probably doesn't see himself selling real estate anytime soon - takes a broader approach to his growth. When asked what he's learned most from Harris in the past 20 months, he said, simply:

"(I've learned about) learning itself. If you're not learning, you're stuck in the mud."