Short of leaving town, there are only two ways to make your teammates better. Teach them to make good decisions, share the ball and then hang around long enough to see that trust rewarded - or else threaten to leave until management trades for some better ones.
Kobe Bryant did both during the NBA regular season with a singular result: A dozen years after he came into the league as a teen prodigy, and long after everyone in the game knew he was the best player, Bryant finally wrapped his hands around a trophy that certified him as the most valuable, too.
``It's not just about me,'' he said at a news conference. ``If that was the case, I would have won it when I averaged 40. This is because we all do it as a unit.''
e on a team so bad that even his best wasn't good enough to put it over the top, he talked about wanting out of Los Angeles, too.
Bryant told one radio interviewer about his desire to be traded, then went on a second show later the same day and rescinded the request. After being forced to let O'Neal go because of Bryant's ``him-or-me'' ultimatum, Lakers owner Jerry Buss hit back. Barely three weeks before the start of the season, he revealed the club was listening to trade offers.
``You can't keep too many loyalties,'' Buss said at the time. ``You've got to look at it as a business. (Bryant) looks at it the same way I look at it.''
All that seemed like a distant memory Tuesday, when many of those teammates Bryant was prepared to ditch or see bundled in a trade package for one of the sidekicks that topped his wish list the last few seasons - Kevin Garnett, say, or Jason Kidd - turned out to see him collect the hardware. Forgotten, too, were the boos that greeted Bryant when the Lakers opened the 2007-08 season at the Staples Center. Those same people will no doubt be chanting ``MVP! MVP!' again when Los Angeles plays host to Utah in their Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinal series.
Derek Fisher played alongside Bryant for eight seasons and three championships during his first go-round with the Lakers, returned last July and said Tuesday he was struck by how much Bryant had matured in his four years away, especially away from the court. Assistant coach Brian Shaw, also a Bryant teammate from 1999-03, went further.
``In terms of connecting with his teammates off the court, he didn't do that very much. Now, from what I hear,'' Shaw said, ``he goes out to dinner with them all the time.''
And often picks up the check. Lamar Odom wrote recently on his Web site that when the bill arrived for a Lakers team dinner at a pricey steakhouse, Bryant grabbed it.
``We all started chanting 'MVP, MVP, MVP!''' he recalled. ``That was pretty funny.''
But all that harmony became possible only after Andrew Bynum turned out to be much better than Bryant's estimate and one of those dependable sidekicks he longed for throughout most of the first half of the season. Then general manager Mitch Kupchak, another of Bryant's frequent targets, stole Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies to cover Kobe's back for most of the second half.
Bryant was his brilliant self throughout, scoring less but collecting more rebounds and assists and schooling old pros like Odom and younger ones like Ronny Turiaf, Sasha Vujicic and Jordan Farmar on how to play productive roles.
As the supporting cast improved, so did Bryant's realization that he only had to give a little help to get a lot in return. And while it's easy to argue that the runners-up in the MVP balloting, Chris Paul and Garnett, had more impact in New Orleans and Boston, respectively, neither outranked Bryant in terms of commitment. Once he decided to play the cards he was holding, Bryant logged 3,000-plus minutes and played all 82 games despite a torn tendon in his shooting hand that would have sent plenty of other players to the sideline.
``I didn't expect this award would come to me,'' Bryant said. ``I'm surprised. I've played pretty well in other seasons. Our team hasn't been as good. Things just fell into place.''
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
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