Just like the Dream Team, this current Team USA’s stars are signing autographs for opponents. Watch the video above as Tunisian forward Mohamed Hdidane asks Kobe Bryant to sign his shoe after their game.
Caron Butler spent a year in Los Angeles as Kobe Bryant’s Laker teammate thanks to the Shaquille O’Neal trade that sent the big fella to Miami.
“I say that’s the best thing that ever could have happened for me personally for my career,” Butler said. “To play alongside a guy like that, see his preparation, see what it takes to get to that level, that’s why I was able to be so good in Washington because I took everything I learned from him under his wing.”
Butler played in 77 games in 2004-05 with the Lakers. He averaged a then career-high (by a tick) 15.5 points and then career-high 5.8 rebounds. His free throw shooting improved, too.
“Work ethic,” Butler said. “He comes to the gym 6:30, 7 in the morning, gets shots every day, a rhythm. Afterward hits the weight room, works out in the summer, studying film, critiquing guys, watching their tendencies, picking things up … Just studying the game with him taught me a lot.”
Butler and Bryant talk every couple of weeks and when Butler was traded to Dallas Bryant was quick with a call.
“He told me he was happy for me and happy to see me in a situation to be able to legitimately compete for a title,” Butler said.
Trevor Ariza tried to explain the other day, and he wound up stopping mid-sentence to convey what he was truly feeling. “I used it like it was” he began.
Then he tilted his head back, turned his palms up and stretched those noodle arms out to his sides. And he looked to the heavens.
“I used it like it was the Bible,” Ariza said.
What we were talking about was the shooting-practice program given to Ariza entering the summer before this season by one Kobe Bryant. The meaning of the gesture to Ariza - and its net effect in transforming his jump shot and thus this Lakers championship team - makes it the quintessence of the latter-day Bryant as a teammate.
He is a champion again, but he is an altogether different champion.
“He has become a giver rather than just a guy who is a demanding leader,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said upon the Lakers winning the NBA championship Sunday night. “And that’s been great for him and great to watch.”
We follow sports, but sports are really about people - their success and failure, hopefully their growth. Win or lose, Bryant has always been the same in one regard: driven to the point of drama. At 30, he has grown glacially in other ways of life, however.
Through stinging defeat, years of contemplation and a head-high stack of leadership books given him by Jackson, Bryant has made a quantum leap. He used to wonder why he should pass the ball to a teammate who hasn’t practiced as much and isn’t as skilled. Now he knows that he can guide that teammate to sharper practice and upgraded skills.
It’s simplistic to say this is about trusting teammates. What must happen is ensuring your teammates are trustworthy.
It’s a quality Jackson sought to draw out of Bryant before he was ready. Jackson failed to get Bryant to teach Isaiah Rider the nuances of the triangle offense. Jackson couldn’t sway Bryant to gift a moment in the game for Devean George to find his rhythm instead of just looking to take over on his own. “Phil is good at not only coaching X’s and O’s,” Derek Fisher said, “but trying to make a guy be something that you want him to be.”
So Jackson shocked his friends and family by returning to coach Bryant, who had begun to mentor Caron Butler and was ready for far more. Bryant yearned for growth, but three seasons with Lamar Odom as the inconsistent next-best Laker didn’t produce a single playoff series victory.
Then last season, with Fisher back to help lead, Bryant’s teammates started to show signs of improvement, especially young Andrew Bynum. Out of Bynum’s hard work sprung renewed hope in Bryant, and then Mitch Kupchak came up with what he called Sunday night “a couple of lucky strokes” to land Ariza and Pau Gasol in trade. It pushed Bryant forward even further in prioritizing his teammates’ development. Sharing his personal shooting program with Ariza was akin to unlocking the vault. “Getting that from him? Kind of cool, kind of cool,” Ariza said. “Because before I got here, you always hear how he’s this certain type of person. And when I got here, you realize he’s not what everybody says he is.
“I just got in the gym every day and worked. I used what he told me, used some things that he gave me to do. And I just worked.”
It worked. Ariza had made nine 3-pointers in his first four NBA seasons. This season, he made 61 as a prelude to his 47.6 percent playoff marksmanship that Bynum described with bugged-out eyes this way: “His shooting is ridiculousat this point.”
Bryant made nine 3-pointers in the NBA Finals; Ariza made 10. Bryant made 37 3-pointers in the playoffs; Ariza made 40.
Twice in the second quarter Sunday night, Bryant drew defenders and kicked the ball over to Ariza, who stepped into perfect-form 3-pointers against the team that traded him. During that stretch that became a 16-0 run, the Lakers started settling on their summer smiles.
Asked about Orlando trading him to the Lakers, Ariza said: “I know they always knew that I could shoot the ball; that wasn’t the issue. It was just the confidence.”
There is also that ineffable something known as will. Earlier this season Orlando’s feisty Matt Barnes was standing close to Bryant when he feigned throwing a ball at Bryant’s face. Bryant never even flinched. “That scared me a little,” Barnes said later. “I mean, that wasn’t even human.”