Roland Lazenby is an author and basketball historian who has been around the game, writing about the NBA and sports in general, for the better part of four decades. Lazenby, a longtime close personal friend of legendary coach Tex Winter, spent time detailing the exploits of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls as well as dissecting the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-powered Los Angeles Lakers that dominated the early 2000s.
He recently joined the Triple Threat Podcast to discuss his upcoming book about Bryant. While bound to an understandable secrecy agreement with his publishing house (Little Brown), Lazenby was able to describe the project as a 600-page journey through Kobe Bryant’s life and the path his basketball career took. Outside of his most recent book (Michael Jordan: The Life), Lazenby has also written a biography on former Laker Jerry West and taken in-depth looks at the life and career of both Phil Jackson (while he was coaching the Bulls) and even a young Bryant.
He also acknowledged that the book does spend some time focusing on the life of Bryant’s father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant as an NBA player and the parallels Lazenby described as “a pretty compelling story about Kobe being the force of nature” that he has been, and how their two stories are interlinked in the obvious father/son ways and beyond.
When asked whether the book would detail the reported issues and strained relationships that appear to exist within the Bryant family – as it seemed peculiar when neither his parents nor his sisters were visible during his final NBA season and along one of the more celebrated farewell tours in recent history – Lazenby assured an explanation of the basic nature of the conflict, but made it clear the background was added for perspective and context rather than attempting to “rub anyone’s nose in it.” He describes them as an “extraordinary family,” and was quick to remind that every family has their issues.
While Lazenby described Bryant’s final year as sub par when compared to the incredible standard he established throughout his Hall of Fame career, he said a portion of the book will also center around the vintage 60-point scoring performance Bryant left us with and how unique of a farewell game that truly was.
He also described the project as a view of Bryant as both a cultural and sports figure and said his basic focus was on the 20-year career and all the relationships that played a role in developing and maintaining Bryant’s greatness along the way.
Lazenby reminisced about a 30-minute conversation with Bryant that took place in the locker room before the 1998 All-Star Game and how he was extremely impressed by a fiercely determined 18-year-old.
Twenty years later, Lazenby thinks Bryant will have such an active and impressive post-playing career that decades from now some people may be surprised to know he even played basketball. While it was initially a point that was taken as being somewhat exaggerated for effect, we are reminded of the fact that we now have a generation, particularly on social media, that is more familiar with Michael Jordan as an incredibly overused meme and NBA owner rather than as one of the baddest men to ever palm a basketball. When specifically asked about the way we consume and judge basketball and greatness these days, Lazenby made it clear fans should be careful when attempting to compare players from different eras.
“I have tremendous respect for Bill Russell, and you know when Michael [Jordan] came along it was pretty impressive that he did things as a wing player in driving those championships and becoming a post weapon that had never been done,” Lazenby said. “The game that Wilt [Chamberlain] and Russell played is different than the one MJ played, and the game that MJ played is nowhere near the game that Steph [Curry] and these guys are playing.”
Lazenby wasn’t saying the game is necessarily “better” in one era over another. Even though he is specifically qualified to speak on the very subject, having seen the greats over the past 40 or so years, he still actively avoids comparing different eras of basketball altogether. He points to the obvious rule adjustments – and interpretations of said rules – that have taken place throughout history, specifically describing how Tex Winter (essentially, the ‘father of the Triangle offense’) often lamented how the rules were systematically altered to diminish the effectiveness of the traditional back-to-the-basket big man.
While he does wax poetic upon the days when you were actually instructed to “bump” guards and other players who attempted to cut and slash to the basket, Lazenby also very clearly appreciates the league in its current state.
“Shooters like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are going to be brilliant in any era and that’s what the truly great players are,” Lazenby said. “I just think you have to treat each age as it was. The game has changed. There are so many great and fascinating things about this new age of offense. It’s a severe disrespect to the Warriors to say they’re merely an offensive team…We’re seeing overwhelming displays from them defensively.”
Several of the league’s former greats and longtime analysts have been outspoken in their opinions about the current state of the NBA and the dominance of the Golden State Warriors in particular, but Lazenby scoffs at the notion of them not belonging alongside the great teams of the past.
“I don’t care what you’re doing, to win 73 games, to do what they [did] to dig themselves out of that 3-1 deficit, they are one of the all-time great teams and they have established their place,” Lazenby said of the Warriors.
With that said, Lazenby isn’t willing to go quite as far as others have when it comes to writing off the game’s big men and their potential effectiveness moving forward.
“I don’t think we’ve exited the age of the big man,” he said. “It’s still a big boy’s game. It always has been. There are challenges with the game with the way it is being officiated and played, but I think OKC gave people a lot of food for thought.”
He reminded that while we’ve seen Golden State’s success over the last few seasons, the league does still have some talented young big men to remain excited about. He’s particularly a fan of Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns because, well, why wouldn’t you be if you’re a fan of the game? The 20-year-old was absolutely phenomenal during his rookie season in Minnesota, averaging 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award unanimously.
From Towns to Anthony Davis to DeMarcus Cousins, Lazenby said that the greatest challenge for today’s big man is having to be so active defensively around the perimeter as opposed to solely protecting the rim and painted area. While acknowledging how big men have adjusted to the current style, Lazenby actually calls for rules to go back to being balanced in order to protect bigs who can actually operate in the post. He claims that while guards get the ultimate benefit of the doubt on any contact along the perimeter (which they do), big men should receive the same consideration in the paint and be allowed to play more freely as offensive players.
The conversation with Lazenby was wide-ranging, but perhaps the most spirited response from Lazenby came in regards to judging LeBron James from a historical perspective.
“Talk about somebody that would have been good to go in any era of basketball – I have so much awe and respect for LeBron,” Lazenby said. “He’s been an incredible competitor… He’s a titan of the game. He’s a titan as an athlete. He’s a titan as a person. He is impressive in every way that a human being can be impressive.”
Lazenby has seen most of the greats along the way and assures us that history will be a lot kinder to James after his career, just as it will likely be with Bryant. At times, fans find it difficult to place aside a certain bias or team affiliation when it comes to fully acknowledging greatness in the moment. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the discussion was that even though Lazenby has a clear affinity toward the players that literally shaped and molded the league as we know it, he’s able to also embrace or, at the very least, appreciate what we are seeing today. The league and game (in general) continue to be evolving products, but it is nice to see that Lazenby is able to embrace the fact that “different” doesn’t necessarily denote an inferiority.
‘Showboat, the Life of Kobe Bryant’ is the working title for Lazenby’s upcoming Bryant project and is currently slated to be released by Little Brown on October 15.
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