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NBA Sunday: Kobe Bryant’s Inner Peace

For the first time in his 20 year career, Kobe Bryant is finally at peace, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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There are players who come along but once every so often: Tim Duncan and LeBron James are among them, and maybe, if he’s lucky, Kevin Durant can one day be listed in that class.

In the summer of 1996, Jerry West was fortunate enough—or, depending on how you look at it, smart enough—to get his hands on one such player: Kobe Bryant.

KobeBryantInsideImage1A full 20 years later, as Bryant is wrapping up a career with accolades a bit too numerous to list, he does so after putting forth arguably the greatest career that a generation of NBA fans have witnessed to date. And when he looks back at his storied career, yes, he may have done things a little differently. He may have tried to better understand, earlier, that winning basketball is not all about what transpires between the lines on the basketball court, but that it is just as much about what transpires between one’s ears. And yes, he may have tried harder to work things out with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. But that’s all water under the bridge now.

For the first time ever, for Bryant, this journey isn’t about the intended destination and it isn’t about him chasing his legacy; it’s simply about the journey itself.

For Bryant, the meeker, happier and softer version of himself—for the first time ever—winning is not the priority.

Finally, after all these years, after all the injuries, heartache, late nights and early mornings, the once maniacal Bryant is truly at peace with the game of basketball.

* * * * *

About three weeks before Kobe Bryant told the world that he planned on retiring at the end of the 2015-16 NBA season, I knew that the announcement was forthcoming. And no, I didn’t know because of any sort of sourced information. I knew simply because I know a thing or two about the competitive fire of a professional athlete.

The winless Lakers visited New York City on November 6 after losing their first four games. At Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Bryant played in that building for the first time since the disastrous 2012-13 season.

In that game back in the 2012-13 campaign, Bryant gave us one of the final highlight reel worthy plays of his career. During the game, due to injury, he lost Pau Gasol. After it, though, is when he seemed to have permanently lost Dwight Howard.

Bryant had just put together an impressive-enough game against the Nets on that night in 2013, including the aforementioned dunk that few thought the 34-year-old could still muster. But after the Lakers pulled out the win that they needed, Bryant spent just as much time discussing the absence of Howard. The center was unable to suit up against the Nets due to a few injuries that he was nursing, mainly a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Throughout that disappointing season, Bryant seldom smiled. He also seemed to take just about every opportunity to publicly chastise Howard. Deep down, Bryant was disappointed that the heir apparent to his throne atop the Lakers kingdom seemed unworthy. Still pursuing his own greatness and cementing his legacy, Bryant selfishly prodded Howard.

“I don’t think he’s ever had to play through injuries his entire career,” Bryant famously said of the rehabilitating Howard during the season each of the two would like to forget.

“It’s a new experience for him,” Bryant said, intimating that Howard wasn’t tough.

Two nights later, when the Lakers traveled to Boston to battle the Celtics, Howard fired back.

Paul Pierce dominated the Lakers that night, sending the team to a 23-27 record after the Celtics embarrassed the Lakers in a nationally televised contest to the tune of a 21-point beating.

That night in Boston, I’ll always remember how members of the East Coast media were stuffed into the visiting locker room in TD Garden waiting for Howard and Bryant to address us. Howard was passive and dismissive of everyone, including Bryant, while Kobe tried his best to downplay the extent to which he had challenged and questioned Howard.

That night, as I walked out of TD Garden, I remembered thinking that the frustration had gotten the best of each of the two, and that their partnership was on the brink of a collapse. Months later, after the Spurs had ended the Lakers’ season, it came as no surprise to learn that Howard had opted to take his talents to Houston.

During my years of covering the NBA, I saw more of the Lakers that season than I had any other, spending the better part of two of their East road trips following the team and following their progress closely from afar. That, after all, was the team that many, including myself, thought was capable of approaching 70 wins. That capability is something that Bryant and I agreed on.

Still searching for glory, it is those expectations that would help to eventually drive Howard away. Those expectations are now a distant memory, and it is that knowledge—and peace with that reality—that has helped Bryant warm to the idea of riding off into the sunset.

As an East Coast NBA columnist, I have had the opportunity to spend a large part of the past 13 years chasing LeBron James around. Kobe Bryant, for me, at least, has always been a bit more an enigma. I recently tweeted that one of the cruelest things that the basketball Gods have done was not allow Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony to end up spending their prime years together. But one thing that was even worse than that was not ever giving us LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals.

If you think long enough, you will easily recall that this is what we were supposed to have back in 2013. The Miami HEAT had just captured their first NBA Championship under James and were looking toward repeating, but with Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison and Howard having been added to the existing core of the Lakers that featured Bryant, Gasol and Metta World Peace, there were many—including myself—that strongly believed the Lakers would sit atop the Western Conference that year.

Unfortunately, infighting, injuries and chemistry issues undercut all of that, with the lowest point of the season coming when Bryant suffered his career-altering ruptured Achilles tendon in the third-to-last game of the regular season.

In the end, the Lakers would clinch their token playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, end up with a 45-37 record and a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

Since then, neither Bryant nor the Lakers have been the same.

The Lakers for the worse, but Bryant, perhaps, for the better.

* * * * *

It’s a fairly brisk evening in January 2016. By this point, Bryant has put to rest the questions surrounding his ability to play the game.

Long gone are Phil Jackson, Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni. Dwight Howard is in Houston, Pau Gasol is in Chicago and Bryant looks around at a locker room featuring the future of the franchise. As Julius Randle works out on the floor before tip-off, the shirtless Bryant receives treatment on his ailing shoulder. He pops in and out of the locker room with an ice-pack bandaged on it, stopping to briefly converse with members of the media and the team’s public relations staff.

Even after the Lakers lose a game that will ultimately go down as meaningless, in terms of demeanor, Bryant seems truly happy and upbeat. Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder are visiting and the nationally televised game, Bryant knows, is the final time he will host Durant and Russell Westbrook in his building.

Neither before nor after the game would you know that Bryant’s Lakers were closer to the bottom of the league than the top.

In fact, 2013 may have been just three years ago, but in basketball years—and for Kobe Bryant—it seems like a lifetime ago.

“Yea, of course it does,” Bryant says when asked whether the losses still matter to him.

KobeBryantInsideOnly2“I just hide it a lot better now,” he says with a chuckle.

And in that moment, Bryant gave a glimpse into the relationships that he has fractured over the years, mainly with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.

“It’s tougher when you have a championship team,” he said. “You’re playing for a championship level when you have championship talent. It pisses you a lot off a lot more when you’re not playing up to that level of potential.”

Potential is a word that has become synonymous with these Lakers, who will enter play on January 11 at 8-30. But a championship is seemingly as far away as Bryant’s rookie season.

“I think the team we have now, we’re playing hard,” Bryant said with a nod and a somewhat proud tone.

And alas, he declared the war to be over.

Bryant being satisfied with his team merely playing hard is conclusive evidence that the battle that he waged with his inner demons—the battle to win at all costs—was finally over. It’s something that he knew long before he announced it to the world back in November, but still, for me, it is something that was quite profound. It was the first time I’d heard Bryant make such an admission with my own ears.

Wiser and more mature, Bryant extols the virtues of Russell Westbrook and Julius Randle and, yet again, takes an opportunity to remind everyone of his age.

“I’m from the generation that didn’t learn how to flop,” he said in response to a question posed to him about teammate Lou Williams. And as he chuckled and answered every question posed to him, openly, honestly and loosely, I couldn’t help but to walk away smiling.

For the first time ever, I was able to witness Kobe Bryant at peace.

And with the Lakers rolling along to the finish line of the 2015-16 season—Bryant’s 20th wearing Lakers purple and gold—the fight was over, the chase had ceased and, it was quite obvious, that the competitive fire had been extinguished.

Since entering the league back in 1996, Bryant has been pursuing greatness. The chase may have cost him a lot—relationships, health and sleep, to name a few.

But as he takes one final lap around the NBA, going out on his own terms and, for once, enjoying the journey itself more than its intended destination, it’s pretty obvious that Bryant is fully at peace with himself.

Had he found a way to patch things up with Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal, who knows what could have transpired. After winning three of the four NBA Finals they competed in during the 2000-04 seasons, the team seemed only tweaks away from returning to the Finals in 2005.

But had he patched things up and had he remained beneath the massive shadow cast by O’Neal, would Bryant ever have been considered one of the greatest?

A long time ago, the roads diverged. Bryant took the one less traveled. And now, finally, almost 12 years after his famous divorce with O’Neal—after he dedicated his life to proving that he could succeed without the ‘Big Aristotle’—Bryant has finally found his inner peace.

Patient, poised and relaxed, Bryant now appreciates the smaller things about the game. The camaraderie, the preparation and the roars of the crowd. As he drifts off into the sunset and leaves the franchise he has grown to love in the capable hands of a talented young nucleus, on this brisk January evening in 2016, after 20 years, it is obvious that Bryant has found his inner peace.

Better late than never, I suppose.

And in the end, based on how things have transpired, I’m willing to bet that Kobe Bryant wouldn’t change a single thing.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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