Building that kind of consciousness doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of nurturing to get young athletes to step outside their egos and fully engage in a group experience. The NBA is not exactly the friendliest environment for teaching selflessness. Even though the game itself is a five-person sport, the culture surrounding it celebrates egoistic behavior and stresses individual achievement over team bonding.
This wasn’t the case when I started playing for the Knicks in 1967. In those days most players were paid modestly and had to take part-time jobs in the summer to make ends meet. The games were rarely televised and none of us had ever heard of a highlight reel, let alone Twitter. That shifted in the 1980s, fueled in large part by the popularity of the Magic Johnson–Larry Bird rivalry and the emergence of Michael Jordan as a global phenomenon. Today the game has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, with fans all over the world and a sophisticated media machine that broadcasts everything that happens on and off the court, 24-7. The unfortunate by-product of all this is a marketing-driven obsession with superstardom that strokes the egos of a handful of ballplayers and plays havoc with the very thing that attracts most people to basketball in the first place: the inherent beauty of the game.
Like most championship NBA teams, the 2008–09 Lakers had struggled for years to make the transition from a disconnected, egodriven team to a unified, selfless one. They weren’t the most transcendent team I’d ever coached; that honor belongs to the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Nor were they as talented as the 1999–2000 Lakers team, which was loaded with clutch shooters including Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, and Derek Fisher. But the 2008–09 Lakers had the seeds of greatness in their collective DNA.
The players looked hungrier than ever when they showed up for training camp in August 2008. At the end of the previous season, they’d made a miraculous run to the finals against the Celtics, only to be humiliated in Boston and lose the decisive game 6 by 39 points. Clearly the beating we’d received at the hands of Kevin Garnett and company—not to mention the torturous ride to our hotel afterward through mobs of Celtics fans—had been a brutal experience, especially for the younger players who hadn’t tasted Boston venom before.
Some teams get demoralized after losses like that, but this young, spirited team was energized by getting so close to the prize only to have it batted away by a tougher, more physically intimidating opponent. Kobe, who had been named the NBA’s most valuable player that year, was particularly laser focused. I’ve always been impressed by Kobe’s resilience and ironclad self-confidence. Unlike Shaq, who was often plagued by self-doubt, Kobe never let such thoughts cross his mind. If someone set the bar at ten feet, he’d jump eleven, even if no one had ever done it before. That’s the attitude he brought with him when he arrived at training camp that fall, and it had a powerful impact on his teammates.
Still, what surprised me the most was not Kobe’s ruthless determination but his changing relationship with his teammates. Gone was the brash young man who was so consumed with being the best player ever that he sucked the joy out of the game for everyone else. The new Kobe who had emerged during the season took his role as team leader to heart. Years ago, when I’d first arrived in L.A., I’d encouraged Kobe to spend time with his teammates instead of hiding out in his hotel room studying videotape. But he’d scoffed at the idea, claiming that all those guys were interested in were cars and women. Now he was making an effort to connect more closely with his teammates and figure out how to forge them into a more cohesive team.
Of course, it helped that the team’s other cocaptain—Derek Fisher—was a natural leader with exceptional emotional intelligence and finely tuned management skills. I was pleased when Fish, who had played a key role as a point guard during our earlier run of three consecutive championships, decided to return to L.A. after free-agent gigs with the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz. Though Fish wasn’t as quick or as inventive as some of the younger point guards in the league, he was strong, determined, and fearless, with a rock-solid character. And despite his lack of speed, he had a gift for pushing the ball up court and making our offense run properly. He was also an excellent three-point shooter when the clock was running down. Most of all, he and Kobe had a solid bond. Kobe respected Derek’s mental discipline and dependability under pressure, and Derek knew how to get through to Kobe in a way that nobody else could.