At roughly 10:30 p.m. Rocky Mountain time -- about an hour after L.A.'s Sunday loss in Denver -- a bus holding the Lakers players, coaches and travel staff arrived at Denver International Airport, set to take off promptly for Los Angeles.
The Delta charter plane is full of food and drink options for all to replenish after another long night at an NBA arena, and aside from eating, most players begin to do their own thing promptly: listen to music; watch a movie; ice their knees; chat/joke with and mock their teammates; and so on. They sit in the front of the plane, with the coaching staff in the middle section, and the staff (including the trainers, broadcasters, PR and equipment personnel) in the back.
On that evening, shortly after the plane took off, Kobe Bryant made his way to the middle of the plane and took the open seat next to head coach Mike Brown, and it wasn't just to share some P.F. Changs or play solitaire.
"Kobe and I actually watched the whole game together on the flight back," said Brown.
That night's game, a 99-90 loss in which Bryant made only 6-of-28 field goal attempts, left the league's sixth player to score 28,000 points (accomplished in the third quarter at the foul line) determined to figure out what didn't work, and why.
"When you watch the game … a lot of the shots he took he normally makes," Brown explained. "He's got to continue to figure out how to stay in rhythm or get in rhythm with that wrist*. He might not say it, but try and hold a microphone with a torn ligament, let alone shoot it and make sure you get a follow through. That's a bear. I'm OK with most of his shots, and I told him that."
*Bryant continues to play through a torn ligament in his right shooting wrist, which he won't really discuss and does not complain about to Brown.
The two weren't even done watching the tape by the time the flight landed nearly two hours later, at 11:30 p.m. PST. Instead, as the last of the staffers (me) eventually walked past the middle section, Brown and Bryant remained transfixed to Brown's lap top. That said, with a few exceptions, Brown had little problem with the shots Bryant took.
"There were a couple of times on the tape where I pointed out, yes, there's a double team and make the pass, and he pointed it out himself," Brown continued. "Obviously you'd like him to make four or five more shots, which he could have easily done. It's not just coming from Kobe, it's the entire team trying to figure out where are guys going to be, when are they going to be open and how do I get them the ball."
All NBA head coaches watch tape with their players, and Brown certainly has to rank among the most avid among them, but it's not necessarily common for a coach and his best player to literally break down an entire game's worth of action. In fact, Brown admitted that in his five years in Cleveland, he didn't once watch an entire game with his star, LeBron James.
In Bryant's case, we shouldn't be surprised if Brown finds his co-captain -- whom he in some senses considers a peer when breaking down tape -- alongside him on future flights. For a basketball junkie like Brown, what could be more fun?
"You're talking about one of the most intelligent guys to play the game of basketball," Brown detailed. "It's kind of funny, even though my title is coach and his title is player, I learn stuff too that he points out. I learned a lot in that film session, because there was stuff that he pointed out that he feels while he's on the court. He helped me grow as much as I helped him grow."
Brown's basic philosophy in coaching is that he gets paid to make the final decision, but he's going to get as many suggestions and ideas to inform himself before actually making the final call.
"It might help us win," he concluded. "We're just trying to get better."