Strength of Kobe's Character is Guide for Ball, Ingram

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

Everybody can see the skillful players, but the question is, 'Are you willing to wait until you find a skillful player with high character?' Because eventually, the character is what wins out on the court.

Jerry Buss in 2006 to the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune

No one Monday night spoke of Kobe Bryant, skillful player.

In Lakers owner Jeanie Buss' prelude to the unveiling of Bryant's two retired jersey numbers, Jerry's daughter placed her emphasis on Bryant's hustle and heart, two words that Bryant, himself, had chosen to sum up in his career in his Dear Basketball retirement essay.

When you combined the hustle and the heart in Bryant over the course of a 20-year career, no matter how you add up 8 and 24, the sum total was incalculable.

"Either number," Brandon Ingram said, "he was still a killer."

Therein lay the essence of Bryant's character.

Kill or be killed. It drove him individually, but more importantly, it sweated through every oversized jersey he wore and washed over every Lakers team for which he played.

The reason that high character is so essential in the most talented players, as Jerry Buss fully realized, is that winning teams will take on the character of those players.

Luke Walton and Kobe Bryant embrace during the jersey retirement ceremony.

Luke Walton and Kobe Bryant embrace during the jersey retirement ceremony.

"When your best player is like that," said Luke Walton, who played on Bryant's two NBA championship teams as No. 24, "you kind of start to get taken over by that mindset."

And lest anyone believe Bryant's first three NBA championship teams ran solely on Shaquille O'Neal's diesel fuel, consider how Brian Shaw remembers playing on those teams with No. 8.

"At the time I asked (Lakers head coach Phil Jackson), 'When they do things wrong, why do you yell at Shaq but not at Kobe?' " Shaw recalled. "And Phil's answer was that we needed Kobe to be on attack. As a team, we needed Kobe's attack mentality, and he didn't want to take that away from him."

Bryant's relentless character was commemorated on Staples Center's wall with those two jerseys Monday night. It was a night made for basking in all that past Lakers glory.

Except it should be noted what Bryant said before the ceremony about just what it means to him to have lasting impact: "The true mark of a legacy," he said, "is how it affects the next generation."

Much is made of Rob Pelinka, the Lakers' new general manager, being Bryant's longtime agent, neighbor and one of his best friends. It's a deep and real connection, for sure.

Walton and Shaw, however, are the ones leading the Lakers coaching staff in daily molding of the young men whom the franchise aspires to take the torch from Bryant—namely Lonzo Ball and Ingram, the NBA's No. 2 overall draft picks the past two years. (When listing the Lakers' top talent Monday, Bryant also included rookie Kyle Kuzma.)

No. 24's teammate is now the Lakers' head coach. No. 8's teammate is the Lakers' associate head coach.

The head coach is Walton, whom Bryant referenced at one frustrated point during his mid-career rebuilding: "It can't just be me and Luke" working hard in the gym.

Walton saw first-hand how Bryant's passion escalated team intensity in so many practices during their playing days—to the point that Jackson as coach wouldn't give Bryant foul calls in practice so as to poke the bear even more. And how does Walton describe the Lakers practices he runs today?

"We purposely don't call fouls—to get people upset, to try to bring out that competitiveness," Walton said.

When Walton truly needs advice on how better to bottle the Mamba blood to feed his baby Lakers now, he just sends Bryant a text message.

"He always responds," Walton said.

The associate head coach is Shaw, who has known Bryant since he was barely 10 years old. Bryant's father, Joe, played with Shaw in the Italian Basketball League—and young Kobe challenged and reportedly beat Shaw in a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Shaw was also Jackson's lead assistant when Bryant and Walton won those two titles in 2009-10, so Shaw was with Bryant for every one of his championships. Bryant's 1-year-old daughter (Bianka) shares the name of Shaw's youngest daughter (Bianca), and one of the few times Bryant looked up Monday night to listen to a tribute message on the arena scoreboard monitor was upon hearing Shaw's voice.

Few understand Bryant's character as well as Shaw, who enrolled his kids in Bryant's basketball camp in Santa Barbara one year and told him over dinner that he'd be fishing on the beach the next morning if Bryant wanted to join. When Bryant didn't show, Shaw texted Bryant photos of the leopard sharks and stingrays he was missing out on catching.

I coach the same way right now. There are guys on this team right now who want to beat me up, every day, because I talk so much s---. That's the way that I know. I refuse to relent.

Brian Shaw

Bryant immediately called Shaw.

Bryant: "What'd you do with what you caught?"

Shaw: "Let 'em go."

Bryant: "What'd you do that for?!"

Shaw: "What?"

Bryant: "You're supposed to kill 'em!"

Shaw: "Well, if I was eating them, I would. But why…?"

Bryant: "Because they got caught! And that's what they should get for getting caught!"

While Walton's easygoing demeanor sets one tone for the Lakers, Shaw is the closest thing the Lakers have to a Kobe disciple—no matter Shaw's catch-and-release conservation. Shaw grew up in the same area as Gary Payton in Oakland, played with Larry Bird on the Celtics, battled against Michael Jordan on the Bulls and then got all that time showered with what Shaw describes as "all the time—no mercy" via Bryant's character.

"I coach the same way right now," Shaw said. "There are guys on this team right now who want to beat me up, every day, because I talk so much s---. That's the way that I know. I refuse to relent."

It's safe to say Bryant's legacy is not merely hanging on the wall over there.

Magic Johnson has said it before and he said it again Monday night, introducing Bryant as "the greatest who ever wore the Purple and Gold."

This is Johnson's way, in keeping with how he was always willing to defer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when they were the Lakers' co-stars—a high road that Bryant never could travel with O'Neal or anyone else.

As a rookie, Ball is still so new that the Lakers are still trying to figure him out. It's obvious that in demeanor he is more like Johnson, or the inclusive LeBron James, than Bryant.

"I feel like my game is more like LeBron's than Kobe's," Ball said, "so that's why I think I gravitated toward his game more."

That's OK. That's more than OK in today's zip-passing NBA that many forget condemned Bryant as a dinosaur and considering Pelinka flat-out declared on draft night: "We didn't look at ball-stoppers."

Walton and Shaw are trying to do right by Ball, Ingram and the other Lakers young players by opening their eyes to how Bryant did it. Understanding his will is becoming part of their growth.

That's why I play this game. To try to be the best in this league, to have my number retired here one day.

Brandon Ingram

Yet this ultimately can't be about Kobe's hustle and heart.

The best manifestation of Ball's hustle and heart, in particular, is going to be very different than Bryant's.

Here's a better way to consider it:

What about Ball already suggests his character will be high enough to lift himself and his teams up with that strength?

Well, James and others have already endorsed Ball as the type of player and person with whom guys want to play.

But great passing is partly just high skill level. More relevant is what lies behind that great passing: Is it that Ball is truly determined through his communal mindset to unite and elevate his team?

Is his character that strong?

The goal is for Ball never to lose that essence—while improving in other areas to give him greater balance. He doesn't say much or try to tell jokes, by nature, but he can pick the perfect time to deliver a clever zinger that makes a moment his own.

If Ball brings that aggressive and somewhat selfish offensive mindset earlier than he did in overtime Monday night, perhaps the Lakers beat the Warriors. Then again, if Ball had stayed true to his generous nature instead of locking in on the hoop on the final play, he would have dropped the ball off for Julius Randle to be the hero with a tying dunk.

It's easy to quibble over what isn't yet right. It's just going to take time for Ball to master that greatest strength—and also deal with his various weaknesses.

Lonzo Ball pushing the pace after a defensive rebound against the Denver Nuggets.

Lonzo Ball pushing the pace after a defensive rebound against the Denver Nuggets.

There is no greater demonstration of someone doing that in his career than Bryant, who had that core tenacity from the very beginning of his career but matured in so many other areas.

We are already seeing signs of that sort of evolution in Ingram's second season. What looks much more like an outward toughness now was already in existence last season as a very inward-focused drive.

Watching Ingram go fearlessly to the basket—and go full force into Kevin Durant in matchups this season that look uncannily like what it'd be to see No. 8 go head-to head with No. 24—has already served as validation.

Of course Ingram is not there yet. Bryant would have ignored the team scheme and absolutely refused to let the Warriors get him so easily switched away from defending Durant on Golden State's final possession of regulation (Durant missed over Randle) and final possession of overtime (Durant hit over Ball).

But Ingram isn't supposed to be there yet.

As he remains true to his workmanlike character, he is already building confidence. It's no coincidence that this Kobe celebration became a platform for Ingram to strut and sound off about his toughness more than ever.

Asked about inheriting Bryant's locker, Ingram said flat-out: "I think about it every day."

"That's why I play this game," Ingram also said, "to try to be the best in this league, to have my number retired here one day."

After Bryant challenged the young Lakers in his halftime speech Monday to make sure "the next 20 years are better than the last 20 years," he could be seen in his courtside seat reflexively nodding approval from time to time in the third quarter.

After Kuzma's patient footwork resulted in a double-team step-through and pretty leaner.

After Ingram stopped on a dime and went straight up to drain an elbow jumper.

Bryant worked tirelessly to master those skills, and no one becomes a great player without some work ethic and dedication to fundamentals augmenting the athletic ability.

Kobe's pregame press conference on the night of his jersey retirement

Kobe's pregame press conference on the night of his jersey retirement

The world of sport is about athletes.

But the legends of sport are remembered as humans.

That's because we remember their character.

And we will remember that Bryant was always able to commit wholeheartedly to the causes he chose.

Even now that his competitive fire has been forced to die down, Bryant still has that unique determination to do it his way. He refuses to indulge speculative who’s-better historical debates, because he wishes to engage only in things he can "definitively win."

He is that accustomed to creating his own outcomes.

Over the course of a 20-year career, we learned a lot about this character.

At Bryant's press conference Monday night, the second question posed to him came in Spanish. He answered in Spanish, at length.

Later on, another question was asked in Spanish—and answered. And then another.

On the day back in 1996 when Bryant was first introduced as a Laker, Jeanie Buss had lunch with him.

She was struck by something odd.

This 17-year-old kid shared one of his goals with the waiter at the Forum Club. Now that he was moving to L.A., Bryant announced, he had made a vow.

He was going to learn to speak Spanish.

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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.