Kuzma's Journey for Significance is Only Beginning

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

Kyle Kuzma really did just liken himself to Michael Jackson in his quest to become a global icon. He just shrugged and said visions of being NBA MVP or in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame don’t faze him: “Not at all…because I work for it.” Kuzma is so committed to understanding and maximizing success that he pointedly asked Kobe Bryant how to manage early accolades — and got an answer that might well have changed his life.

To understand why Kuzma is so boldly confident, especially remarkable considering he didn’t have much to be confident about during his formative years, goes beyond the work ethic in the gym that is the foundation of everything he has built.

Some people are driven by significance. They yearn to make a mark on this world.

They are unafraid of the pressures that prominence might bring. More critically, they are unshaken by those who mock and scoff that their aspirations are delusional.

Kuzma wasn’t even better than his basketball buddies growing up in Flint, Mich., yet he remained steadfast that he would make it to the NBA.

“It’s not logical. It’s not,” Kuzma said. “I’ve always been that way. I don’t know why. People would say, ‘You’re out of your mind.' ‘You’re crazy.’ They’d laugh at me. ‘You’re going to be in the NBA?! Look at this guy!’

Kuzma skies for a big rebound

Kuzma skies for a big rebound

“But it’s just a deep inner belief, me having a passion for the game. I think that’s where it comes from. You can have a strong work ethic. Yes, that’s going to take you far. But I think if you have a solid work ethic and a passion, that’s different. A lot people have a strong work ethic because they want the lifestyle or they want the money, but me, I have a hard work ethic, because I love the game.”

In one sense, the perfect storm of Kuzma’s love, work ethic and late-bloomer talent when it comes to basketball is absolutely everything to him. That’s why Lakers equipment manager Carlos Maples ribs him in all the time they’re together at the Lakers’ practice gym: “If it ain’t basketball, everything goes over your head.” (And Kuzma openly accepts that commentary, saying: “That’s what it is.”)

In another sense, basketball is just the vehicle for Kuzma to get where he needs to go in this life. He would not be satisfied if he was not significant in some way.

“My friends, they all say that I’m turning Hollywood. Big-time. And I want to be that,” Kuzma said. “I want to be a guy who’s bigger than what they say. You look at Kobe. Michael Jordan. Somebody like Michael Jackson. Those guys are bigger than life. I strive to be that. I think that’s why I’m here.”

That’s why Kuzma is this fashion daredevil. That’s why he’s already neck-deep into charity and community-service work. That’s why he just got back from a promotional tour in China and Taiwan.

That’s why he was unlike all those he grew up with who were OK with trudging through days in crime-ridden, water-contaminated Flint all their lives. "I always wanted better," he said.

Certainly much of it was the support Kuzma got from his mother, Karri, to believe he was someone special. But the rough road they traveled trying to make ends meet in Flint ironically solidified the standout mentality in Kyle’s personality.

Kuzma moved to different schools for his seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades. Every year, new school. Every year, starting over. And still, the safer approach of just trying to fit in did not prevail over Kuzma’s insistence on being his own man.

A lot people have a strong work ethic because they want the lifestyle or they want the money, but me, I have a hard work ethic, because I love the game.

Kyle Kuzma

“Going into a new school,” he said, “you don’t want to be the new kid and be quiet and shy. You want to stand out. You want people to know who you are in that school. I think that also helped me growing up. I always wanted people to know me throughout the school.”

This is the mentality of someone who turns pro even when people are telling him he’s going to go undrafted, then promptly meets his goal of making the NBA All-Rookie first team despite being No. 27 on the draft board.

Kuzma has achieved significance, and he is completely self-aware about how…dating back to those seemingly naive days of his youth.

“I stood out in a sense because I was always in the gym. That’s why I stood out,” he said. “I probably wasn’t always one of the best players in my friend group, but I was always there. I was always in the gym. My mom really did used to drop me off at the gym and I’d be there all day. That’s how I stood out.”

Long before this high-stepping, sweet-shooting alter ego of “Kuz” sprung to life, he was known as someone else because of his commitment to the open court at the YMCA of Greater Flint.

"People would say, 'Kyle from the Y.' That was my name,” Kuzma said.“ 'Kyle from the Y.' That’s how I stood out."

It’s why Kuzma knows his script. By now, it’s almost automated for him.

Work insanely in the gym, eventually see results in games, swell even further with confidence. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Kuzma’s confidence was shaken twice along the way: when he left home for a prep school in hopes of becoming a Division I recruit and felt outclassed, then in his first season at the University of Utah riding the bench with the coaches all over him for how soft he was playing inside for the first time in his life and transitioning to the college game.

When Kuzma experienced setbacks, he swung back to his core tenet.

“Revert back to the gym. That’s the only thing that I know,” he said. “When something’s wrong in my life, revert to the gym.”

Who knows how huge Kuzmania can get as the cycle continues?

He knows he won’t stop working. He knows he won’t lose self-confidence.

Kuzma waits to initiate offense against Utah

Kuzma waits to initiate offense against Utah

“It’s really about just grinding through the uncertainty,” he said. “No matter if it’s good or bad, if you’re averaging 30 a game, you should still be in the gym as if you’re in a big slump — because that’s what got you there. That’s what keeps you level and keeps your confidence up.”

Perhaps the danger for Kuzma, with as much as he craves significance, is pushing to the point of overconfidence?

Well, that’s ground he made sure to cover with Bryant over that steak dinner in November. Kuzma had a lot of questions that night — and Bryant admires others who are curious by nature — but what Bryant answered about disregarding all the predictable praise people would lavish sustained Kuzma through his bandwagon-building rookie season.

“When he was a young player,” Kuzma said, “everybody would in a sense toot his horn or kiss his ass. His way of not getting overhyped confidence-wise, even though he was still very confident, was to say, ‘OK, (forget) this guy. He might tell me something great, but he don’t mean that.’

“That really helped me stay level-headed. That was one thing that continues with me to this day, and I’ll probably never forget that.”

Kuzma is determined to be selective about how much he cares what other people think. He mentioned Lakers head coach Luke Walton and assistant coach Miles Simon as examples of those he wants to hear. Kuzma is also fiercely loyal to those who have kept him going in the past, including trainer Clint Parks and mentor Vin Sparacio.

“I care about what the people who matter think about me,” he said.

To Kuzma, the confidence comes from inside anyway — or inside the gym — not the outside world.

That’s the reason Kuzma openly professes belief that his reach will expand, probably exponentially.

“If you just walk in and see me working,” Kuzma said, “you’d be like, ‘OK, this guy wants to be a great (expletive) player.’ That’s why I don’t care about saying whatever.

“A lot of people talk a lot. They don’t back it up.”

That’s because not everybody is built that way. Not everybody works hard. Not everybody puts time in. That scares people. That intimidates people.

Kyle Kuzma

As much as the significance from that outside world does matter to him, Kuzma is already expecting his extreme confidence to rub some the wrong way as his career unfolds.

“That’s because not everybody is built that way. Not everybody works hard. Not everybody puts time in,” he said. “That scares people. That intimidates people.”

As Kuzma already knows, though, that also inspires people.

“I think people get it, because of where I come from,” he said. “I’ve never been a McDonald’s All-American. I’ve never been a five-star recruit. I’ve never been an All-American in college. I was a random kid who got drafted randomly at 27 who nobody knew. And I had a great season.

“It’s an underdog type of feel, and people of course love the underdog. People know I work hard because of those circumstances to get where I am and to have the season I had. There’s no other way to do it unless you work hard."

Same as that kid who wanted all the other kids at each new school to know him, Kuzma wants everyone to know him now.

“To even get a dinner with Kobe Bryant,” he said, “you’ve got to be cut from some type of cloth that he is — or he isn’t going to waste his time.”

* * *

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.

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