After attending the last failed bargaining session to possibly end the NBA lockout in New York on Monday, Kobe Bryant was in a psychology classroom this week at the University of California-Santa Barbara answering questions from students and a professor about his stellar 15-year career. At one point, Bryant was asked about his lone most valuable player award in 2008 and used it as an opportunity to share a story about his former teammate and forever Wizard Kwame Brown.
Brown, the Wizards’ No. 1 overall pick in 2001, was dealt to the Lakers for Caron Butler six years ago and played 2 1/2 seasons in Los Angeles, where he was sometimes booed at home games. Brown has had a serviceable yet undistinguished career that fell well short of expectations. But Bryant’s hilariously-delivered tale of Brown’s final game with the Lakers perhaps offered a glimpse into how confidence — or a lack thereof — contributed to his early career struggles in Washington and Los Angeles.
It probably didn’t help that Brown also had to play with two fiercely competitive and, shall we say, less-than-encouraging teammates in Michael Jordan and Bryant. But in a story complete with some head-slapping and cap-slamming, Bryant explained how he scored 39 points but the Lakers couldn’t overcome Brown’s bad hands as they lost, 90-89, to the Detroit Pistons. And, well, it’s pretty clear why the Lakers had completed a deal with Memphis for Pau Gasol the next day.
“I got to say, it was tough doing it that year. I was playing with guys, God bless them — God bless them — but Kwame Brown. Smush Parker. We had one game right before…by the way, what I say here, I say directly to them, see what I’m saying, I don’t talk behind people’s back. Things that I say to you, I’m comfortable saying this to them and I’ve said this to them...But like, the game before we traded for Pau, were playing Detroit and I had like 40 points towards the end of the game. This is back when Detroit had Rasheed [Wallace], Chauncey [Billups] and those guys, so we had no business being in the game. So down the stretch of the game, they put in a box and one. So I’m surrounded by these players, Detroit players, and Kwame is under the basket, all by himself. Literally, like all by himself. So I pass him the ball, he bobbled it and it goes out of bounds.
“So we go back to the timeout and I’m [upset], right? He goes, ‘I was wide open.’ ‘Yeah, I know.’ This is how I’m talking to him, like, during the game. I said, ‘You’re going to be open again, Kwame, because Rasheed is just totally ignoring you.’ He said, ‘Well, if I’m open don’t throw it to me.’ I was like, ‘Huh?’ He said, ‘Don’t throw it to me.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, well, ‘I’m nervous. If I catch it and they foul me, I won’t make the free throws.’ I said, ‘Hell no!’
“I go to Phil [Jackson], I say, ‘Hey Phil, take him out of the game.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, let him figure it out.’ So, we lose the game, I go the locker room, I’m steaming. Steaming. I’m furious. Then, finally I get a call, they said, ‘You know what, we got something that’s happening with Pau.’ I was like, ‘Alright. Cool.’…That’s what I had to deal with the whole year.”
I remember traveling to Los Angeles in April of that season, when it appeared that Bryant was finally going to claim the game’s highest individual honor, and asking Bryant if he felt that his MVP run was aided by being surrounded with better talent.
My argument was that he had put together better individual seasons but few people gave him credit for playing with inferior supporting casts — especially in 2006, when he became the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 35 points, led a mediocre Lakers team to 45 wins and the playoffs, and didn’t finish in the top three in MVP voting. No doubt, Bryant concurred. He told me, “I have more bullets in the chamber now. We had Smush Parker, who is not really playing now. We had Kwame Brown, who’s in Memphis and not really playing much now. That was my point guard and my center…Now I’m fortunate to have weapons that my peers have had the last several years.”
So, yeah, he wasn’t exactly mourning the loss of Brown.