ONTARIO, Calif. -- Kobe Bryant has never been the easiest teammate to play alongside.
He rubs those who don’t work as hard as him the wrong way, which is just about everybody.
He can be dismissive to anyone he doesn’t think is worth his time, which can be just about anybody.
And he won’t waste his time with situations that are beyond hopeless.
How many times did you see him on the bench during the second half of last season?
The same intensity that has made Bryant one of the greatest players ever also has prevented him from being one of the most popular teammates and will no doubt stop him from ever considering becoming a coach when he finally retires.
Bryant has never had the patience for others to learn on job, not on his watch. He has always been too busy thinking about winning another championship and building on his legacy.
But in the twilight of his career and on a team that in his heart of hearts he knows isn’t destined for a title, he has changed his ways.
He has embraced his role as a mentor, a leader and a teacher on a young Los Angeles Lakers team in desperate need of all of the above.
“My style is a little different with his group. It’s a little more nurturing,” Bryant said. “They’re so much younger, so it’s a little different. The important thing with this group is learning how to think the game all the way through, which is different than on teams that we have had in the past. We had a lot of veteran guys who had been around. So my teaching style is different.”
His teaching style is different in the sense that he’s actually teaching instead of tormenting.
After Shaquille O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat a decade ago, Bryant had always been the bad cop to someone else’s good cop on the Lakers. The good cop has changed over the years from Lamar Odom to Derek Fisher to Pau Gasol. But Bryant's role never really changed.
Bryant would never sugarcoat anything and wasn’t the kind to put his arm around a struggling rookie and tell him everything will be OK.
“I didn’t even talk to the man,” Lakers center Robert Sacre said when asked about his first season as Bryant’s teammate. “I think the first two things I said to him were ‘ball’ and ‘outlet.’ Those were basically the only two things I said to him my first two weeks of training camp.”
That’s not exactly the case this season, as Bryant has taken time to talk to every one of his teammates on the bench during games and practices, where he is either an active participant or active spectator.
Bryant has now become an extension of the coaching staff and is actually eager to give advice to one of his younger teammates when he sees something that can be corrected.
“I believe he’s been more helpful during this whole process and the preseason,” Sacre said. “He’s been really vocal as a leader. In the past, he hasn’t been as vocal. But this year he’s really been trying to communicate and help guys out. This year has made an effort to push guys but at the same time give them advice to make them better.”
During timeouts, Byron Scott has stood by and allowed Bryant to address the team and younger players before or after the Lakers coach does. Scott and Bryant also will take time out to talk to players as a duo.
Bryant is now in the same position Scott was at the end of his career, when Scott was Bryant’s veteran mentor during his rookie season.
“He’s been a mentor,” Scott said. “He’s been a little bit of an assistant coach. I think he’s getting soft in his old age. But seriously, he’s been really good with all the guys, to be honest with you. He’s done a heck of a job of taking guys to the side and teaching them little things about the NBA. He’s done the same thing at practice. He’s been an extension of [the coaching staff].”
“It’s fun watching it, because he takes it very seriously. When he pulls guys aside, he’s really trying to show them the little things about being successful in this league. [Kobe and I] had a talk one day with Julius [Randle] and told him if he had anywhere near the work ethic of Kobe, he’ll be an All-Star, and if he doesn’t, he’ll just be a good basketball player in the NBA.”
Bryant isn’t just taking rookies and second-year players under his wing this season. He has constantly been on Jeremy Lin during games and practices to be a better defender and has talked to Lin about expanding and evolving his game.
“That's pretty much all I talk to him about on the court," Lin said. "He's pushing me and he's demanding a lot from me. He’s definitely taken on a mentorship role for me on the court. That's something that I don't think I've had in my previous four years in the league. It's just nice to have somebody who is pushing me and helping me and teaching me the tricks. It's also nice when he's one of the best to ever do it."
It’s not exactly a compliment Bryant would have received a few years ago, but it’s one that he has now embraced entering his 19th season in the NBA.
“He’s a little later in his career,” Lin said. “When I was with Melo, he was younger, and the same with James and Dwight. With Kobe, he’s been around and he understands. He’s done it. He has a great attention to detail and he cares about the little things. The stuff that he talks to me about, I didn’t ever think about.
“He’s challenging me to expand even my perspective. That’s really important and something I love doing. It’s a blessing he’s here in the same locker room.”