How Paul George Used Kobe Bryant as His Guide in Becoming an NBA Star

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How Paul George Used Kobe Bryant as His Guide in Becoming an NBA Star
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If you're Kobe Bryant, it's an awkward time.

You've never been further from where you want to be, you've never had less time to get there and you've never been more uncertain if your body will let you even try.

So you distance yourself from the Los Angeles Lakers' worst season ever and make yourself scarce. Even though your knee feels OK, you skip the team's final road trip to Utah and San Antonio to take the fam to the U.S. women's soccer game Thursday and around Knott's Berry Farm amusement park Friday, even though Steve Nash and Pau Gasol feel worse than you and they're on the trip. Your exact words when you spoke of your frustration after being ruled out for the season with your knee fracture still speak for you now: "I feel like killing everybody every time I go to the arena. I'm on edge all the time."

By the weekend, it'll be NBA playoff time, which for you has been like Christmas and both your kids' birthdays and a season of Modern Family all rolled into one. It's the time for you to apply everything you've learned, the manifestation of all that dedication to the craft.

For 15 years, it has been your time. In all-time playoff minutes, it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at 8,851, you at 8,641—and no one else for basically the next 500 minutes.

You were hurt last year. This year, just like in 2005 after Shaquille O'Neal left, you and the Lakers aren't even in it. You called the failed three-peat of 2010-11 "a wasted year of my life," so what is your 2013-14 season, which comprised just six games? After all the hype of redemption, all the hope of your fans and then your torn jersey repairing itself amid those pretend online storms, this has been, well, egg on your Facebook video.

So you will turn on the TV longing for the game but with some reticence, because this NBA postseason is going to be one of those things that brings both pleasure and pain. And maybe the pain sensors deep inside trigger some reflexive biases...against the Miami Heat out of natural envy at the dynasty that succeeded yours, against the league-leading San Antonio Spurs who have Gregg Popovich when you have Mike D'Antoni, maybe even against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the specter of dear friend Derek Fisher smiling forevermore about winning one more title than you.

And then another team with golden armor appears on the screen, the one put together by someone you revere and have learned so much from despite basically never talking to—Larry Bird. And on that screen will be that number worn by the Indiana Pacers' best player: No. 24.

Phelan M. Ebenhack

And if you only knew how much of what you are is in him, how he embodies so much of your personal code, how he understood the need to "dream epic" long before you put it on your Twitter profile...

If you realized how he was counting down the clock in his front yard as a kid and one of the millions imagining he was you while an hour from Staples Center up little State Route 14, how aware he is that he's getting another chance this postseason to take down LeBron after you never got a single shot...

You would realize that you actually are in these NBA playoffs.

***

Here's the amazing thing about our world now: It doesn't always take time, effort, money, commitment or dedication to make a difference—no matter that those are cornerstones of Kobe Bryant's world.

One of the first things Bryant and Phil Jackson bonded over when they reconnected post-Shaq was Thomas L. Friedman's 2005 book, The World is Flat, an analysis of how our reach is so much greater today, and how an array of political, economic and social ramifications arise from that.

Paul George's fascination with Bryant could've come from anywhere on the globe just through watching, reading and learning. The Southern California proximity of the infatuation just made the connection feel a little closer to real.

Sixty-five miles from downtown Los Angeles, George grew up in a desert town called Palmdale and called the Los Angeles Clippers "my team." Even though his family stuck with the Lakers, George liked the Clippers' fun, joyous style of ball.

Team allegiance was altogether secondary, however.

First, there was Kobe.

"I was the whole nine," George said. "Anything you can think of. I had the Kobe jersey. I would do the Kobe walk. I would walk around the house doing the Kobe stare-down face. Anything you can name, I was idolizing him, trying to be like him."

George needed an idol. He wasn't an automatic basketball hotshot; he wasn't even as good as his sister. He needed something to prop up as a goal, someone to believe in as a true how-to paragon.

George was different from all the casual Kobe fans drawn to the flash, the fame, the titles. He had an appreciation for what was behind the curtain—and that's the place from where all the stubborn righteousness of Bryant's fanbase emanates, the belief that Bryant is innately superior because he has the work, the drive, the grit...all of which come first.

Jae C. Hong

"He was the best player in the game, and he worked even that much harder being at the top," George said. "I just admired that. You hear all the stories of him working so hard, and I thought then he was the best player in the league and the work ethic didn't stop. That's what I admired at an early age."

George also admired Bryant's individualism, which is how he could root for Kobe but not the Lakers. He did most of his playing by himself or at the park; he didn't begin organized basketball until high school. George had to work hard on his own to get good.

In that way and in his drive to succeed, he felt a kinship with Bryant that leaves him unabashed in his appreciation to this day.

"I was always self-motivated," George said. "And I hated losing. If I came in second, we had to do it again or play again or whatever it was. We had to do it again until I was first. I was just ultra-competitive at everything I did, and you put that into the game that I love and see that the best player is the same way, I was just drawn to him."

***

George did well enough to get to Fresno State and average 7.8 points as a Pacers rookie. Then in 2011, the Lakers decided to hire Mike Brown to succeed Phil Jackson as Bryant's coach, cutting loose Jackson's chosen successor, Brian Shaw.

Shaw went to Indiana to be Frank Vogel's associate head coach for two years.

And to be Paul George's Kobe coach.

"It just clicked," George said.

"I knew he had watched Kobe a lot and idolized him as a player," said Shaw, now the Denver Nuggets head coach. "So I would come in, and if he was trying to cut corners or just wanted just to do enough to get through a practice, I would always remind him that I had seen the best guy at that position work every day and that it was no accident that he is as good as he is and he's accomplished everything that he's been able to accomplish."

Then Shaw would drop it at George's feet.

"So what makes you think that you can take a day off or cut this corner or that corner if that guy over on the other coast is not doing that?"

There was no back talk.

"If Kobe's doing it like this, maybe I have to switch it up."

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

George soaked up all the Bryant stories Shaw had. When Shaw texted George to turn on the Lakers game and study Bryant's tenacity, attack angle, snarl or whatever was on display that night, he scrambled for his remote.

George improved, though the same knocks on him from before the draft—not a good enough handle to create his own shots and not aggressive enough to drive instead of settle—were magnified in the Pacers' second-round playoff loss to the Miami Heat.

If Bryant calls his most intense training periods "blackouts," a frustrated George at least got into the gray area the ensuing summer of 2012. He also got the reminder that Bryant isn't done yet when George played for the USA Basketball Select Team in Las Vegas while Bryant and the national team were preparing to win the Olympic gold medal later in the summer.

George's third NBA season didn't start off that great despite all his offseason investment. Teaching never really becomes transformational for a student unless he's truly ready to change, and the biggest domino finally fell a month into the season.

The Pacers went on a three-game Western trip: It started with a narrow victory over the point-guard-less Lakers, with Bryant outscoring a shaky George, 40-12. Then another ugly victory over the lowly Sacramento Kings, with George shooting 2-of-11. The next night, a loss at Golden State—George very much to blame for floating around, missing all seven of his shots.

"After the Golden State game last year when I went scoreless, I changed my whole preparation for games," George said, "because I sat down and talked with Brian Shaw."

Guess who was the topic of conversation?

"He just told me how Kobe does it, and I just ran with it," George said. "Now I have a regimen, and I've been consistent from the middle of last year till now on how I prepare for games.

"I want to be great. I want to be the best I can be. I feel like I'm capable of being a very great player and one of the best players in this league. I believe in my ability.

"And you put that together with understanding the only way I'm going to get there is to put the work in. I've always been motivated, so it just feels natural to go another notch or go to another level, because I know I can find it within myself to do so."

You could argue that George is working too hard, jacking up those 400 jumpers and lifting weights before games in addition to all the extra video work. He was better early this season than late, and good enough to give the Pacers home-court advantage in the presumed rematch against the Heat.

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

But as George knows from watching Bryant's career, the upcoming playoffs are what matters.

"Some days it's tougher than others," George said of pushing himself, "but I think that's where you've just got to sit yourself down and understand, 'Is it going to make me better?' Regardless of how I feel, I always push through all of my workouts before I get ready for the game, because even though I might not like it then, even though I might be a little tired or fatigued, in the long run it pays off. And it's like night and day the way I feel to start the game off."

This is George's makeup now, not just his warm-up. The electrical currents are trained to fire through his neural pathways automatically out of routine. When you've rewired yourself so that it's not about willpower as much as it's just part of you to do the work, you aren't emulating Bryant, you're becoming like him.

"The process would've been just that much tougher for me to understand and learn had B-Shaw not been here," said George, now a two-time All-Star who still hasn't turned 24. "There are just so many stories he has told me, so many experiences he's had being around Kobe he was able to share with me—just how he approached the game, how he prepared for games, his insight on games. I was able to get a piece of Kobe's mind through B-Shaw."

***

George isn't exactly sure why, but his favorite Kobe story from Shaw is a simple one:

"Whoever the Lakers picked up who was at Kobe's position, first day of camp, he would go at him to test him, see if the guy is ready, let him know who's the big dog," George said. "That really was interesting to me."

Maybe it's such classic Kobe alpha-male behavior. Maybe it's a lesson in establishing team leadership. Maybe it's just a neat reminder that George still has a ways to go to be that big of a dog.

Maybe George, who has already taken some discreet elbows in the post from Bryant in their rare matchups, likes to imagine being that youngster whom Bryant tests on a daily basis.

Bryant has given George some words of wisdom on the few occasions they've talked, but he has done that with half the league by now. Their relationship is a variation on the old unrequited love that the books and movies tell you is sweet and uncomplicated.

It could be more, but George is content to be Bryant's admirer from afar. When asked if it's strange for one of the game's best players to be so reverential toward another, George is nonplussed.

"The only reason I don't feel weird about it is that's who I grew up watching," George said. "He's at the end of his career. It'd be different if it was like KD (Kevin Durant), where KD's a year or two older than I am.

"I feel like Kobe will go down as a top-five player who ever played in this league. He's been that great to this league. He's been iconic in the same way that (Michael) Jordan touched it."

Kent Horner/Getty Images

If anything, George is a little anxious about how his icon will finish his career. First he defaults to the same insistence you hear from every Kobe diehard—that he will never waver.

"I expect him to be the same Kobe we've come to really admire."

When pressed, George gradually allows the basketball expertise—and concern—to creep in.

"But you don't know if he's still going to have that step or that push, because he didn't have that push when he came back," said George, referring to Bryant's return from a torn Achilles before this current knee fracture. "I don't know. It's going to be a tough adjustment."

The kid from the front yard in Palmdale is worried.

***

Full disclosure: That No. 24 on George's back that he has worn all the way back to high school? He was wearing it even before Bryant switched from No. 8 to No. 24.

George was "ecstatic" when Bryant switched, but it goes to show you that the kid was not a blind follower.

And if Bryant's first game back from this lost season happens to be against the Pacers? "I'm trying to tear his head off," George said.

Sound like anyone we know?

"I want to be competitive, the same way he was competitive when he played against Jordan," George said.

If you're Bryant, you understand. Completely.

George looks around the league and also sees James, Durant and Carmelo Anthony at the wing position and loves that his road from AAU afterthought to the top has been so different than theirs.

"Those are the elite guys, the top guys in this league, and those guys have been there for awhile now," George said. "They kind of came into this league as guys already on that level. I had a different path."

This is a topic that gets George going.

"Always being an underdog, always being the player or the person nobody really knew, that always kept a chip on my shoulder," George said. "I felt like every game, every time I had an opportunity to showcase myself, I had to. There was a lot of pressure on me, I felt like. I wanted to be one of the best players because nobody really knew who I was or noticed me. There was always a chip and a hunger. To begin with, there was always a chip on my shoulder."

He thinks this is also how he is different from Bryant.

But as George finishes explaining his underdog mentality, a reporter who has covered Bryant for the past 15 years tells him the truth: Bryant has always considered himself an underdog...the confused soccer kid from Italy trying to learn American blacktop basketball, enduring a 4-20 season his freshman year in high school, jumping preps-to-pros when no perimeter player had ever dared before, those air balls in Utah in the playoffs as a rookie, repairing a public image in tatters.

Here's what Bryant said in 2009: "Emotionally, I'll always feel like the underdog—just because I've been that way my whole life."

Hearing it explained, George falls silent for a moment before speaking, and you can practically hear him growing even closer to Bryant.

"I just always thought he was always at the top. He always worked that hard to stay at the top."

***

If you're Kobe Bryant, Paul George is your guy. He is like you, you are like him, and it simply doesn't matter that you have never taken him under your wing.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

You can just do what you do and make a difference with those who get it. That is the true basis of giving back, the most natural way of inspiring and what is at the core of every Kobe fan who longs for a smile and hug from you someday but would be OK with the narrative if your eyes were focused on that next championship and you were a jerk. The old NBA joke that Kobe has no friends isn't true, but it'd be cool if it were.

Legends are not built on face-to-face meetings or single moments in time. They come from being who you simply are and from people very far outside your inner circle deeply respecting who you are, wanting to learn from that and becoming better from that.

That's what you took away from watching Bird all those years and half-imagining he would be nice to you and half-imagining he was really a single-minded jerk who was that pure about his passion...until that one day a couple years back, you heard him tell Grantland's Bill Simmons you were the player from this generation he would most want to play with: "Kobe's always my favorite since I got out (as a player). ... His desire to win, his dedication in the offseason to get better, he's just tough. He's a tough cat."

Remember that long-ago interview with old Celtic Tommy Heinsohn you heard raving about Bird's work ethic while he was already so gifted—and how you as a kid really took that to heart? You later said about Bird: "I kind of followed his lead in that regard."

It's the same now for George—and all the others who clutched some inspirational bit of yourself you shared somewhere along the line, whether talking to Brian Shaw or in writing your Achilles-night Facebook manifesto or offering a quote to some reporter like this one in 2005 about the dream of being the best player ever:

"It's like reaching for...I don't even know what the hell it's like reaching for. But if you only reach for the rim, man, you'll wind up laying the ball up. If you reach for the top of the backboard, you might dunk on somebody."

It's funny, isn't it? Shaw actually played with Bird on the Boston Celtics and played with you on the Lakers. Then Bird hired Shaw to coach George.

Shaw says that even though you are twin monsters, you have Bird beaten in work ethic. Bird might well agree.

He has so admired you from afar.

"If you want to win and win and win, it's Kobe," Bird said in that interview with Simmons. "Not that LeBron's not a winner, just that (Bryant's) mindset is to go into every practice, every game, to get better."

Quality time with those close to us remains the root of our society—doing unto others, coaches teaching players, fathers handing down to sons.

But the world is flat now. Even though fans have always revered their heroes, it's different. One way or another, word gets out and paths cross—meaningfully so.

If you want to tell George you'll be rooting for him this postseason, you can get his number from B-Shaw.

Or you can just tell him directly: He follows you on Twitter.

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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