Whether you like him or not, Kobe Bryant’s learned to play all the angles—on court and, most recently, off it. This isn’t your headstrong rookie or the angry superstar who asked for a trade seven years ago. This is a 35-year-old athlete coming off back-to-back serious injuries, heading into what will presumably be the last two years of his NBA career.
But he’s still one of the most successful brands in sports, and he works the old public relations push-and-pull to perfection—dropping a few tough words and following up with some sugar.
Bryant recently made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC, as excerpted and discussed on TWC SportsNet. Kimmel mentioned the resignation of Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni and then asked his guest if management runs coaching names by him beforehand.
The answer was: “On the last two they didn't. On the third one, I'm hoping they do." Bryant button-hooked the line perfectly with a chuckle and then segued into the praise portion:
"Jimmy and Jeanie both, they're just really determined and excited about the possibilities of next season and rebuilding this and building on their father's legacy and everything that he's accomplished. And they're taking the challenge extremely, extremely seriously.”
This comes about a month after he stated at a press conference, per Lakers.com:
“You have to start with Jim and Jeanie, and how that relationship plays out. It starts with having a clear direction and clear authority. Then it goes down to the coaching staff, what Mike is going to do, what they want to do with Mike and it goes from there. It’s gotta start from the top.”
Set the hook, make sure it goes viral and watch as a strategic target is removed. That’s not to say the Mamba gets everything he wants or that he is the deciding factor when it comes to big decisions.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, whose comments are as carefully chosen as any executive’s in the league, spoke to Andy Katz of ESPN at the Chicago draft combine on Thursday. As relayed by Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles, the GM seemed to discount the notion of Bryant having a seat at the table when it comes to the hiring of a coach:
“He really won’t weigh in on something like this. I’m not sure we’ll even talk to him prior to interviews.”
This will be enough to fuel the PR battle for days, if not weeks.
It was also enough to cause Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless to fly into a dither on ESPN’s First Take, insisting that the Lakers owe Bryant the right to consult on his next coach. Smith further fanned the flames, as he is often wont to do, saying:
One of the things the Lakers are not telling anybody right now, is they have a real big time attitude with Kobe right now. They are very displeased with him. According to my sources, they are ticked off, that he left and went to France for vacation, before the season ended. And because of that, there are several people within the Lakers organization, harboring a very, very strong level of resentment toward him that they haven’t let go of yet.
Whoa! Shots fired, Stephen A.!
Smith goes on to mention how this isn’t the first time Kupchak has alluded to Bryant not being a part of the process and how the thinking mirrors that of Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss.
Because, of course, media figures have the inside track on what a notoriously reclusive executive like Buss actually thinks.
And this is how the PR war is fought—by combining a few choice quotes and then bringing in the surrogates and mouthpieces and inside “sources” and commentary.
Voila, you’ve got a controversy! It’s called selling it off the headline, and it’s the oldest tabloid trick in the books.
To Smith’s credit, Kupchak has indeed made similar comments. In an interview with Sam Amick for USA Today, the GM was asked whether Bryant would figure into the decision about D’Antoni, who was still head coach at the time. The point-blank answer was: “We will not consult with him. No, we won't consult with him.”
Of course, that may have been because Bryant’s feelings on the matter were already abundantly clear. And at any rate, D’Antoni is now out of the picture and the search for his replacement has begun. So are we to believe that Kupchak is being steadfast, that Bryant won’t have input on the next Lakers head coach?
Not so fast.
If you go back to the interview at the Chicago combine, the Lakers GM merely says he's not sure they'll talk to him “prior” to interviews. And to be honest, the Lakers don’t need a laundry list of candidates from Bryant.
What management will probably do is solicit an opinion after the initial interviews have been conducted. Kupchak goes on to say that Bryant has been in the facility working out lately, and that “I’ll go downstairs and I'll talk to him about a bunch of different things."
One would presume that a bunch of different things would include meetings with prospective coaches and what the superstar's feelings might be about these individuals and their systems.
During the panel conversation following TWC's screening of the Kimmel clip, analyst Dave Miller felt Bryant should be consulted on the process but not given a vote on the selection of the next coach.
Fellow guest Andy Kamenetzky, who runs the Land O’Lakers blog with his brother Brian, saw it a little differently:
There’s no question Kobe should have a vote. He’s a guy who’s earned that type of status and respect within the franchise, he’s one of the most iconic players they have. Plus, practically speaking, Kobe is far too strong willed a player to alienate. It’s just not worth leaving Kobe out of the loop for a decision like this.
And so the debate goes on, with time ticking down to the naming of a new head coach in Los Angeles. Ultimately, the PR battle serves to up the ante, by bringing these matters to the public eye and reminding those in management that their employee has a voice, and that it is heard and shared by millions.
Bryant has shown that he’s no longer the raging superstar of old. He’s learned how to work the crowd, how to add humor and pause for effect before the punchline. And, if need be, he’ll still drop the hammer.
Or let others drop it for him.
For an aging warrior, the ultimate battle won’t be public relations—it will be what happens on the hardwood court. Now entering his 19th season in the league, time has become the real enemy.
There is one final two-year push left before Bryant retires from the game. Right now, he’s simply trying to get himself ready and to use whatever influence he has toward a couple of fairly important choices.
Like a coach and team that can help him achieve one last goal—his sixth NBA title.