Not that anyone wants to relive the Dwight Howard year, but in those depressing months before Kobe Bryant decided to hell with it and he took over the offense, there was a lot of talk about Kobe’s unwillingness to pass the leadership torch to Howard so the Lakers would be Howard’s team. It was ridiculously funny, and myopic on every level, to even suggest the non-serious, always goofy Howard, who believed leadership was something given and not earned, was going to be big man on campus because of Kobe’s benevolence. Howard soon found out a Tim Duncan moment was not on the horizon in the L.A. of his dreams. That it took an Achilles injury, not Dwight Howard, to wrestle the leadership mantle away from Bryant’s clinched fingers was a fitting end to their broken partnership that couldn’t last through the summer.
It’s always been a question of trust for Bryant. Trust on his end is the reward for a work ethic demonstrated on the other end. Trust is an answer to a Kobe Bryant question: are you tough? Do you have heart? For all he has put into the organization and his career, Bryant wants the Lakers cared for and nurtured in a similarly aggressive methodology, by a person who doesn’t quit, doesn’t have fear, isn’t apprehensive about the extraordinary expectations, and doesn’t look at basketball, God forbid, as a punchline to a joke.
So in that vein, Jordan Clarkson is everything Dwight Howard was not. Clarkson has a huge chip on his shoulder from being passed over in the first round of the 2014 draft and Kobe relates to that, to having being dismissed, and then, having to earn it. In Clarkson’s second year, it’s pretty amazing. What Bryant didn’t/wouldn’t give Howard because he didn’t trust him, he is happily giving Jordan Clarkson.
He is mentoring Clarkson and preparing Clarkson for life without Bryant, repeating the lessons over and over until Clarkson knows them by heart. He is so used to it, Kobe admits Clarkson tells him, “I know”, every time Bryant has one more piece of advice or points out a mistake. The I know isn’t one of those eye-rolling, bored, stop with the lectures I know. It’s the I know of, you taught me. Now it’s up to me to make it count.
Kobe Bryant was never an entitled player. He was drafted out of high school but the critics were never satisfied he’d have a career that warranted him kicking college to the curb. He influenced Tracy McGrady to come out the next year. When stardom hit in 2000, he still had his doubters. They said he shot the ball too much, he was selfish, he didn’t play in the system. Why so many contested shots when easier shots were available? Once Shaq left, it was generally believed Kobe would never win another title.
Jordan Clarkson had his share of doubters too. He transferred from Tulsa to Missouri, was downgraded in the draft because scouts thought he didn’t have a position. He wasn’t a good enough shooter and he didn’t have innate point guard skills. The scouts did acknowledge he had explosive speed. Doc Rivers had been a presence in Clarkson’s life from his childhood in San Antonio but Rivers passed on him in the draft too. Seemingly unnoticed was Clarkson’s work ethic. His ambition is driven, in part, by resentment of what happened on draft night. He watches the draft often as a way to remind himself where he is now, how far he has come, and the wealth of excellence left to be accomplished. His teacher, Kobe Bryant, says Clarkson wants to be great.
“I like to be in the shadows. I kind of just like to go about my business, just come out here, improve and stay out of the way. I’m fine with my role.” (Jordan Clarkson)
Particularly when that role has Kobe Bryant constantly in his ear. It means that Bryant, who only trusts the talented hard workers who pull themselves out of adversity, believes Clarkson is the one. Clarkson isn’t scared of Bryant nor is he intimidated.
Last year, after the shoulder injury, Clarkson met up with Kobe at a prearranged time. Kobe was hearing a lot about Clarkson when he was AWOL from the team after surgery. Kobe was a little interested in all the Clarkson hype and did one of those Kobe meet me at some godawful hour when most people are just getting out of bed things he does to test a young player’s resolve. But when Kobe opened the door to the El Segundo training facility, Clarkson was already there shooting jumpers. Since then, Kobe has been pulling Clarkson aside. Some of his advice has been hilarious like when he told Clarkson to go to the hole, not like he was “light skinned.” Some of it has been deadly serious, about Clarkson losing his man on defensive assignments. All of it has been about aggression and how to take the game, how to own it. Bryant was a happy teacher on a Sunday afternoon when Clarkson had his best game of the year on a national stage against the Warriors.
Recently, Brian Shaw told a Kobe Bryant story. Shaw was fishing in Santa Barbara and invited Bryant along. Bryant was a no-show but did call Shaw to see what he caught. Shaw told him. He caught some baby sharks. Bryant asked, what did he do with them and Shaw said he threw them back in. “You didn’t kill them, why not?” Bryant was horrified at his friend’s passive empathy. As Shaw was telling the story, he laughed. “Kobe didn’t understand throwing anything back. If you catch it, you kill it.”
And this is what has cemented his bond with Clarkson. Because on the court, Clarkson tries to kill it. He has a gritty toughness that Kobe understands and celebrates. The Kobe tutoring is something Clarkson doesn’t mind either. The days are becoming shorter and shorter and his new teacher is about to retire from this life.
“He (Clarkson) takes everything you tell him and he really tries to put it to work. He’s one of those kids that when you jump on him, he doesn’t sulk about it. He doesn’t go into a shell. He takes it like a professional.” (Bryon Scott to the L.A. Times)
photo via llananba