LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant stood at his locker for a long time Tuesday night, answering question after question about a week that easily makes the all-time drama list during his 17-year career. Listening to him speak, in measured tones and with meaning behind the words, you would've thought that Phil Jackson was about to walk through that door.
He is not, of course. And while Bryant is on board with Mike D'Antoni's arrival into the maelstrom that is Lakerland later this week, the fact that Jackson isn't returning for a third tour with the Lakers continues to baffle his second most-decorated star pupil.
There were no more, "We want Phil," chants at Staples Center as the Lakers fell to the Spurs 84-82, their first loss in three games since Mike Brown was suddenly and stunningly fired five games into the season. But there was a lot of why not Phil from Bryant, who continues to walk a delicate line between embracing D'Antoni -- whom he loves as a coach, and always has -- and lamenting the missed opportunity to chase one more championship with the coach who delivered his first five.
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"I can't afford to make assumptions or give my best understanding because then it turns into something else," Bryant said on the loading dock at Staples. "I can only speak facts, and I don't know. I haven't spoken to Mitch [Kupchak], I haven't spoken to Jimmy [Buss] about what happened. I really don't know what transpired. But like I said, I love D'Antoni and I'm excited for him to be here. It's going to be good."
As I've stated, if you're looking for someone to say D'Antoni is a bad hire for the Lakers, look elsewhere. He's a professional coach, the way Bryant is a professional assassin. His team will defend because it has size and willing defenders, one of whom is the three-time defensive player of the year, Dwight Howard -- although you still wouldn't have known that Tuesday night as he continued to labor through the after-effects of back surgery. D'Antoni's offensive style has been oversimplified to death; the Lakers are not going to race up and down the floor jacking up 3-pointers. They're going to put the ball in Steve Nash's hands, try to score early (when the defense is most vulnerable), space the floor, exploit the opponent's weaknesses and pounce on mismatches. It will take time -- the third adjustment on the fly for this Lakers team before getting out of the season's first month -- but D'Antoni will thrive with this talent, and this talent with him.
Still, nothing will ever change the fact that the Lakers walked down the road with Jackson for this job, and it blew up. Jackson might never live it down, nor will Bryant. But the person it will be toughest on will be D'Antoni, who must succeed in the sport's biggest coaching shadow where his predecessor failed -- and almost anyone else would have, too.
"I did have kind of a strange thought," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has famously dueled with Jackson for years but never got to know the man other than the obligatory pre- and post-game waves on the way to the locker room. "At one point it seemed from what we all read that he was coming, I guess. And I just had this thought: It's like putting the Soviet Union back together again. It's like he was going to be Putin and put it all back together. But I'm a strange person."
It's not so strange, that analogy. That's how big Jackson's presence was in basketball. He overshadowed everyone and everything, and who knows? Maybe that's why the Lakers decided not to dance with him again, why no other team has asked Jackson, an 11-time champion, to sit on its bench since he last walked away from the Lakers.
"I don't know," Bryant said. "I don't understand. If that's the case, that's a shame."
There has been endless spin from both sides about how Jackson and the Lakers went from a 90-minute meeting on Saturday with only the details to iron out to the stunning announcement in the wee hours Sunday that they had hired D'Antoni. Either Jackson demanded the sun, moon and stars, or perhaps just a telescope through which to view them. Either operatives who've sunk their meat hooks deep into the Lakers organization torpedoed Jackson's candidacy, or they didn't. Frankly, I'm tired of the soap opera part of this story, because it's neither here nor there. Jackson isn't walking through that door.
"I didn't know Phil was an option, so D'Antoni was my first choice," Bryant said on his way out of Staples. "When I spoke to Jimmy, to his credit, he was the one that brought up Phil. I didn't think it was an option. I didn't know if Phil wanted to come back. I didn't know if the organization wanted him back. But Jimmy brought up Phil's name, and I said, 'Well, [expletive], if he's on the list, he'd be my No. 1 choice.
"If Jimmy would've said, 'No, I don't want to have Phil here,' that would've stopped right there," Bryant said. "If I said, 'No, I don't want Phil,' that would've stopped right there. We both wanted him. And I told him what I felt about Phil and how much I loved him and all that stuff, and it went down that road. It just didn't work out."
While trying to make it clear he's guns blazing in his support of D'Antoni, a coach he has admired since he was a 10-year-old watching him play in Italy, Bryant is sort of stuck in a pick-and-roll that has been blown up. For the Lakers, all roads lead to Jackson, the way they will for D'Antoni once he flies to L.A. on Wednesday and gets introduced at the "he's not Mike Brown or Phil Jackson" press conference the next day. He'll make his debut Friday, or more likely Sunday, as he recovers from knee replacement surgery.
Artificial joints are the only similarities he'll have to Phil Jackson.
"Probably, but people really need to get over it," Bryant said. "What the hell are you going to do? Cry me a river, build a bridge and get over it. What are you going to do, sit here and pout all [expletive] day? D'Antoni is a great coach. He probably would've made it to a bunch of Finals had he not run into us and had that melee in San Antonio. And here we are. We want to make the most of it, and we'll be fine."
Bryant believes in D'Antoni. He'll play for him and push for him and continue to chase down that sixth title -- his first, it would turn out now, without Jackson. D'Antoni, he said, has "some of the same characteristics as Phil in terms of not micromanaging a team."
But as Popovich said, "Phil's Phil." Exactly. And nobody else is.
"If you talk to Michael and you talk to myself, we'll sing his praises to the heavens," Bryant said. "Michael didn't want to play for any other coach. That's just how it is."
Bryant will play for another coach now, and his obsessive pursuit of the next title will only burn hotter. He still often quotes Jackson's psychological jargon, sounds like a disciple of what he called "the whole Zen Master thing." Asked what stays with him from being coached by Jackson, Bryant said, "Everything. I'm like the baby Zen Master."
This will be the last time this season that Bryant waxes poetic about Jackson or weaves tales of his unique influence on him, on the Lakers and on the game. You can bet on that; or at least, you should be able to. The Lakers won't practice Wednesday, and they'll introduce D'Antoni on Thursday. Then, it's time to get over it; time to move on.
Bryant, though, was asked at his locker if he would have five championships if he hadn't played for Jackson. And on this night of reminiscing, regrets and embracing his first choice not named Phil Jackson, Bryant said, "Probably not."
"If you're talking about winning championships, that's what a great coach does," Bryant said. "He instills confidence in the rest of the guys, makes sure they're comfortable in their roles, and that's how you win championships. If you're talking about from an individual standpoint, no matter who's coaching, I'm going to do what I do. But it probably won't equate to championships."
Kind of makes you wonder what might have been, on so many levels.