Uncomfortable question returns to haunt Kobe Bryant


He hated the question, his jaw tightening, his eyes flaring.

“C’mon,” Kobe Bryant said.

He hated the question, it touching on the deepest, darkest perceptions about his ethics and effort.

“Seriously,” Bryant said.

He hated the question. But, two days before revisiting the setting of the alleged crime, he couldn’t wait to answer it.

In the spring of 2006, did you tank the second half of Game 7 of the first-round series against the Phoenix Suns?

“People who say that are stupid,” Bryant said. “That’s just stupid.”

It has been the most renowned on-court controversy of his career. For four years it has trailed him and nagged him like a scrap of toilet paper dancing under his high-tops.

So perhaps it should be no surprise that, in a rare interview about the painful subject Saturday, Bryant attacked it like it was Kevin Durant and plowed over it like it was Wesley Matthews.

“It’s outlandish, the amount of irresponsibility people have, throwing out statements like that,” he said.

The question is news again because on Monday, the Lakers begin a Western Conference finals series against the Suns. The issue is topical again because last week, folks accused LeBron James of sabotaging the Cleveland Cavaliers in a halfhearted effort in Game 5 of their losing series against the Boston Celtics.

Many thought Bryant did the same thing four years ago in the eighth-seeded Lakers showdown game against the top-seeded Suns.

Attempting to finish one of the greatest upsets in Laker history in Game 7, Bryant scored 23 points in the first half, yet the Lakers trailed 60-45. It was clear then that Bryant just didn’t have enough help. He was burdened with Kwame Brown’s slowness, Smush Parker’s foolishness, and other pieces that just didn’t fit.

In the second half, a frustrated Bryant seemingly made this point when he stopped shooting and, some say, stopped playing. He took only three shots in the half, scored but one point, and the Lakers lost the game, 121-90.

I was there. I thought it was Bryant making a statement. I don’t think he purposely tried to lose, but I thought he was sending a message to the front office to clean up this mess.

“It was selfish, it was silly,” I wrote.

Turns out, I was being kind. Many others around the league openly accused him of openly tanking the game, their chorus led by TNT’s Charles Barkley, who called Bryant selfish and ranted enough that Bryant later appeared on the TNT show to defend himself.

Four years later, even after leading the Lakers to a Shaq-less title, Bryant continues to be haunted by the perception that Barkley was right.

“Barkley was stupid, he didn’t watch the game, lots of people who were critical of me didn’t even watch the game,” Bryant said.

So what happened?

“To get back in the game, we needed somebody else to start making shots,” Bryant said. “I was just trying to get the other guys going, turn the momentum around.”

It didn’t work. The Lakers scored four baskets in the first eight minutes of the third quarter, trailed by 22, and the game was over.

‘“I really tried to help everyone else, it just never happened, we missed shots, they got run-outs, three, three, three, and all of the sudden, the game was out of reach,” Bryant said. “I had been successful doing that before, other guys start making shots, the energy picks up, we get back in the game. But nobody saw those games.”

So what about the idea that he was making a statement? And that maybe that statement worked? Because of that loss, and the following year’s first-round loss to Phoenix, the Lakers eventually rid themselves of Parker and Brown, and acquired Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol.

“Hell, no,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. “That’s not my thought process. I don’t think like that. I think about one thing and one thing only, and that’s kicking butt.”

Bryant shook his head in apparent amazement.

“If I’m going to send a message to the front office, I’m going to do it by going up there and raising hell,” he said. “There is no way I’m going to be doing it on the court, losing a game. That’s not who I am.”

There have been other times when I thought that’s exactly who Bryant was, most notably in April of 2004, when he took one shot in the first half of a game in Sacramento after Coach Phil Jackson had criticized his ball hogging. Since then, he has been known to occasionally and briefly pout, even as recently as Game 4 of the first-round series against Oklahoma City, when he didn’t take a shot for the first 15 minutes.

But knowing what we know now about his unnatural drive and his unreal competitiveness, it does seem silly to think he would purposely lose a Game 7, doesn’t it?

“That’s just not my nature, you just have to know me,” said Bryant.

We’re trying, we’re trying.

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