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Monaco: Bryant is the real boss in L.A. (Nov. 12)

By Mike Monaco | Monday, November 12, 2012

The player-coach is back.

In a move that stirred up memories of former Celtics legend Bill Russell and his ridiculously successful three-year stint as both a three-time All-Star and a two-time championship-winning coach, the Los Angeles Lakers fired Mike Brown on Friday.

Enter Kobe Bryant, de facto player-coach.

In Wednesday’s loss to the Jazz and in a now-infamous YouTube video, the ever-intense Bryant directed his “death stare” at Brown, and in less than 48 hours Bryant seemingly ousted the man who was in just the second year of a four-year, $18 million deal.

Yes, Kobe Bryant is bigger than his coach. Kobe Bryant is the modern-day player-coach.

Brown’s Princeton offense clearly wasn’t working in Lakerland. The win-now lineup of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Steve Nash and Kobe was expected to dominate the Western Conference, especially after the James Harden trade left the Thunder worse off.

But the Lakers struggled mightily in the first five games of the season, going 1-4 during a time when three of its four stars were battling injuries. Howard is still recovering from back surgery. Nash played just one and a half games of that first quintet and Bryant has been playing through a foot ailment.

Yet something about Brown’s firing screams that Kobe played a part. Bryant has clashed with coaches in the past, and he always has gotten his way. The Lakers are now on their ninth coach (Bernie Bickerstaff holds the position in the interim) during the Kobe Bryant era.

Phil Jackson went through various stints in Los Angeles and won five titles with Kobe, but they still had their problems. After a tumultuous 2003-04 season that ended Jackson’s first stint coaching Kobe, Jackson wrote a book detailing the campaign. In the book he criticized Bryant, calling him “uncoachable.” And Jackson is exactly right. Bryant is uncoachable. He’s bigger than the team. He’s bigger than the coach.

This isn’t a Little League, high school, college or even a functional professional team, where coaches have the final say. The Lakers are run differently, because Kobe runs them differently.

Can you imagine a Duke Blue Devil shooting a death stare at Mike Krzyzewski and living to play another day? Can you imagine your high school coach getting fired because you didn’t fit well within the offense? Certainly not, because that’s not the way sports are supposed to work. Yet that’s how it works in Los Angeles, where Kobe seems to have the sway to depose a coach like Brown.

Granted, the NBA is different from CYO or Pop Warner. It’s hard to imagine Brown walking into practice Thursday and making Kobe run suicides for an hour for insubordination. That’s just not the way professional sports work. The players and coaches are similar in age and even closer in ego size.

The best teams have a mutual respect between the superstars and the coaches. Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are equals with a respect for each cog’s role in the Celtic machine. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have made a model out of a winning squad in which the player and the coach are the key constants, and their relationship is predicated on respect.

But Kobe doesn’t have that respect for his coaches and, as a result, Brown got fired.

Now obviously it wasn’t just because Kobe gave Brown the stink eye. Ownership was undoubtedly fed up with the 1-4 start after emptying the piggy bank to make a championship run. But if Kobe doesn’t sign off on it, do you really think Brown is getting his pink slip?

And is it really even a pink slip? Brown will get $11 million no matter how long he lasts on the unemployment line. That number seems even crazier when you consider just how early in the season he was canned. Five games. Five games out of an 82-game season. It’s the equivalent of being fired with 1:28 left in the first game of the NFL season, or in the eighth inning of the tenth game in the MLB, or before the end of the third quarter in game one of a 12-game college football season. The bottom-line: It was too soon.

Give the Lakers and their stars a chance to get healthy and get accustomed to playing with one another. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Brown was showed the door and now the Lakers are trying to successfully woo Jackson back.

Are 11 NBA championships enough to warrant some respect from Kobe?

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.