Editor's Note: Kevin Ding has joined Bleacher Report full time to cover the Los Angeles Lakers. We asked Kevin, who has previously contributed to Bleacher Report, to introduce himself and his work.
The first words Kobe Bryant ever said to me came with a sideways smile.
“I look forward to reading your criticisms.”
Bryant was 20, nearing the end of his third NBA season with stardom and backlash already his reality show. He stood, spoke and soon laughed in front of his locker at The Forum, the Lakers’ old home, in 1999.
Already cocksure then, still cocksure now.
Today he’s 35, and we’ve been together every step of that way…with an awful lot transpiring in what has to be considered one of the most interesting lives you’ll ever see play out.
And in all honesty, there are not many people in my life I understand better than him.
Nearly 15 years together is part of it. But the other part is that I’ve made it my business while covering one of the most glorious eras for any team in any sport—five NBA championships and two other NBA Finals—to understand far more than what the Lakers’ stats and scores have been.
I take an interest in people in both my private life and professional career. They automatically become more interesting when they compete on a stage where they win or lose, they try hard or don’t, they learn from what happens or are unable to grow with experience.
Speaking of the latter, I can also say honestly that I understand Dwight Howard, even after just one season covering him. He's not a bad person, but he's naive about almost everything in this world, wanting all of us to revolve around him whether he earns the attention or doesn’t. Some guys want it to be given to them, and others won’t accept less than their absolute best.
There's no mystery about why Howard is no better now as a basketball player than he was before. If that sounds personal, it is—it always is. We are interested in sports because this person does one thing but that person does another. It’s an ongoing test of us as people.
It’s never the same. And it’s never really over.
I’m thrilled to be here at Bleacher Report now after so many years at the Orange County Register because I want to share the true stories of these fascinating characters with as many people who appreciate them as possible.
And the Lakers sure do fascinate. When they are expected to win. When they do win. And especially when they don’t win.
One way or another, my job is to explain what’s really going on—and what it means.
Or quote directly from Jerry Buss’ living room seven years ago as he says: “Slowly I would like to turn it over to Jim to see how effective my strategy is while I'm still alive—and still have time to correct it if I didn't do it right.”
Or write amid the uproar when the Lakers give Lamar Odom away for nothing: “Odom’s deep-seated issues of abandonment and career-long tendency to disappear in games could’ve arisen big-time with this knowledge that the Lakers didn’t want him. He’s entering his 13th NBA season, and he hasn’t taken great care of his body along the way. He’s very much due for a mental letdown.”
I can tell you when Luke Walton’s life is turned upside down because he’s being stalked, when Andrew Bynum’s career is turned right-side up via Phil Jackson’s last great coaching move (connecting Bynum to personal development coach George Mumford), and when Steve Nash finally gets fed up with Dwight wasting their shot together.
I value the opportunity to share these guys’ real thoughts, feelings and even failures in a meaningful way that advances our conversations. Perhaps that means calling out Kwame Brown and having him stop you in the darkness under the stands at Staples Center and tell you: “I heard you threw me under the bus.” (Kwame being Kwame, after I briefly explained what I was told and had written, shrugged and bounded on his merry way.)
Howard saw that column about Nash being fed up with him, and told me plainly that he disagreed with me having written that he wasn’t trying. Still, it was made clear to me later from the coaching staff that everything I’d written about Dwight was true and then some.
Shaq's code back in the day for Bryant breaking away from his teammates in games was, “Write what you see.” That’s definitely part of it (and was certainly the impetus for my piece about Vladimir Radmanovic going through practice in Vans the day before he was traded), but to tell the stories with true conviction, the goal has to be to write what you know.
As of now, I don’t know how the Lakers can possibly play great defense without Howard. I also don’t know how Pau Gasol and Nash will be able to come back from subpar seasons with the vengeance they are planning.
I don’t know whether some amazing development awaits—perhaps a more mature Jordan Farmar, who, in the Linsanity tradition, is uniquely suited to star in Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll and shock the world. (Farmar-velous! OK, maybe not.)
I do know Bryant—after not letting Howard have his way, now nursing a patched-up Achilles and with an eye on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record—will have a sideways smile ready.
As has been the case most of these years, the Lakers will go as he goes. As one of Bryant's trusted friends sums it up: “All the reasons we love him are the exact same reasons we hate him.”
Anyone need any further explanation for why Bryant is such a polarizing figure?
What I can offer is more than black and white, real context behind the makes and misses.
He’s a polarizing figure who is indeed a real person.
I can look back and tell you right off the top of my head about how amazing the guy is in the Make-A-Wish Foundation meetings he never refuses, and how his wife described him to me one time with a word so utterly common it was jarring: “workaholic.”
The time he ran up with a huge grin upon seeing my baby girl and took her out of my arms to hold without even asking, and when he described the sexual assault charge as a terrible time that was still “minuscule” compared to other people’s crosses to bear.
Then there was the time he read a story of mine and the next day memorably asked: “Who the (expletive) is Kevin Ding?!” (Guess he wasn’t looking forward to reading my criticisms that day.)
And then there was the time he said a lot worse than that to me when I was going to write something he didn’t want written.
He’s human, no matter how much he’s idolized, respected or criticized. That’s the point: We all are.
And the better we understand both the alley-oops and breakdowns of these people in the purple and gold spotlight, the more sense we can make of all our own lives backstage.