Players speaking glowingly of him. Players who once universally distrusted him, well, they like him. They really like him. [Players who] once froze him out now follow him, gaining energy from his defense, making it their mantra.
Every game, Bryant has been the first player in a defensive stance, the first guy guarding the opponent in the backcourt, squatting and straining alone in front of four guys who have no choice but to imitate. If this team could have only one passport, Bryant playing defense would be the photo.
The loner has become an embraced leader.
Here's what his teammates say:
Chris Bosh: "He gives it his all on every second of every play. You see that and you're like, you've got to do the same thing. You see a guy playing that hard, you'll do anything not to let him down."
Chris Paul: "You hear a lot of things about Kobe, but I had no idea he was such a basketball junkie. He studies all the film, talks basketball all the time, knows everything. He always wants to guard the other team's best player."
Carmelo Anthony: "The things he does out there, they're not about putting the ball in the basket. They're about his presence."
This isn't about image-making. Anyone can change their image over night. What Kobe's done is about reputation-building. His actions have spoken louder than anything he could have ever said. Instead of talking about leadership, he's provided it.
It also says something about where Kobe is in his life right now. He's older (he celebrated his 30th birthday in Beijing). He has a family. He's been through the battles. He's won titles (and lost titles).
It's interesting to watch people evolve as they get older. What they valued when they were 19 versus what they value when they're 30 or 40 or 50.
As Plaschke puts it:
"The Beijing Olympics may initially be known for Michael Phelps' strength and Usain Bolt's speed, but, among American sports fans, no memory will prove as indelible as Kobe Bryant's redemption."