Bryant scores off an assist
Ex-Celtics scout on the other side
LOS ANGELES — Part of the reason for Kobe Bryant’s effectiveness in the NBA Finals can be traced to a product of the Celtics organization.
Former Celtics scout Mike Procopio and former Chicago Bulls trainer Tim Grover have been working behind the scenes for Bryant the last two years, and their involvement was ramped up after the Lakers lost to the Celtics in Game 2 of this series.
“After that game, Kobe called and said, ‘I need you in Boston,’ ’’ said Procopio, who is based at Grover’s Attack Athletics facility in Chicago.
Procopio, who grew up near TD Garden, brought his iPad to the three games in Boston, analyzed the action, and sent his reports to Bryant. Then, Procopio followed the Lakers to the West Coast, staying in a hotel near Bryant’s Orange County home, and broke down Game 6.
“Anything that can give him an edge, he’ll do,’’ Procopio said of Bryant. “One of the best winners ever in the history of the NBA, but he’s seeking out help. He wants that edge and that’s what makes him great. He could live without me, but he likes to have people around him who work hard and will tell him the truth.
“Their [the Lakers’] coaches have been coaching for decades and they go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. But their coaches and video guys have 14 other players to deal with, and what I do takes some of the work off their backs. Out of five or six things I give him, one or two might be useful. After a win or a loss, he will say, ‘Mike, what did you see that I can do better? What didn’t I do? How are they going to guard me next time?’ Maybe he has the answers in his head but, all I know is I continue to get e-mails after the game. So, I tell him I’ve got him covered — whatever he needs to make his life easier, because he wants to be extra prepared.’’
For Procopio, that meant working on game analysis until early morning, and meeting with Bryant in the afternoon.
Such specialized attention is unique.
“No one asked for it before,’’ Procopio said. “Kobe has a creative mind, and he takes things to another level. That’s why he’s sustained his level of play for so long. He’s insane about it, in a good way, and he wants to remain on top as long as he can. I wouldn’t do this for just anybody. And, most [players], if they would do something like this, after a couple months they would fall off it.’’
Procopio would not have worked with Bryant had he remained with the Celtics. But the organization twice let Procopio go, the first time for an opportunity with Attack Athletics, the second time a few months ago when he was working as an assistant coach with the Maine Red Claws, the Celtics’ NBADL affiliate. Procopio said his contract was not renewed.
Procopio has worked on offseason fitness programs with the Celtics’ Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade. But his goal is to become an NBA assistant coach, and he hoped the Maine position would be a steppingstone.
“It’s funny that Kobe Bryant sees the value of what I do and I can’t get a D-League team to see it,’’ said Procopio. “I thought Maine was a great fit — I love New England, it’s two hours from my house, and I love minor league basketball.’’
Procopio’s switch of allegiance has caused tension.
“I have childhood friends who won’t talk to me,’’ Procopio said. “It’s funny how it turned out. I text Doc [Rivers] and congratulate him on wins, I’m great with Danny [Ainge], I worked with his son, Austin, in Maine. [Assistant executive director of basketball operations] Leo Papile is my mentor.
“But it’s business, it’s not personal. It’s a little strange, because I was born 100 yards from the Garden, I used to stare out at the Madison Hotel from my house. I went to nursery school right there, went to Suffolk [University], worked for the Celtics. You couldn’t get any more Boston than me.
“It worked out best for both parties. When I got a chance to work for Tim, the Celtics never said ‘don’t leave’ — they were, like, hey, do what’s best for you. It was best for both parties — in Boston, I was at the bottom of the totem pole, I was a lowly scout who broke down tape of European players and worked on the draft. I knew my position. With Tim, I have a great amount of responsibility. When you have the best trainer in the game and the best player in the game grateful for what you do, it empowers you.’’
Bryant and Procopio do not have a contractual relationship. Procopio refused Bryant’s offers of payment, preferring to wait until after the playoffs.
“I like it like that,’’ Procopio said. “That’s the best part about it, I let my work speak for itself. Whenever Kobe feels he doesn’t need me anymore, fine. But I make sure he wants my work, I don’t take days off. It’s a business relationship, I don’t ask him what his favorite movie is, don’t go out to eat with him, I just make sure I take care of the basketball aspect. That’s what I want. I don’t want a signed contract, and that’s how I’ve done things for 17 years. I work harder than most people and my work speaks for itself.
“You can’t always worry about the money. I told him, let’s just win and take care of the other stuff later. If I don’t hear from him for a week, I know I’m probably fired, but it hasn’t happened in two years.’’
Procopio said Bryant first became interested in individual game analysis during the 2008-09 season. A newspaper story referenced how Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, a former Celtic executive, had analyzed Bryant’s moves and provided a guide for Shane Battier to follow on defense. That inspired Bryant to seek similar guidance.
“I was staying with Kevin McHale in Minnesota when Kobe contacted me,’’ Procopio recalled. “When the best player in the game is asking for advice, I’ll do some research on it. I talked to a lot of scouts and they said Kobe has no real weaknesses, you just play him as hard as you can and hope he has a bad night. But I looked at how Houston played Kobe and definitely saw patterns. I gave him a two- or three-page synopsis. I noticed with Yao Ming, Kobe would attack him by trying to go over him and Yao is too big to do that, sort of like [the Celtics’] Kendrick Perkins is. To be more effective, he needed to move side to side and, that night, Kobe scored like 31 points, and he clinched the game on a pick and roll when Yao stepped up and Kobe went right around him.
“An hour after that game, he texted me and wanted to talk about the next game in San Antonio. It was a one-time assignment but it’s turned into full-time.
“I make sure he’s the best-prepared player in the league. We went back to ’08 on how Boston plays him, every shot he took, every turnover, strengths, weaknesses, kill spots on floor. He wants to be as informed as much as possible. He doesn’t worry about anything, just winning, what it takes to win.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.