Kobe's well-honed killer instinct
A great moment in humility it was not.
After scoring 25 of his 27 points in the second half of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals last week against the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers star
Granted, Bryant was just being honest, but tact would dictate that he let others say such things about him. As you may have noticed, though, Bryant isn't big on tact. Time and again over the last decade he has announced the particulars of his awesomeness. As teammate
Just as Bryant's bravado irks some -- O.K., many -- it also makes him riveting to watch when he does get off: Like the man himself, the manner in which he bears down is never subtle. Spurs forward
So there was Kobe on May 21, with the Lakers down 20 in the third quarter and the L.A. crowd starting to boo, whipping the ball between his legs and shaking his noggin at Bowen like some enormous, ticked-off bobblehead. What followed seemed, in retrospect, inevitable: the deep jumpers, the twisting drives, the scowls and, finally, a cold-blooded Bryant pull-up in the lane with 23.9 seconds left to cap the 89-85 comeback win. Watching him manhandle the game, you could feel the series tilting westward, and indeed the Lakers were up two games to one after a 101-71 blowout last Friday and a 103-84 loss in Game 3 on Sunday.
Call it what you will: killer instinct, competitive fire, hatred of losing or, as Boston Celtics reserve guard
Because Kobe is Kobe, however, he cannot (or will not) soften his edge, the way Jordan did with his buddy-buddy NBA friendships, his who-would-have-thunk smirk or his endorsa-riffic smile. With Bryant, it manifests itself during practice, during games, during summer workouts, during conversation. Even in his dreams he is probably swatting a
O.K., then, let's try to understand. Starting at the beginning, moment by basketball moment.
It's 1989, and Bryant is 11 years old and living in Italy, where his father, Joe, is playing professional basketball. One day Kobe bugs
It's early 1992, and Bryant is an eighth-grader in the suburbs of Philadelphia, skinny as an unfurled paper clip. He is playing against the Lower Merion varsity in an informal scrimmage. The older teens are taken aback. "Here's this kid, and he has no fear of us at all," says
It's 1995, and Bryant is the senior leader of the Lower Merion team, obsessed with winning a state championship. He comes to the gym at 5 a.m. to work out before school, stays until 7 p.m. afterward. It's all part of the plan. When the Aces lost in the playoffs the previous spring, Bryant stood in the locker room, interrupting the seniors as they hugged each other, and all but guaranteed a title, adding, "The work starts now." (Bryant remains so amped about his alma mater that when he taped a video message for the team a few years ago, it contained few of the usual platitudes and instead had Bryant reeling off a bunch of expletives and exhorting the boys to "take care of f------ business!")
During the Kobe era at Lower Merion no moment was inconsequential, no drill unworthy of ultimate concentration. In one practice during his senior year, "just a random Tuesday," as coach Downer recalls, Bryant was engaged in a three-on-three drill in a game to 10. One of his teammates was
Bryant had already begun to coax teammates into staying late or coming in at odd hours so he could hone his skills. "We'd play games of one-on-one to 100," says Schwartz. "Sometimes he'd score 80 points before I got one basket. I think the best I ever did was to lose 100-12." Imagine the focus required to score
It's 1996, and the Lakers call in Bryant, fresh off his senior prom -- he took pop singer Brandy, you might recall -- for a predraft workout at the Inglewood High gym. In attendance are G.M.
It would be a pattern: Bryant bearing down on players he once idolized. At
In Bryant's mind, however, no one is unbeatable. As a rookie with the Lakers, despite his coming straight out of high school, he approached Harris. "He said, 'Coach, if you just give me the ball and clear out, I can beat anybody in this league,' " recalls Harris. When that pitch didn't work, the 6' 6" Bryant returned. "Then he'd say, 'Coach, I can post up anybody who's guarding me. If you just get me in there and clear it out, I can post up anybody.' " Harris chuckles. "I said, 'Kobe, I know you can, but right now you can't do it at a high enough rate for the team we have, and I'm not going to tell
It is 2000, and Bryant is an All-Star and franchise player. Still, after guard
Not that Bryant
And just as he once did with Rob Schwartz, Bryant keeps NBA teammates after practice as guinea pigs. He unveils a spin move or a crossover or something else he has picked up watching tape and does it over and over and over. "The crazy thing about it is, he has the ability to put new elements in his game overnight," says George, a Laker from 1999 to 2006 and a frequent target of Kobe's requests. "He might say, 'Stay after and guard this move. Let me try it on you,' and he'll do it the next day in the game." George pauses to let this sink in. "Most of us, we'll try it alone, then we'll try it in practice, then in a scrimmage, and only then will we bring it out for a game. He'd do it the next day -- and it would
It's 2003, and Bryant is getting worked up in an interview while talking about a variation on a move: a jab step-and-pause, where you sink deep, hesitate to let the defender relax and, instead of bringing the jab foot back, push off it. Soon enough, Bryant is out of his chair and using the reporter as a defender on the carpeted floor. Then he has the reporter trying the move. Some people are
That's why Bryant gets so excited to meet kindred souls. Asked last week about Spurs coach
Now it's 2008, the Western Conference finals. Bryant is finally where he wants to be: an MVP playing on
The scout has other things to say about Bryant. For example, on his weaknesses: "Um, let me think . . . [long pause] . . . No, I don't think he has any." On his athleticism: "There are probably 10 [with more] in the league" -- he names
This thing, this freakish compulsion, may be the hardest element of the game to quantify. There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player's ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he'll need therapy to recover. One thing's for sure: You can't teach it. If so,
Even some of the great ones lacked it.
"If he's a ruthless s.o.b., I kind of respect that," says Ravin. "Why should he be passing up opportunities? Why pass it to a guy who doesn't work as hard, who doesn't want it like you do?"
Even now, every little challenge matters to Bryant. Here he is at the end of a practice last week. Each Laker has to take a free throw. Everybody hits his except Bryant, who rims one out. The only shooter left is
So, you see, this is Kobe, all of this. Sometimes childish, sometimes regal, sometimes stubborn, always relentless. This is a guy who, according to Nike spokesperson
This is Kobe Bryant, age 29, in pursuit of his fourth NBA title. Even if it's hard for us to understand him, perhaps it's time that we appreciate him.