Wednesday June 4th, 2008

Now that Kobe Bryant stands on the verge of winning an NBA championship as the best player in the world, I find myself remembering the first time I met him. Ten years ago. He was 19 and in his second year with the Lakers. He lived with his parents in a home overlooking the ocean.

I was preparing my first story as a writer for Sports Illustrated and he was my first subject. We spoke for hours at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, at a hotel lobby in Toronto, at an outdoor café in Santa Monica. Every time we met, he would ask about my children and tell me to say hello from him. It was a different time.

Bryant has developed his own voice now, but 10 years ago he sounded in all ways as if he was performing an impression of Michael Jordan as he spoke of his own future in basketball. He was obsessed with winners like Jordan and Magic Johnson. He knew how many rings they had and he wanted to win more than either of them.

Now he is four victories away from winning his fourth title at 29, the age when Jordan had two (of the six he would win) and Johnson had won all five of his. By vanquishing Magic's old nemesis, the Boston Celtics, Bryant can earn his first championship as leader of the Lakers following the 2004 departure of Shaquille O'Neal, who was the league's dominant player alongside Bryant. O'Neal admits now to a share of blame in his divorce from the Lakers and Bryant.

"Here's why me and Kobe had problems,'' O'Neal told me last year. "Because it was two young guys going at it, and I wasn't going to lessen my game for him just because he was younger. I just wasn't going to do it.''

The biggest storyline of these Finals is going to be Bryant's coming of age, his ability to create offense for teammates as well as for himself. The truer part of this equation is that he has been given teammates capable of helping him. For the previous three years, he was given a Hobson's choice of trying to win by himself, because neither he nor anyone else believed his fellow Lakers were capable of contention. Now that the young reserves have become useful players, Derek Fisher has returned to Los Angeles and Pau Gasol has been delivered almost miraculously, Bryant is credited with having finally grown up.

It's also true Bryant has matured as a player thanks to (or in spite of ) a variety of unusual experiences. Since the Lakers traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the No. 13 pick to draft him in 1996, a suspicious community of coaches, teammates and observers has had reason to accuse him of selfish behavior. Months before winning his third championship with the Lakers, Bryant told me he had grown hesitant to seek advice or help from teammates.

"There was a lot of criticism going on around me,'' Bryant said of his relationship with teammates. "I didn't know who I could trust. I didn't know if I could trust so-and-so, or talk to this person.''

He has always believed his controversial decision to become the first guard to enter the NBA without playing in college was held against him. Had he gone to North Carolina as Jordan did, he could have turned pro with an unofficial degree in team basketball.

"For me to get the recognition other players get, I have to do double what they do,'' he told me in 2000. "I think it started back when I decided to skip college. That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. A lot of experienced people were telling me I'd made a mistake. By playing well, I'm pretty much telling them they don't know what they're talking about.''

Bryant was 17 when he was drafted, and his parents were still editing his entertainment shortly before he joined the Lakers. Not until his rookie year did he see The Godfather, which instantly became his favorite movie.

"It reminds me of my family,'' he said a decade ago. "Not because of the violence, but because of the way they all pulled for each other no matter what.''

Forgotten now are the unique circumstances of Bryant's instruction in basketball, and how it helped define his ascension to the NBA. His father, Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, was a 6-9 forward with the sensibilities of Magic, though Joe rarely was allowed to express those skills in the open floor. In 1984, after eight years with three NBA teams, Bryant moved his young family of five to resume his playing career in the Italian league (Kobe was 6 at the time and his sisters, Shaya, and Sharia, were 7 and 8, respectively). During his eight formative years in Italy, Kobe's prodigious talent for basketball would receive little respect.

"In Italy they told me, 'You're a great player over here, but when you get over to America, it won't be like that,' '' he recalled.

Joe was a 30-points-a-game scorer in Italy, a favorite of his club's impassioned fans. "They used to sing songs for my father," Kobe said, and I remember in the lobby of the Toronto hotel in 1998 he sang one out loud in Italian before translating it for me: "You know the player who's better than Magic or Jabbar? It's Joseph, Joseph Bryant!''

Kobe himself would draw a response when he went onto the court and shot at halftime of his father's games. "The crowd would be cheering me,'' Bryant said. "I loved it.''

What sets Bryant apart from other American stars is that he learned to play basketball as if by correspondence course. Every week Joe Bryant would receive NBA games from Kobe's grandparents as well as a couple of scouting services in the United States, and Kobe would study the videotapes with his father. Kobe would memorize those tapes over and over.

"He would watch those games like they were a movie, and he knew what the actors were going to say next,'' his sister Shaya said. Then he would go outside, alone, and apply what he had learned.

"My baseline jumper, I got it from Oscar Robertson,'' Bryant told me 10 years ago. "Oscar liked to use his size against smaller players. That's what I try to do.'' From Earl "the Pearl" Monroe he realized how to "shake one way, then go back the other way.'' From Hakeem Olajuwon he picked up his fallaway jump shot.

Because Joe's favorite team was the Lakers -- based on his regard for Magic -- Kobe grew up studying as many as 40 of their games per year. He wore a Lakers letter jacket with leather sleeves to school, and in his room was a life-sized poster of Magic. In November 1991, Joe and his wife, Pam, were awakened by a 2 a.m. phone call from Pam's parents with the shocking news that Magic had retired from basketball after learning he was HIV positive. Later that morning, 13-year-old Kobe was crying when his parents told him the news; they didn't tell him of Magic's prognosis.

"I was sad because Kobe was sad,'' Kobe's sister Sharia said. "I never imagined feeling that way about somebody I'd never met. It hurt him as if it was a family member. For a week he was missing meals. It was really, really hard for him.''

That was the year the Bryants moved back home to Philadelphia. Five years later, Kobe Bryant was playing for the Lakers, and going to the gym on off days with the Lakers VP, Magic Johnson.

"He was always calling here at the office, telling me, 'Let's work out,' or, 'Where are you working out?' '' Magic said.

Much has changed for Bryant over the past 10 years. At times, he has been the NBA's equivalent of Michael Jackson or Britney Spears, growing up in public amid tabloid scrutiny and scandal. The more the pressures have grown, the more he has appeared to cling to the original dream he was citing repeatedly 10 years ago: to win more titles than Michael or Magic, and to go down as the winningest -- and therefore greatest -- player since the era of Bill Russell. I haven't heard him say so lately, but I've always felt that vision has kept him focused to basketball amid all of his larger worries. It was because he sensed his biological clock ticking away as he approached 30 that he demanded a trade last summer, so zealous was he to win more championships before it was too late.

Joe Bryant always felt Magic could not have developed as a championship player for any other franchise, that an Eastern team would have forced him to play to a more physical and less appealing style. He believed the same showtime dynamic would elevate his son.

"It could only have happened in L.A. for Magic,'' he said. "When Kobe was heading out to L.A., I was telling people, 'Look, what Kobe is living is a dream, and hopefully he is going to a place that still believes in dreams.' That's what L.A. is. You go around there, and everyone's searching for that big movie deal or trying to become a star.''

When Bryant arrived in Los Angeles, he was given Magic's locker in the Forum. Today the Lakers play in a larger and more expensive building, and his seat in the locker room belongs to Bryant and no one else. He is an MVP with a long history who stands two weeks short of establishing an identity all his own, as he always hoped it would be.

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