This story appears in the Oct. 21, 2013, issue of Sports Illustrated. You can subscribe to the magazine here and purchase the digital edition here.
Oh, no, here comes another office-park all-star with a retreating hairline and a softening middle who wants to take his pants off in front of Kobe Bryant. It is the second to last day of summer, and Bryant is sitting on a stool at the bar inside the Haute Cakes Caffe in Newport Beach, Calif., waiting for order number 18: scrambled eggs, pancakes and a vanilla latte. He gazes out the window into the courtyard, morning fog starting to lift on his adopted Orange County hometown, when the middle-aged man in the corner of the restaurant waves a hand. Bryant knows what the silver stranger wants to say. Part of rehab from a ruptured Achilles tendon is a hundred run-ins with Baby Boomers who underwent similar procedures after fateful pickup games and racquetball matches. They are eager to reveal the flesh evidence, regardless of what layers they must lift, unbutton or discard. "Been 10 years," the man crows, pointing down at his own heel, "and it's never felt stronger."
Bryant does not look away, nor does he mention that he will have to cover Stephen Curry upon his return rather than Rob from marketing. He listens intently to all the tales of windsurfing expeditions and rock-climbing adventures gone awry thanks to body parts that suddenly went pop. "I love the stories," Bryant says. "It's like we're part of the same club. I call these guys my scar brothers." They blush in response, turning redder than a Clippers road jersey. But Bryant doesn't sidle up to the scar brothers out of sympathy. Even the toughest s.o.b. on hardwood can use the occasional reminder that everything is going to be O.K.
More than the 31,000 points, 15 All-Star selections and five championships, more than the silky turnaround jumpers, effortless baseline drives and feverish scoring binges, Bryant will forever be remembered for a belief in himself that you couldn't strip with a dozen Bruce Bowens. Years ago, upon returning from the horror flick Saw II, Bryant described for Lakers trainer Gary Vitti a scene in which a victim awakens to find a contraption locked around his neck lined with nails pointed at his head. A videotape explains that the victim can unlock the device with a key, but it has been surgically implanted behind his right eye, and he can only extract it with a scalpel. He has a minute before it closes over his face and kills him. "I think I could get that key," Bryant said.
"I believe you," Vitti replied.
There it is, one more brushstroke applied to the intricately drawn image of Kobe Bean Bryant, so lifelike that kids ask what kind of potion he drinks on the bench, players wonder if they can bike through the desert with him in the middle of the night, and 5,000 people show up at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles simply to watch him give Jimmy Kimmel an hourlong interview. "Everybody wants to know what's inside of him," says Lakers center Robert Sacre, who was one of the 5,000.
Coaches run Bryant as if his prime will last forever, never mind that he's 35, has cleared 54,000 minutes during the regular season and playoffs (nearly 6,000 more than Michael Jordan) and resembles a wide receiver in a league of free safeties. They say he is just different, the word observers have been using since he first fixed that fabled jaw, and therefore human limitations are easy to ignore. He doesn't flinch when an inbounds passer pretends to throw a ball at his nose. He doesn't glance down after he turns an ankle. He doesn't sleep much, content to lie with a towel over his eyes, his brain leading a fast break. When the Achilles blew, Bryant tried to manually pull the ruptured tendons down with his fingertips, so he could walk on the heel. "It's the Achilles' heel!" Vitti says. "Not even a Greek god could do that."
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In an age when athletes aspire to be icons, yet share the burden of success with all their best pals, Bryant looms as perhaps the last alpha dog, half greyhound and half pit bull. No one handles him. No one censors him. He shows up alone. "What am I trying to be?" he asks. "Am I trying to be a hip, cool guy? Am I trying to be a business mogul? Am I trying to be a basketball player?" He doesn't provide an answer. He doesn't have to. It's been obvious since he was 11 years old in Italy and a club from Bologna tried to buy his rights. The gym was the place he could go at 4 a.m., "to smell the scent" and pour the fuel. Bryant wonders whether his sanctuary is finally closing, and if so, how he will cope without it. He recognizes what many around him do not: The persona, lifelike as it may be, is only partly real. Beneath it is a three-dimensional figure, with the same vulnerabilities as anybody else, plus the will to overcome them.
"I have self-doubt," Bryant says. "I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I'm like, 'My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don't have it. I just want to chill.' We all have self-doubt. You don't deny it, but you also don't capitulate to it. You embrace it. You rise above it. ... I don't know how I'm going to come back from this injury. I don't know. Maybe I'll be horses---." He pauses, as if envisioning himself as an eighth man. "Then again, maybe I won't, because no matter what, my belief is that I'm going to figure it out. Maybe not this year or even next year, but I'm going to stay with it until I figure it out."
He sips his latte. Housewives flit around the courtyard in yoga pants. A girls' basketball coach from Costa Mesa High delivers a note asking him to speak to her team, which she says needs inspiration. This must be the type of message she has in mind. Bryant slips the note into his black windbreaker.
He adopted a title for the next phase of his career, which will begin when rehab ends and he sticks that gold Lakers jersey back in his teeth, whether on opening night or Christmas Day or sometime in between. "It's The Last Chapter," Bryant says. "The book is going to close. I just haven't determined how many pages are left." He has no interest in a conversation about legacy. What excites him is evolution achieved through sports, each setback steeling a person for the next. "I'm reflective only in the sense that I learn to move forward," Bryant says. "I reflect with a purpose." Gather all his touchstones, look at them together, and they can gird the greatest player of his time for the biggest obstacle yet.
Winter of 1983 and four-year-old Kobe Bryant signs up for karate classes at a dojo in Houston. His father, Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, is playing his final NBA season, for the Rockets. Kobe is on the fast track to a yellow belt. "One day, the master of the dojo came to me and said he wanted to put me up against a brown belt," Bryant says. "I started crying. I told the master, 'That kid is so much bigger than me. He's so much better than I am.' The master said, 'You fight him!' So I stepped onto the mat, with my headgear on, my shiny red gloves. Kids were sitting all around the perimeter. I was so freaked out. I got my ass kicked, but I did get a couple of good licks in myself, and I remember sitting there at the end thinking, It wasn't as bad as I feared it would be. It wasn't as bad as I imagined. I think I realized then that your mind can wander and come up with the worst, if you let it."
Summer of 1991 and Bryant enrolls in the Sonny Hill Community Involvement League in Philadelphia. He has spent the past seven years in Italy, where Jellybean was a pro, and nobody on the club circuit overseas could stop the kid. "Then I came back here, and in that first summer I didn't score a point," Bryant says. "I'm serious. Not one point. My dad was a Philly legend. My uncle [Chubby Cox] was a Philly legend. And I'm out there with these big ol' volleyball kneepads looking like the Cable Guy. I had really bad Osgood-Schlatter disease, so even tapping my knees gave me serious pain. The league was probably 25 games, and I didn't score a basket, a free throw, nothing. At the end I sobbed my eyes out." That fall Jellybean joins a team in Mulhouse, France. The Bryant family moves into a villa with a tennis court and a basketball hoop that's 11 feet high. "Whatever, it was a hoop," Bryant says. "I played there all day long, and the only thing I thought about was, One basket, one basket, one basket. Just score one basket. When I went back to Sonny Hill the next summer, I wasn't dominating anybody, but I scored. I figured out, If you keep pushing, you'll keep getting better."
Summer of 1994 and Bryant struggles to sleep in a dorm room at Fairleigh Dickinson in Hackensack, N.J. He has earned one of the precious spots at the Adidas-sponsored ABCD camp, but he's not sure if he belongs. "I was lucky to grow up in Italy at a time when basketball in America was getting f----- up with AAU shuffling players through on strength and athleticism," Bryant says. "I missed all that, and instead I was taught extreme fundamentals: footwork, footwork, footwork, how to create space, how to handle the ball, how to protect the ball, how to shoot the ball. I wasn't the strongest kid at that camp. I wasn't the fastest. I wasn't the most athletic. I was probably the most skillful, but that didn't matter. It was all about the 360 windmill dunks."
He returns to Lower Merion High in suburban Philadelphia and works out daily at 5 a.m., often alongside coach Gregg Downer, with the intention of becoming the top high school player in the U.S. "My coach used to yell, 'We're steak and potatoes! We're the real thing!' " Bryant recalls. "When I went back to ABCD the next summer, I was ranked third, behind Tim Thomas and Lester Earl. I told myself, I'm not leaving this camp until I'm No. 1. I'm not leaving! Back then, if you were a highly rated player, you could stay in a nice hotel. I shacked up in the dorms. I could tell that the game meant more to me than everybody else. Other guys could leave it afterward and detach from it. I couldn't. It stuck with me. I thought about it all night. ... They let players vote on who was best, and one day this kid was eating breakfast across from me. He said, 'Hey, have you seen number 143? Have you seen that kid play? He's unreal. I'm voting for him.' He didn't know it because I was so skinny, but that was me. I was 143."
Winter of 1996 and Lower Merion has a chance to win its first state championship in 53 years. Vaunted Chester High is waiting in the semifinals. "They'd already beaten us a couple of times with Kobe," Downer says. "The week of the game, our starters were competing pretty hard with the subs, and there was a collision diving for a loose ball. I look over and see Kobe lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood. All your worst fears are realized in that moment. He's got a broken nose heading into one of the most electric games in a long time. We spent a couple days frantically trying to find a mask that would fit him. The day of the game, at the Palestra, he warmed up with the mask on. But in the locker room, right before we went out on the court, he ripped it off in front of everybody. He threw it against the wall and yelled, 'I'm not wearing this thing! Let's go to war!' He scored 39 points. We won."
Three days later Lower Merion takes state.
Spring of 1997 and Bryant sits alone in the visitors' locker room at Utah's Delta Center. "Why?" he asks himself. "Why did I miss those shots? Was I nervous? No, I don't get nervous in games. I don't get afraid in games. So what happened? The shots were right on line, right on target. Why did they come up short?" He is a rookie who just unleashed three air balls down the stretch of an overtime playoff loss to the Jazz that ends the Lakers' season. He is packing for his first offseason when the answer dawns on him. "I was going from 30-something games in high school to 100-something in the NBA on an 18-year-old body," Bryant says. "I went right back to L.A. and changed my whole weight training program. I had to start lifting during the season so what happened in Utah would never happen again." That summer Spike Lee begins filming He Got Game, a movie with Denzel Washington about a basketball prodigy named Jesus Shuttlesworth. "I want you to be part of it," Lee tells Bryant. "Thank you but no thank you," Bryant says. "This summer is too big for me." Ray Allen lands the role as Shuttlesworth.
Winter of 1999 and Bryant is bracing for his third straight season coming off the bench. "I was looking at Ray Allen and Allen Iverson, guys I came into the league with, who were already starting and kicking ass," Bryant says. "I'm sitting here on the bench thinking, I'm just as good. Why aren't I playing?" Jellybean puts similar questions to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who explains the benefits of patience, but Jellybean's son is still years away from comprehending that concept. Bryant takes out his rage on the starters, punishing them in practice to prove a point. "I had to kick their ass every day," he says.
Bryant develops a penchant for dribbling through five defenders at a time, which earns him the nickname Hollywood. "That's not the name you want," cautions Lakers executive vice president Jerry West, so Bryant reduces his dribbling exhibitions and bolsters his midrange game. "On the team plane we had Shaquille O'Neal in the aisle doing the Macarena," says Del Harris, the coach of the Lakers at the time, "and Kobe watching tape of Jordan." Before the 1999 opener, small forward Rick Fox complains of sore feet because his shoe insoles don't fit properly. Bryant's days on the bench are over. No one calls him Hollywood anymore. "If I'd been allowed to start right away," he says, "who knows what would have happened to me."
Winter of 2001, Phil Jackson is the Lakers' coach, and Fox is addressing the team in a players-only meeting. "Kobe," he says, "you can do anything you want on the court, but it's like you don't need us. We want to feel like you need us." Bryant tries not to roll his eyes. You're grown-ass men, he thinks. And you're right: I don't f------ need you. Then he considers the courage it took for Fox to speak up. "I had to respond," Bryant says. "I had to be as transparent with them as they were with me. I opened myself up to let them know what my insecurities are. 'Sometimes I do shoot too much. It's not because I see you open and don't want to pass. I don't see you at all. My mind is built on scoring the ball. That's a weakness. So if you're open, say something. Give me a shout. ...' Once your culture becomes such that your leader communicates, then everybody does the same. We still didn't hang out together off the court, but on the road we'd all go out for dinner. I learned that a lot gets accomplished over dinner and a drink."
Summer of 2004 and news breaks that O'Neal has been traded to Miami. This is great! Bryant thinks, the end of a tumultuous year in which he feuded with O'Neal, nearly signed with the Clippers and made court appearances in Colorado for a sexual assault civil case that was later settled. "Then everything sinks in, and it's like, Oh, no, now you better win or your whole career is basically bulls---," Bryant says. "Those last three championships you won will be meaningless."
He morphs, in one offseason, from baby brother to head of household. "I was no longer a 20-year-old with 30-year-olds," Bryant says. "My teammates were suddenly my peers. I couldn't be the kid who was trying to demolish everything in his path anymore. I had to step back and realize, It's not about me, it's about you, what you're doing, goals you have, things that may be affecting you. My reputation was as this drill sergeant, and I had to make the conversion from on-court assassin to manager. But I scaled back too much. I was trying to find the balance of when to push and when to pat on the back." He calls Jordan, and they talk many times about how to impart motivation with love. "Getting other people to believe in themselves," Bryant says, "that's always been the hardest part."
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Summer of 2007 and O.J. Mayo, the No. 1 high school player in the country, attends the Kobe Basketball Academy at Loyola Marymount. Mayo asks Bryant if they can work out together. "Yeah," Bryant responds, "I'll pick you up at three." The next evening Mayo sees Bryant and asks, "Where were you?" Bryant looks confused. "Three in the morning," he says. "Not three in the afternoon." Mayo slinks away. The back-patting era, however long it lasted, is over. "I can't relate to lazy people," Bryant says, speaking generally, not about Mayo. "We don't speak the same language. I don't understand you. I don't want to understand you. Go over there. If I drive somebody too hard, and he feels like he's over-committing to the game and cracks because of it, I don't want to go to battle with him in the seventh game anyway. ... Some guys don't want this. It's too much. It's too uncomfortable. If that's the case, then we can't play together. It won't work. I believe you need a confrontational crew. If I have to resort to this [shaking his head] instead of telling you that you're being lazy and f------ up, then we'll never resolve anything."
Winter of 2010 and Bryant is preoccupied with the arthritic knuckle on his right index finger. He's constantly looking at it, talking about it, tweaking his shot because of it. "Why are you making such a big deal of this?" Vitti asks. Bryant silently stares him down. "Thank you," he finally says. "I needed that." He never speaks of the finger again. The Lakers win the second of their consecutive championships. Bryant, whom Vitti describes as "a McDonald's addict," celebrates by adopting a diet in which he eliminates junk food.
Spring of 2013 and Bryant lies on a table in the training room at Staples Center, his wife's lipstick on his cheek and tears in his eyes. "He was having that moment of doubt," Vitti says. "You could see it. It was all going through his head: I'm going to be 35, 17 years in the league, and this isn't a sprained ankle. I've ruptured the Achilles. Normally, that's when guys start getting different opinions and going through a decisionmaking process and wondering if they will ever come back." Patrick Soon-Shiong, a surgeon and one of the team's minority owners, walks in and says, "You should have surgery tomorrow." Bryant is still wearing his uniform. "Yeah," he agrees. "Let's do it tomorrow."
Two weeks and two days later, the Lakers host the Spurs in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs, and Bryant changes outfits in the locker room. He needs five minutes to pull his pant leg over the cumbersome boot on his left foot. As he limps out, center Dwight Howard cruises in. "What the f--- is going on?" Bryant asks a trainer. "Dwight got ejected," he is informed. In the retelling, Bryant waits eight seconds to utter another word, looking as if he might literally bite his tongue. "Sports have a funny way of doing s--- like that," he says.
L.A. is about to be swept and Howard is about to leave for Houston, where he will forfeit $30 million and avoid discomfort. But Bryant is the rare modern athlete whose presence can transcend playoff results and free-agent decisions. Sometimes, just seeing him is enough. "The long year, the injuries, the Shaq stuff, the Phil stuff, it all came to a head when I walked out to the bench," says Bryant, who was serenaded with a standing ovation and MVP chants. "It was the first time I ever felt that kind of love from a crowd. Oh, my God, I was fighting back the tears."
Summer of 2013 and he is gripping a towel with the toes of his left foot. The Lakers' weight room is empty except for Bryant, shirtless in camouflage shorts, and Judy Seto, the physical therapist who has been kneading his muscles for the past 15 years. On the end of the towel is a circular 2½-pound silver weight. Bryant clenches the foot to inch the weight toward him. Then he does it again. Soon, he will graduate to picking up marbles with his toes and placing them in a jar. Shortly after surgery Bryant called several players whose careers were threatened or cut short by ruptured Achilles tendons. Pistons guard Chauncey Billups advised Bryant to be meticulous with the rehab, the reps, but at some point his voice trailed off. Telling Kobe to be meticulous is like telling Will Ferrell to be funny. "Some people would get bored by this," Bryant says. "I don't get bored."
The weight-room television plays a highlight of Mariano Rivera, in his last season with the Yankees, striking out a Met. Years ago Jerry West told Bryant, "Don't play beyond your time," but now Bryant is asking the inevitable follow-up: "How do you know when it's your time? How do you know?" He put that question to the recently retired David Beckham. "You just know," Beckham replied.
Bryant has started the search for another place to pour the fuel. When he hears about a project or company that intrigues him, he calls the president and asks to meet. "I'm learning," he says. "That's where I am. I don't think I'll ever find a replacement for basketball. But you have to find something else you're passionate about." It's hard to conceive of a sports world where Kobe Bryant doesn't drive the daily conversation, with a sound bite, a sideways glance or a flight to Germany, where he jetted early this month for another round of platelet-rich plasma therapy on his troublesome right knee. He scans his elephantine memory for another NBA immortal who left at the right moment. He is quiet for a while. "Bill Russell," he says. Bill Russell had 11 championships.
Bryant will play again, and play well, because he has unknowingly spent three decades preparing for the final stage of his basketball life. On road trips to Philadelphia he often shows up before dawn at the Lower Merion gym, and Downer once found him launching nothing but floaters. "Dikembe Mutombo blocked my shot," Bryant explained. "That will never happen again." He let another teardrop lick the sky. He has been expanding a repertoire he can channel when the reverse layups are gone.
"Maybe I won't have as much explosion," Bryant says. "Maybe I'll be slower. Maybe I'll lose quickness. But I have other options. It's like Floyd Mayweather in the ring. There's a reason he's still at the top after all these years. He's the most fundamentally sound boxer of all time. He can fight myriad styles at myriad tempos. He can throw fast punches or off-speed punches, and he can throw them from odd angles."
Those close to Bryant worry less about his return than the issues that could arise afterward. Last season the Lakers failed to win a playoff game despite a ballyhooed starting lineup with four potential Hall of Famers. The remaining three are now well into their 30s -- Bryant, point guard Steve Nash (39) and center Pau Gasol (33) -- and coming off injuries. Nash is suffering from a sore left ankle; Gasol is recovering from tendinitis in both knees; Bryant is not in basketball shape and has yet to practice. The Lakers can't tank, not with Bryant on the roster, but they aren't exactly scaring the Spurs with the sale-rack additions of Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman. Though coach Mike D'Antoni will unearth ways to score, it's hard to imagine how the Lakers stop anybody.
"It can't be tougher than last season," Bryant says of a year in which he averaged 27.3 points, matched a career high with 6.0 assists and shot the best effective field goal percentage of his career, single-handedly ensuring that L.A. at least avoided the ignominy of missing the playoffs. But the team is essentially biding time until July, when Bryant's maximum contract comes off the books, along with Gasol's. Bryant is fiercely loyal to the Lakers, and they to him, but neither knows what to expect from the other. "We're going to have to wait and see," says GM Kupchak. "It's a blank slate." Maybe Bryant re-signs for a discount price and recruits two bedrock free agents next summer, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and others can opt out of existing deals. But it's more likely that James and Anthony stay put or go elsewhere, in which case the Lakers' future becomes hazy, and Bryant's as well. Is he really picking up marbles with his toes so he can spearhead a rebuilding project?
Bryant did not shoot a basketball from April to September, the longest break he can remember, and he was surprisingly content. He watched a lot of Modern Family ("I'm Phil," he says) with his wife and two daughters. He took up scuba diving. He drove the girls to club soccer games. Natalia, 10, smiles on the field like Magic Johnson. Gianna, 7, acts more like her father. "She doesn't look at you," Bryant says. "She's there to kick your butt."
Gianna's team lost a game recently, and she cried afterward. Standing on the sideline Bryant studied her, pained but proud. "Sports are such a great teacher," he says. "I think of everything they've taught me: camaraderie, humility, how to resolve differences. Playing with Shaq made me understand that you're never going to change a person. You have to work with his position." He would be a hell of a coach if he could find more players who suited him, more Giannas.
"Hey," he told her, after the tears dried. "You want to see Daddy cry?" He took her home and fished out the DVD from Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. They sat together and watched the Lakers get mortified in Boston. Then he popped in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, and they marinated in the vindication. There, in one unforgettable double feature, was the evolution, the making of a man, the healing of a scar.