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Kobe Bryant on growing old, players he respects and finding his inner Zen

Kobe Bryant on growing old, players he respects and finding his inner Zen Photo: Robert Beck/SI

Earlier this month, I spent six days in China shadowing Kobe Bryant for an SI cover story that you can read online here. The story captures Bryant’s comeback, his competitive mindset and all manner of other subjects, including Steve Nash’s rather salty three-word description of Bryant (hint: it’s not “really nice guy”).

As often happens, even with long features like this one, a lot of good stuff gets left on the cutting room floor. And particularly in this case, because Bryant is such a good interview. So last Friday I posted some quotes/notes on Twitter, but you can only say so much in 140 characters. Here, in more detail, are excerpts from my summer conversations with Bryant, which took place in Los Angeles and Shanghai, as well as some notes and thoughts, including Tony Allen’s take on KB. Long quotes are edited for clarity.  

Kobe on... Money

Bryant believes that players like himself and LeBron James are underpaid, compared to what they would be worth on the free market (he told friends he thinks James would be worth roughly $75 million on an open market). With his last contract, he felt it was important to demonstrate to younger players that you should never take less than you’re worth. When I asked if he was taking a stand of sorts, this was his response:

“If you’re talking just from a business perspective, yeah,” Bryant said. “Because the NBA is a obviously a big business and teams generate a lot of revenue, and even more because of the new contracts they have in place since the last lockout.”

Similarly, Bryant bristles at the idea that NBA players should accept less than fair value in order to have a better chance of winning.

“As athletes, especially as public figures, you get the pressure of playing for the love of the game, they always throw that around all the time,” said Bryant. “Of course you play for the love of the game! But do owners buy teams for the love of the game?”

Bryant laughed. “That being said, I took a pay cut. The Lakers as an organization, I’m very very lucky to be with them. They could have taken the opposite side, right, and low-balled me, but that’s not what they stand for. They take care of their players. I’m very very fortunate.”

Kobe on... Education, reconsidered

Asked how he approached months of tedious rehab, Bryant related an anecdote about how he survived school.

“I talk to kids at my basketball camps and I say, you can’t really like school. I didn’t like school. But if you look at it differently… This is the way I looked at it. When I was in a classroom, and the teacher was talking, I looked at it like [I was] training my mind to be sharper, more focused for when I play basketball. I just flipped it.

“So I'd be training for basketball even when I was sitting in the classroom. When I’m organizing my thoughts and notes and learning about history, let’s say Napoleon or Julius Caesar, [I’m thinking] what can I learn from that that’s going to help me over here [he motions to an imaginary basketball court], because this is what you’re passionate about? So if you take whatever you’re doing and you just kind of converge it into what you’re passionate about, then all of a sudden everything becomes f---ing interesting.”

Kobe on... Growing old

In preparing for this season, Bryant told friends that the player he is analyzing, as an example of adjusting your game as you get older, is fellow 36-year-old Paul PierceThis is part of his goal to become “more efficient” on the court.

Said Bryant, “I’m going to max [my last two years] out too, to do whatever I can. Leave no stone unturned, no water left in the sponge.”

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

Kobe on... Players he respects

The idea of players maximizing their potential is endlessly fascinating (at least to me). Not in terms of numbers or money or rings, or greatness, but who can squeeze everything out of the natural talent they were allotted.  For example, Shane Battier might be an example. Or Derek Fisher.

Asked which players have most maxed out their talent, Bryant mentioned Durant and James and then three others:

1) Steve Nash. “Steve Nash, this guy is like, everyday he’s in there working and figuring his body out. And he’s cunning. What he did when he was in Phoenix...It's outrageous! The guy is like 6 feet maybe with platforms on, not particularly fast, but he maximized it.”

2) Steve Blake. “Blake is like a brother to me. I love Steve.”

3) Tony Allen. “A big favorite of mine. Just how he plays and what he does.”

Tony Allen on... Kobe

Curious about the third choice, I called up Allen. As always, Allen did not disappoint. Here’s a quick, edited Q&A, beginning with Allen’s reaction to being mentioned by Bryant

Allen: (audible exhale) “Oh man, that’s an honor. From a guy like Kobe, it’s definitely an honor, considering who he is….Don’t want to let that get to me though. Gotta keep my competitive advantage! I get more up for playing him than any other player.”

Q: Why?

Allen: “He’s the closest thing to Michael Jordan in my era. Lots of people say this guy or that guy. Nah…I get to be able to live and tell the story that I got to guard that guy.”

Q: How effective do you think he’ll be this year, coming off two major injuries?

Allen: “You got to have your antenna up. Even 75 percent Kobe, you got to be wary of. I’m not playing him any different.”

Q: What scouting report would you give someone who had to guard Kobe?

Allen: “His game is limitless. Not just a slasher or a shooter. He’s gonna get his. There’s no saying, ‘You’re going to stop Kobe.’ You got to not get discouraged….And he plays both ends, a lot of people don’t know that. I’d tell a young fella who has to guard him: ‘You got to be ready to compete.’ Ain’t no scouting report for a guy who scored 82 points in a game!” [Note: Bryant actually scored 81, but perhaps Allen is adjusting for inflation. Or just being Tony Allen.]

Q: How do you think his approach will be different playing on a team that’s not a title contender?

Allen: “I couldn’t envision Kobe stepping on the court and not thinking about a title.”

Q: He says he’s going to retire in two years. What will that be like?

Allen: “I’m not here to put Father Time on anybody. I know the man can play ball, period.”

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Kobe on... Friends in the NBA (and Dwight Howard)

Bryant: “If you go back and look at the guys I’ve gotten along with, they’re all cut from the same cloth. All of them. Then you look at the guys I didn’t get along with, or might have had some ups and downs with and they’re not. It’s a consistent thing…and I’m fine with that. It’s okay.”

Q: "So then how do you deal with those guys who aren’t like you? It’s not like pick-up ball, where if you don’t like playing with a guy, you can just wait a game and get a new team."

Bryant: "You’re right. Can’t do it."

Q: "So what do you do?"

Bryant: "In the past, in my younger days, I’d just run all over them. I’d tell them to go sit down, or stand over in the corner, we’ll figure it out without you. Over the years, particularly starting in 2008 on, I started to understand more that we all have [that drive] in us, but those buttons haven’t been pushed yet. There’s something in that communication that you have to learn about that person, that can maybe trigger that focus and trigger that passion for those areas. Maybe they won’t be able to carry it for an entire season, but maybe you can trigger it for important stretches of the season. So it became more about, ‘We all have it, it’s my job as a leader of this team to figure out how to pull it out of everyone’…as opposed to going, ‘Oh it’s his dumbass fault! [laughs]” 

Q: "Okay, so remember when Nate Robinson dunked over Dwight and I asked you about it and you said “No f—king way’ you’d ever let someone do that to you?"

Bryant: "I still wouldn’t have done it."

Q: "But then Dwight comes to your team and everyone’s wondering, how that will work out…"

Bryant: "We figured it out. It goes to what I said before, if you look at the second half of that season, what we accomplished? Ri-dic-ulous. We were five games out of the playoffs going into the All-Star break. Dead water, in the west. But we managed to figure that s--t out and put ourselves in the No. 8 spot and unfortunately an injury happened but we were playing so well. Going into the end of the season, anything could have happened. So even though on the surface it didn’t work, [Dwight] figured a way to do what we needed him to do, and I figured out the best way to reach him.”

Kobe on... Confidence

Gotham Chopra, the director of “Kobe Bryant’s Muse”, an upcoming documentary on Bryant, told a story about being with Kobe and watching the Nets and the Heat play. Recounts Chopra, “Deron Williams went like 0-for-9. I was like, ‘Can you believe Deron Williams went 0-9?’ Kobe was like, ‘I would go 0-30 before I would go 0-9.  0-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game, because Deron Williams can get more shots in the game. The only reason is because you've just now lost confidence in yourself.’ 

Kobe on... Enduring rehab

“It’s the journey. These are the difficult times. I think it’s important to show that. Because it’s very easy for the public to look in October and November and say, ‘Oh Kobe’s back to the way he was.’ Kids look at that and say: [claps] it was just voilà!  No, it wasn’t just voilà. It wasn’t. It was a lot of self-doubt and self-conversations and coming up with a plan, a strategy, trying to find the best people in their fields, nutrition and training and bringing them in and coming up with a plan and working at it day by day. It’s the journey. The journey excites me. I like doing the work. This is my passion.  Love doing it. it’s not a job to me. And that’s 90 percent of it."

Kobe on... Serenity

Bryant seemed strangely relaxed to me. No doubt, this was in part because it was still summer, but it struck me as different from any Kobe I’d seen before. Here was his explanation:

​“I found my inner Zen. You just realize that there are things that you can’t control. Doesn’t mean you don’t try to manage them. But there are things you can’t control. So you do the best you can , prepare as well as you can, and you’re comfortable with that. You just figure things out. There are certain problems that arise, you’ll try to solve it at that time, you might not be able to solve it at that time, but then you’ll just kind of keep at it. If you fail miserably, you learn something new so you don’t fail on something else.

“I think it’s easy for people to confuse inner peace and you being comfortable with who you are with complacency. And it’s the exact opposite. Because when you’re focused on the moment, and each day as it comes, when the big moment comes and everybody’s looking at you, you’re really ready, because you really just looked at it as one day at a time.”

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Kobe on... Why leading is uncomfortable

Bryant likens it to when you go to dinner, “and you’re sitting across the table from somebody and you have s--t on your face…and you got to tell them…it’s uncomfortable man, right?”

But, Bryant continues, “You’d much rather sit across from a person who tells you you have s--t on your face and have that moment of uncomfortability, but you get the s--t off your face so everybody’s not looking at you like, ‘This idiot.’ As opposed to somebody who just sits there and doesn’t say anything.” Kobe cracks up, but he’s serious. “It’s true if you think about it. Is somebody just going to sit there and let you have s--t in your teeth all night? Then you look at a picture later and say, ‘Why didn’t anybody tell me?’”

Kobe on... How much longer he'll play

Q: "You said you’re going to play two more years and then retire. Based on the team you’re entering this season with, and the limitations for next season, has that changed?"

Bryant: “Nah. It may change, but as I sit here now, you have to go with how you feel. What your truth is, what you want to do. Don’t let outside things distract you from that. Those are lessons I learned from watching other people in those positions. Watching the focus of companies like Apple. Being focused on ‘This is what they do, this is what they stick to.’ No matter what these opportunities are over here, they focus on what’s’ true to them. I do the same thing, if I don’t want to play, I won’t play anymore.”

Q: "So two years no matter what?"

Bryant: “Yeah, if something inside of me changes and I want to play some more, and go after it some more ….yeah. But where I sit right now, I don’t know if I want to do that.”

Kobe on... Kobe

At one point, we were discussing his love for the game. Here’s part of how Bryant described it:

“So watching me play, I want to compete and play as hard as I can because this is what I f---ing love doing. You know what I mean? It has to be there, but in terms of how I communicate it, I’m doing much more of communicating it to the outside world, partly because I think that the messages get mixed up for the younger players coming up now, and the time that it takes to accomplish what you want to accomplish as a basketball player, and the love that you have for the game, not for all the other bulls--t. Not for followers on Twitter, or Facebook or sitting here doing interviews and s--t. It’s not about that. It’s about the game.”

To read the full SI Longform on Bryant, click here.

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