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Kobe's well-honed killer instinct

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 Kobe Bryant said of his strong finishing kick, "I can get off" -- that is, score at will -- "at any time. In the second half I did that."

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 Luke Walton dryly puts it, "Kobe does not lack for confidence."

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 Bruce Bowen, Bryant's foil these many years, says there's no indicator of an impending scoring binge, joking that you can't tell "by the way he chews his gum or something." But that's not true at all. Rather, his eruptions are almost comically predictable. Former teammate Devean George, now with the Dallas Mavericks, speaks of "that Kobe face where he starts looking around all pissed off." His coach at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., Gregg Downer, says he can recognize this expression even on TV. In these moments Bryant's youthful impudence, which flummoxed Del Harris when he was L.A.'s coach during Bryant's first two years in the league, resurfaces. "Kobe would put it on the floor and start going between his legs, back and forth, back and forth," says Harris, "and only then would he decide what to do."

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 Sam Cassell once said, "that Jordan thing." It's what has spurred Bryant all these years, what the Lakers will rely on if they are to win their first post-Shaq championship, what separates Kobe from the rest of the NBA. In 2002 Bryant said, "There's only two real killers in this league," meaning himself and Michael Jordan. Well, now there is only one. And it ain't Fabricio Oberto.

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 Connie Hawkins finger roll into the third row. "He can't turn it off, even if he tried," says George, one of a handful of NBA players relatively close to Bryant. And for that Kobe has often been pilloried. But is this really fair? "Kobe wants it so badly that he rubs an awful lot of people the wrong way," says Lakers consultant Tex Winter, the guru of the triangle offense, who has known Bryant since 1999. "But they're not willing to understand what's inside the guy."

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 Brian Shaw, a Boston Celtics first-round pick playing in Rome because of a contract dispute, to go one-on-one. Eventually Shaw agrees to a game of H-O-R-S-E. "To this day Kobe claims he beat me," says Shaw, now a Lakers assistant. "I'm like, Right, [I'm really trying to beat] an 11-year-old kid. But he's serious." Even back then Shaw noticed something different. "His dad was a good player, but he was the opposite of Kobe, real laid-back," says Shaw. "Kobe was out there challenging grown men to play one-on-one, and he really thought he could win."

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 Doug Young, then a sophomore. "He's throwing elbows, setting hard screens." Bryant was not the best player on the floor that day -- not yet -- but he was close.

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 Rob Schwartz, a 5' 7" junior benchwarmer. With the game tied at nine, Schwartz had an opening, drove to the basket and missed, allowing the other side to score and win. "Now, most kids go to the water fountain and move on," says Downer. Not Bryant. He chased Schwartz into the hallway and berated him. It didn't stop there, either. "Ever get the feeling someone is staring at you -- you don't have to look at them, but you know it?" says Schwartz. "I felt his eyes on me for the next 20 minutes. It was like, by losing that drill, I'd lost us the state championship."

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 80 freakin' baskets before your opponent scores one. And Bryant's probably still pissed that Schwartz broke double digits.

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. Jerry West and two members of L.A.'s media relations staff, John Black and Raymond Ridder. Bryant is to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers guard and one of the premier defenders in NBA history. Cooper is 40 years old but still in great shape, wiry and long and stronger than the teenaged Bryant. The game is not even close. "It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him," says Ridder, now the Golden State Warriors' executive director of media relations. After 10 minutes West stands up. "That's it, I've seen enough," Ridder remembers West saying. "He's better than anyone we've got on the team right now. Let's go."

It would be a pattern: Bryant bearing down on players he once idolized. At Magic Johnson's summer charity game in 1998 he went after Orlando Magic star Penny Hardaway so hard -- in a charity game -- that Hardaway spent the fall telling people he couldn't wait to play the Lakers so he could go back at Bryant. And, more famously, Kobe attempted to go one-on-one against Jordan in the '98 All-Star Game, waving off a screen from Karl Malone. Take your pick-and-rolling butt out of here; I've got Jordan iso'd! That one didn't go over so well with the Mailman. "When young guys tell me to get out of the way," Malone said at the time, "that's a game I don't need to be in."

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 Shaquille O'Neal to get out of the way so you can do this.' Kobe didn't like it. He understood it, but in his heart he didn't accept it."

It is 2000, and Bryant is an All-Star and franchise player. Still, after guard Isaiah Rider signs as a free agent, Bryant repeatedly forces him to play one-on-one after practice -- Bryant wins, of course -- to reinforce his alpha alpha male status. When six-time All-Star guard Mitch Richmond arrives the next year, he gets the same. "He was the man, and he wanted us to know it," says Richmond. "He was never mean or personal about it, it's just how he was."

Not that Bryant never loses, but beat him at your own risk. Decline a rematch and . . . well, that's not an option. "If you scored on him in practice or did something to embarrass him, he would just keep on challenging you and challenging you until you stayed after and played him so he could put his will on you and dominate you," says Shaw, Bryant's teammate from 1999 to 2003. This included not allowing players to leave the court. Literally. "He'd stand in our way and say, 'Nah, nah, we're gonna play. I want you to do that [move] again,' " Shaw says. "And you might be tired and say, 'Nah, I did it in practice.' But he was just relentless and persistent until finally you'd go play, and he'd go at you."

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 work."

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 Star Wars nerds; Bryant is a basketball nerd. "I think Kobe's actually a little bit embarrassed by his love of basketball," says Downer. "People called him a loner, but it's just that basketball is all he wants to focus on. I think he's part of a dying breed that loves the game that way."

That's why Bryant gets so excited to meet kindred souls. Asked last week about Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Bryant's face lit up as he remembered the time he played for Pop. "I was really hoping he'd run us through one of those rigorous practices he does," said Bryant, who got his wish. By the way, Kobe was talking about practice for the '05 All-Star Game.

Now it's 2008, the Western Conference finals. Bryant is finally where he wants to be: an MVP playing on his team, no behemoth Hall of Famer to get in the way of post-ups, within reach of a title. He is also, by almost all accounts, the best player in the league. "It's not even close," says one Western Conference scout. "The difference between him and LeBron [James] is like [the one between] a Maserati and a Volvo."

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 Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and J.R. Smith as examples -- "but no one uses his as well as Kobe. Just watch his footwork sometime." And on his focus: "There's a difference between loving basketball and liking basketball. There are only about 30 guys in the league who love it, who play year-round. Allen Iverson loves to play when the lights come on. Kobe loves doing the s--- before the lights come on."

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, Eddy Curry would be All-NBA and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass. But people know it when they see it. G.M.'s, coaches and scouts cite only a few others who have a similar drive -- Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginóbili, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- though they make clear that none of those stars are in Kobe's league. (In an SI poll earlier this season Bryant was a runaway winner as the opponent players feared most, at 35%.)

Even some of the great ones lacked it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that when he was young, rather than challenging everyone as Kobe does, he "just wanted peace." "I think it's a quirk of personality," says Abdul-Jabbar. "Some of us are like Napoleon, and some are Walter Mitty."

Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/ confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/ guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.

"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 Derek Fisher, who shot 88.3% from the line this season. Bryant stands to the side of the basket, fidgeting. As Fisher's shot arcs toward the rim, Bryant suddenly takes two quick steps and leaps to goaltend the attempt. "Of course," forward Lamar Odom says later, "he couldn't be the only one to miss."

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 KeJuan Wilkins, had the company shave a couple of millimeters off the bottom of his signature shoe because "in his mind that gave him a hundredth of a second better reaction time." A guy who has played the last three months with a torn ligament in the pinkie of his shooting hand. A guy who, says teammate Coby Karl, considers himself "an expert at fouling without getting called for it." (Watch how Bryant uses the back of his hand, not the front, to push off on defenders and a closed-fist forearm to exert leverage.) A guy who says of being guarded by the physical Bowen, "It'll be fun" -- and actually means it. A guy who, no matter what he does, will never get the chance to play the one game he'd die for: Bryant versus Jordan, each in his prime. "There'd be blood on the floor by the end," says Winter, who has coached them both.

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.