I was preparing my first story as a writer for
Bryant has developed his own voice now, but 10 years ago he sounded in all ways as if he was performing an impression of
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
"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,
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
"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
"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,
"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
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
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,
"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
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.