Maybe Bryant thinks about his own first NBA Finals, when he thought he knew so much more than he really did, and so much less than he knows now. Maybe he thinks of Howard as a sleeker, newer version of Shaquille O'Neal -- though that's doubtful, because at this relatively late stage of his career, Bryant can't waste the energy to dwell on a time that ended so painfully.
But it's only natural that Bryant will be able to relate to Howard's innocence, to see Howard drinking in his first NBA Finals in a way that reminds Bryant of his own championship breakthrough nine years ago, when he was the 21-year-old sidekick to O'Neal.
Kobe is 30, and still a young man in this game. But he is finishing his 13th season, and by the end of this Finals he will have compiled more NBA mileage (as measured in minutes played) than Larry Bird when he retired at age 35. The point of this isn't to anticipate whether the end is near for Bryant. It is to show how long he's been at it, and how far he's come.
How naive and brave was Kobe to enter the 1996 NBA draft as a 17-year-old high school senior? In addition to having grown up abroad in isolation from the American ways, he was a slim, 6-foot-5 shooting guard seeking to become the first smaller player to leapfrog college successfully to the NBA. He has since been followed by perimeter stars-to-be like Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Orlando's Rashard Lewis (each taller than Bryant), but 13 years ago Bryant was gambling on his talent because all of the high school players who thrived in the NBA had been big men.
At the other end of the timeline is Howard, who was among the last to turn pro so young; two years after he became the No. 1 pick of Orlando in 2004, the NBA created a minimum-age rule that prevents American players from entering the league until one year after their high school class has graduated. The Magic are in these Finals because Howard has matured so rapidly over the last 10 months, starting with his experience as a role player on the gold-medal-winning Olympic team led by Bryant, followed by his emergence as the NBA Defensive Player of the Year and, most recently, the newfound offensive patience he demonstrated against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals. Facing the 66-win Cavaliers, Howard responded to the ever-changing defenses by attacking the basket or passing crosscourt for three-pointers or finding cutters for layups, in addition to converting his free throws.
I remember watching Howard dominate a high-school All-Star game against Al Jefferson with his skilled instincts for scoring and passing, but that was five years ago. That's how long it has taken him to begin asserting himself at the highest levels. It hasn't been nearly as easy as he makes it look now.
An even more extreme view can be taken of Bryant, who -- with no role model or example to prove he could -- launched his career by publicly aiming to match the six titles of Michael Jordan, against whom he has always been compared. (Of course, he wasn't guaranteeing that level of success, but rather holding himself accountable to that standard.) In his second year, Sports Illustrated sent me to Los Angeles to profile Bryant for the cover of the magazine, for which he was photographed with Magic Johnson, another of his idols.
Bryant's self-confidence and drive should not be taken for granted. Who did he think he was to imagine that he could emerge from so deep a well of inexperience to ever equal Magic or Michael? I still have a VHS tape the Lakers provided me of Kobe's rookie playoff against the Jazz, in the fifth and final game of the second round in 1997. Coming off the bench, he air-balled a potential game-winning three-pointer at the end of regulation, and in overtime he continued to shoot threes. It was excruciating to watch. He would attempt three more and all were air balls. The reason I've never heard of any other player melting down so agonizingly in so big a moment is that anyone else would have stopped trying after the first air ball or two. But even as an 18-year-old, Bryant kept shooting.
There were times I wondered if Bryant would go down as his generation's Isiah Thomas, who overcame his size by fighting so hard to win championships that he damaged his relationships with fellow stars. For any number of years following any Lakers loss involving Bryant, the issue usually boiled down to whether Kobe had dominated the ball at the expense of his teammates or (albeit more rarely) had not dominated it enough. Those questions were often relevant to the game, but sometimes they weren't; sometimes he was held accountable for his reputation rather than for his actions.
I understand the reasons why so many people don't like him. But I don't see how anyone cannot have tremendous respect for his career. More impressive than his dazzling talent has been his perseverance. He has been a marvel of discipline, to the point that he could overlook appearances of disloyalty from Jackson, who in his 2004 book, The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, referred to Bryant as "uncoachable" and quoted from their private conversations. But Bryant has put aside that history to recreate a winning partnership with Jackson, no doubt out of respect for the coach's unique talent to deliver the championships and historical relevance that Bryant craves.
Even when Bryant was creating a regrettable scene by demanding to be traded two summers ago, I considered it nothing more than another example of how badly he wants to succeed. In his own complicated way, he was striving to be true to his ideals. A theme of Bryant's career -- including the extended Shaq-and-Kobe breakup and divorce -- is that he has learned, stubbornly, to deal with issues almost entirely on his own, in full public view, which has to be the hardest way to grow up.
To watch Bryant perform at the top of his game this season is to see a singular talent who finally looks comfortable in his own skin. If he is a leader who understands better how to relate to his teammates and bring out their qualities in pursuit of his ultimate goal -- to go down among the greatest while winning championships in different eras -- that is a talent that was not God-given. He has earned that one.
Now the final obstacle in his way is the Magic of Howard. Last weekend, after he had scored a personal playoff record of 40 points to finish off LeBron and the Cavaliers in six games, Howard openly referred to an enlightening April cover story in Sports Illustrated, in which my colleague Chris Ballard clarified the difficult balance between Howard's joy for basketball and his dedication to hard play. I viewed the story as optimistic -- the conclusion being that Howard's career was ultimately on the right track -- but he clearly didn't read it that way. "I'm too nice to win," Howard said over and over as he sat at his locker with a big, triumphant grin. "I smile too much. I'm too nice."
He surely was entitled to his feelings, and he had earned the right to remind everyone now that he had won on his own terms. But if he really thought that profile was harsh criticism, it was proof that his career has a long way yet to go. As I took in Howard's young, unwrinkled smile, I thought about the miles he has yet to run and the pain he will have to overcome, and I thought about Kobe Bryant.