What's Up With Kobe? Kobe Bryant has suddenly turned testy, talking trash and picking fights. Is he trying to prove how tough he is? Or is he still just growing up?

March 18, 2002

In the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room last week, a deadpan
Shaquille O'Neal handed Kobe Bryant an object concealed by
Bubble Wrap, saying it was a piece of memorabilia he wanted
Bryant to autograph. Removing the wrapping, Bryant instead found
a bobble-head doll in the likeness of Reggie Miller, the Indiana
Pacers guard with whom he'd had a celebrated scuffle five days
earlier. He immediately burst out laughing. "Hey, his face is
scratched up, too," Bryant said. "He's got a couple of bruises."

The way that Bryant, L.A.'s All-Star shooting guard, has been
acting lately, it wouldn't have been all that surprising if he
had further defaced the doll by landing a right hook to its
bouncing little noggin. While he may still have his sense of
humor, a newfound belligerence has marked the 23-year-old
Bryant's demeanor this season. It's not just that he has jawed
at referees with greater frequency, earning more technical fouls
(six) in the first month of the season than he did all last
year; traded punches with power forward Samaki Walker on the
team bus after taking exception to something Walker said; and
gone after Miller, earning each of them a two-game suspension.
He is edgier off the court as well. His language is more
profane, even when talking to the media, through which he had
always been careful to project a wholesome image. He spices his
conversation with violent references he wouldn't have used
before, repeatedly saying, "I want to tear your heart out," when
referring to his competitiveness, and declaring that "there's
only two real killers in the league." By his reckoning, he's
one; the other, presumably, is Michael Jordan.

Friends, fans and foes have all noticed the change and wondered
the same thing: What's up with Kobe? "The thing with Reggie,
coming on the heels of the incident with a teammate, makes you
wonder what's on Kobe's mind," says Lakers forward Rick Fox.
Miller added to the intrigue a couple of days after their fight
when he released a statement that said Bryant had "other issues
he has to deal with." That line irritates Bryant almost as much
as whatever Miller said to him on the court that started the
brawl, a comment that neither player will reveal. "I don't know
what he means by issues," Bryant says. "The only issue I can
think of is that I don't like Reggie Miller."

Bryant insists that he's not troubled by any secret problems,
and despite his scuffles, his performance seems to bear him out.
He was averaging 25.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds at
week's end, and he had helped the Lakers to a 43-18 record,
third best in the league. Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson has
urged the 6'7", 215-pound Bryant to be more of an emotional
leader--but not this emotional. "I've asked him to dial it down
another degree," Jackson says. "We want aggressive, but not
belligerent."

The new, testy Bryant is evident even when he's downplaying his
new testiness. "I think everybody is overanalyzing things," he
says. "The press keeps talking about this [Miller] incident like
it's damn Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. It's ridiculous. We
had a little squabble, and that's it. It's not like I bit the
guy's ear off."

So what if Bryant does have issues? Is that really so
surprising? He has grown into a man during his six-year pro
career, and he has been hardened in the process. As an
18-year-old rookie he launched an infamous last-second air
ball--followed by two more in overtime--that doomed the Lakers
in their playoff series against the Utah Jazz. Three years later
he was earning headlines by engaging O'Neal in a struggle for
supremacy on the team. By the time he was 22 he had been named
to three All-Star teams and won two NBA titles, yet he had
failed to develop a close relationship with any other player in
the league. At last month's All-Star Game in Philadelphia he
received a thorough booing despite a 31-point MVP performance in
front of a hometown crowd, rough treatment that teammates say
stung Bryant even more than he admitted.

There is also the matter of Bryant's relatively privileged
background, which sets him apart from most of the players in the
NBA. Spending part of his childhood in Italy, where his father,
Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant played professional basketball, and the
rest in the comfortable Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion, may
have made him sophisticated and well rounded beyond his years,
but it's hardly the kind of bio that wins him the respect of
players who grew up with fewer advantages. Kobe entered the
league with no street cred whatsoever, and his recent
dustups--along with his new tendency to bust out rap lyrics as
he walks through the locker room--may be heavy-handed attempts
to earn it. He knows, for example, that some of his peers find
his poetry writing on the road a bit precious, so it's worth
noting that one of the songs he wrote a few years ago for his
never-released rap album was a self-referential tune entitled
Thug Poet.

Bryant's conundrum is that some of the qualities that make him
endearing to the public can make him seem vulnerable to his
fellow players. It's fine to be the lovable, sensitive,
childlike Kobe to companies looking for a product pitchman, but
surviving in the NBA requires a hard edge. From the moment he
entered the league six years ago, the plan of attack against
Bryant has been just that--attack--both physically and mentally.
"If you can get under his skin and make him turn the game into
something personal, a one-on-one thing, you're better off," says
one NBA scout. "Guys used to do it by bodying him up and pushing
him around, but he's stronger now and the refs also protect him
more. So you try to do it by talking to him, getting into his
head."

And what do opponents say when they are trying to shake his
concentration? It is well known that Bryant is especially
sensitive to comments about his wife of 11 months, Vanessa. The
couple was the subject of more than a few jokes on radio and
TV--some of them good-natured, some not--when they got engaged,
because Vanessa was still a senior at Marina High in Huntington
Beach, Calif. Perhaps because of that, they have been intensely
private. His wife is seldom seen at games or photographed, and
Kobe rarely discusses her in public. It's not hard to imagine
him unleashing his wrath on any player who ventured into that
off-limits territory. There have also been vague published
references to strained relationships between Bryant and other
family members, which neither he nor his father have commented
on. It does appear that Joe lends advice to his son neither as
often nor as freely as he once did, but that may be as much a
function of Kobe's maturation as it is a sign of family squabbles.

"It wouldn't make sense for him to be the same person at 23 that
he was at 18 or 20, especially when he's spent those years
around grown men instead of college kids," says Fox. "If you
spend six years in the NBA, you'll either be tougher at the end
of it or you won't be around much longer."

The change in Bryant, however, seems more of a conscious choice,
and it's unclear how well it will work for him in the long run.
Both his peers and the public already know him as a sweet,
sensitive young man, and neither group is likely to buy him as a
tough guy with a chip on his shoulder. Will fighting deter
opponents from trying to manhandle him, or will it only persuade
them that he can be shaken, causing them to try it even more
often? The danger for Bryant is that he's heading down a path
that will lead to his becoming the NBA's version of Ken Griffey
Jr., a joyful prodigy turned into a dark, unhappy star.

Scowling anger may work for Allen Iverson or Gary Payton, but
Bryant is naturally gracious, not surly. If he really is trying
to change his image, he may be too late.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS CARLSON/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/AP REGGIECIDE After their tussle Miller said Bryant has "issues." Kobe insists that the only issue is that he doesn't like Miller.

Bryant is more profane, even with the press, through which he
used to project a wholesome image.

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