In this age of inflated expectations, what if, for once, we did
believe the hype? What if the image brokers were right seven
years ago when they anointed a skinny high school senior with a
shorn head as the next big thing? What if things that seemed
absurdly premature at the time--the NBA's full-page All-Star Game
ad featuring the teenager opposite Michael Jordan; the grandiose
pronouncements from every pundit with a word processor--turn out
to have been prophetic? ¬∂ That's exactly what's happened in the
case of Kobe Bryant, which helps explain why Trail Blazers coach
Maurice Cheeks could honestly say last Friday that Portland's
defense on Bryant "was pretty good overall," even though he'd
exploded for 40 points in a 92-84 Lakers victory. It's tough to
cover a guy when, as Scottie Pippen says, "he not only takes
tough shots but seems to make them all." ¬∂ Ask Yao Ming about it.
At week's end Bryant had scored 40 or more in nine straight games
and 35 or more in 13 straight, a run eclipsed only by Wilt
Chamberlain. Midway through this surreal scoring streak, Bryant
drove baseline during a 106-99 double-overtime win over
the Houston Rockets and rose up over seven and a half feet of
human scaffolding for a one-handed jam so fierce that Yao would
later say, "Please do not ask me about something so humiliating
to my face." Not that Bryant is limited to slashing: In a 93-87
win at Utah a day later, he was hindered by a sore right knee but
still went for 40 while making only one layup and nary a dunk. It
was a resplendent performance so full of crazy fadeaways,
pirouettes and double-pump leaners that the Jazz fans, who had
booed Bryant throughout the game, were chanting "Ko-BEE! Ko-BEE!"
by the end.
The numbers are astounding: During those 13 games Bryant averaged
42.4 points, shooting 48.7% from the field and 45.5% from beyond
the arc. He scored more points during the streak than every other
Laker except Shaquille O'Neal and guard Derek Fisher had over the
course of the entire season. And those points have come when the
Lakers needed them most: with O'Neal in and out of the lineup
because of toe and knee injuries, and with a playoff berth on the
line. After a 106-101 win over the Seattle SuperSonics on
Sunday, in which Kobe scored 41, L.A. was 30-25 and in the
seventh spot in the Western Conference, having gone 11-2 since
coach Phil Jackson asked Bryant to be more aggressive. O'Neal
speaks for many in the league when he says, "Kobe Bryant is the
MVP." Then, speaking only for himself, Shaq adds, "He's the
gunnery sergeant, and I'm the Big Dog."
The story behind the 24-year-old Bryant's ascent from skinny teen
to MVP candidate is one that LeBron James and other heavily hyped
phenoms would be wise to heed. Talk to Bryant about basketball
long enough, and he can sound like a self-help guru, the Deepak
Chopra of the drop step, going on about staying focused and
maximizing potential. As tempting as it is to dismiss this as
new-age hoops hooey, in the case of Kobe, it works. "It was like
he was put on earth to be a great basketball player, and
everything that he does is dedicated to becoming that," says
Lakers guard Brian Shaw, a 14-year veteran who played with
Bryant's father, Joe, in Italy and has known Kobe since he was
nine. "The only guy I've been around with that kind of work ethic
is Larry Bird."
Work ethic? While attending Lower Merion (Pa.) High, Bryant would
get up at 5 a.m. to work out. Then he'd stay for two hours after
practice, refining his game. He bragged to friends that he'd go
straight to the NBA and that he'd be an All-Star within two
years. Cocky? Very. Was he right? Yes.
After that second season, a point at which most 20-year-olds
might see fit to enjoy their newfound wealth and adoration,
Bryant spent a summer reworking his game. Instead of playing
pickup ball, he watched boxes of videotape, pored over Dean
Smith's Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense and practiced.
By himself. In a gym with chairs set up to simulate defenders. He
remembers a reporter asking when he was going to flame out and
fade away, like another Harold Miner. "People didn't know that I
was getting up at six and going to the gym and working for eight
hours," Bryant says. "They didn't realize that I wasn't planning
on going anywhere. I'd worked too hard."
But as Bryant learned, it takes more than hard work to gain your
teammates' trust. Early in his career he was aloof, and he didn't
help matters by refusing to concede that he occasionally shot too
much. "When I first ran into Kobe, I was amazed at how isolated
he was," says Jackson. "That's been the biggest improvement in
the last three years: his ability to communicate."
Part of that is simply a matter of age. As Shaw puts it, "Nobody
was going to listen to him when he was 18, 19 years old. He
didn't have enough NBA experience, or even life experience. We
all had wives and kids, and he hadn't even gone to college."
Bryant is still not a vocal leader, but he has made a conscious
effort to relate better to teammates. He dispenses pointers and
puts his arm around players. Two weeks ago, against the Knicks,
he pulled aside reserve center Stanislav Medvedenko. "I scolded
him pretty hard because I felt like he wasn't ready to play, but
I let him know it wasn't personal," says Bryant. "The difference
is, a few years ago I would have said something negative and
moved on. I wasn't aware of the human side of a person."
For a man who'd spent his life obsessively focused on his career,
it took a while to realize the obvious. The catalyst? "Being
married kind of forces you to be a better communicator," says a
sheepish Bryant, whose wife of 1 1/2 years, Vanessa, had their
first child, Natalia, last month. "I'm a better listener now,
that's for sure."
Bryant's emotional maturity has been mirrored by advances on the
court. Helped in part by the 15 pounds of muscle he added in the
off-season, he has become a better rebounder, a better finisher
and, most important, a better long-range marksman. A career 31.4%
three-point shooter before this season, he was shooting 38.5% at
week's end. "It's the most improved part of his game," says
Lakers forward Rick Fox. "He has better balance. It's almost as
if he's at peace before he shoots."
All this only fuels what is already the 6'7" Bryant's greatest
asset: his hypercompetitiveness. Even in practice, if he loses a
game of one-on-one or a shooting contest, "he immediately wants
to play you again after practice," says Shaw. At times this can
backfire on him, though. On Sunday night against Seattle, Bryant
had 39 points with four minutes to play. In his quest to reach
40, he forced and missed six shots before sinking two free throws
with 23 seconds left. After the game, Bryant apologized to his
teammates for taking them out of the offense. It wasn't the
streak that drove him, he explained to reporters, but the
challenge. "There are these five guys, and they're all trying to
stop me from scoring one basket," he said, his eyes opening wide.
Walking out to his car a short while later, he saw Sonics guard
Brent Barry, who smiled and said, "Ho-hum, just another 40."
Bryant returned the smile and said, "Yeah, but you made me work
for it, man."
Sunday's ending aside, Bryant's recent scoring splurge has been a
matter of necessity, not ego, all in the service of winning. That
has silenced--for now, at least--the critics who accused him of
being selfish, especially early this season when the Lakers got
off to a 3-9 start while O'Neal recovered from toe surgery. Even
assistant coach Tex Winter, who is a notorious crank on such
matters, approves of Kobe's recent fusillade. "Normally we don't
like him taking shots under such duress," says Winter. "But he's
got such a hot hand that you have to ride it." That's high
praise, coming from the man who invented the triangle, an offense
designed to promote sharing.
So there you have it, LeBron: the road map from phenom to
superstar. You merely have to work harder and longer than anyone
else, stay confident, marry a woman who makes you a better
person, win over your critics and, somewhere along the way, learn
to score like Wilt Chamberlain. No problem. Now get to it.