Kobe's Two Worlds Juggling his appearances in court with those on the court, Kobe Bryant is playing some of the best basketball of his NBA career

March 22, 2004

While the rest of his Los Angeles Lakers teammates go through
their pregame rituals, Kobe Bryant sits by himself in the
training room, dolefully chewing a Snickers bar and staring
straight ahead. Sinewy yet muscular, the 6'6" Bryant appears to
be a more tightly wound version of an even larger man. His face
seldom betrays any emotion; he blinks with a metronomic
regularity, his nostrils twitching every 10th blink. He travels
with four bodyguards (the Lakers split the cost), consults his
own physicians and has a private jet (another bill he splits with
the team) to shuttle him to and from courtroom appearances in
Eagle, Colo., where he stands charged with the sexual assault of
a 19-year-old hotel concierge last June 30. ¶ What do you see
when you see Kobe Bryant? The best player in the NBA? An accused
rapist? An intelligent, charismatic, 25-year-old athlete? A
spoiled superstar? It is now almost impossible to separate any of
those strands from the tapestry of Bryant's image. For every fan
holding up a KOBE 4 PRESIDENT placard--or even more disturbing,
the fans, such as those in Houston recently, shouting "she
deserved it"--there is another who feels betrayed by Bryant, as
if God had bestowed his greatest gifts on an unworthy soul. Every
day Bryant lives with the contradictions that evoke such
disparate passions; imagine that O.J., while his trial was in
progress, had to put on shoulder pads and cleats and carry the
ball 30 times every Sunday. "Kobe is showing amazing mental
toughness," says Los Angeles guard Derek Fisher. "I don't know
how many guys could do what he's doing." ¶ That he has been able
not only to perform at his usual high level but also to grow as
a player is a tribute to his peculiar and ruthless ability to
focus--the same trait that has, in unflattering moments,
isolated him from teammates and made him seem self-absorbed.
"No one can understand what kind of pressure he is under," says
Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "He's having unique experiences,
these intense experiences that are totally apart from the team
and basketball."

Kobe is reluctant to discuss those experiences publicly (he
declined to talk to SI for this story), but the incongruities of
his life are apparent. Sixteen hours after he handed out 10
assists in a 100-83 win at New Jersey on Feb. 29, he made a court
appearance in Eagle; the following night the Lakers suffered a
94-93 loss to the no-name Hawks in Atlanta, the first game Bryant
has missed because of his legal problems. He returned the night
after that to hit the game-winner against the Rockets at Houston,
a 22-foot rainbow over 7'6" Yao Ming, only to sprain his right
shoulder two days later against the Seattle SuperSonics while
fighting through a Reggie Evans pick. The Lakers announced the
next day that Bryant would be out for up to a month; he returned
just five days after the injury to score 18 points and anchor the
defense in a 117-109 road win over the Boston Celtics. Then, last
Saturday, the night after a 96-86 loss at Minnesota in which he
shot 6 of 20 from the floor, Bryant buried the Bulls in Chicago
with a fourth-quarter barrage--12 of his 35 points came in a
five-minute stretch--that brought back memories of the guy whose
statue stands in front of the United Center.

And all this amid a cacophony of questions that are distracting
by even the Lakers' glitzy standards. Is Phil calling it quits
after this season? Will Shaquille O'Neal really follow Jackson if
he goes? Is Gary Payton getting enough playing time to keep him
happy? Can Karl Malone come back strong from the only serious
injury of his 19-year career? And, oh, yeah: Will Kobe really
leave L.A. this summer, when he can become a free agent? Then
there have been legal issues: Would the defense be allowed to
question Kobe's accuser about aspects of her sexual history?
(Last Thursday the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear an
appeal by the prosecution on Judge W. Terry Ruckriegle's ruling,
which permitted such questioning. The alleged victim is scheduled
to testify in a closed hearing on March 24.)

"To go from that legal type of setting to the basketball court in
one day requires amazing concentration," Lakers forward Rick Fox
says. "And Kobe is not only doing it, but he's growing as a
player at the same time--if that's possible." At week's end
Bryant had averaged 25.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.5 assists
since the All-Star break, each number significantly higher than
his career marks. He's even added a lefthanded jumper to his
arsenal, the result of hours of practice since he first sprained
his right shoulder, on Jan. 12.

What we are watching, for better or for worse, is a unique
athlete thriving despite remarkable adversity and ceaseless
scrutiny. How are these for options: Door No. 1 is a
multimillion-dollar contract with the Lakers or with another
franchise, and a continuation of one of the finest lives the
Sports Industrial Complex has to offer. Door No. 2 is barred,
literally, and it opens into a jail cell. "You take a hundred
guys and put them through this, and the whole gang of them would
bail out," says Malone. "And Kobe could have taken time off,
taken the season off. You had people saying that's what he should
do."

Almost to a man, Bryant's teammates point out that if any player
is particularly suited to coping with these obstacles, it is
Kobe. Forget for a moment his astonishing talent. In these
circumstances his greatest attribute--an almost sociopathic
focus--is the very thing that has at times been a liability,
alienating teammates and causing rifts with some of them,
especially O'Neal. Thanks to Bryant's ability to function in a
self-imposed bubble, he can filter out all the static, be it the
locker-room white noise of Payton's badgering teammates for extra
game tickets or the louder, more constant buzz of media
speculation about his trial. While the rest of the team swaps MP3
files, Bryant keeps his playlists private. ("Kobe probably
already has all the music in the world," jokes one teammate.) A
few seasons ago much was made of Bryant's joining in on some of
the players' marathon card games. That sort of camaraderie has
been cut way back. Even during warmups, as his teammates
challenge one another or call bank shots, Kobe releases his
jumpers in virtual solitude.

The one thing that wasn't supposed to happen through this
turmoil, that nobody dared to forecast when he showed up at
training camp in Hawaii underweight and still hurting from
off-season surgery on his right shoulder and right knee, was that
Kobe's game would actually improve. Now, as the NBA season enters
its critical stretch and L.A. prepares for another title run,
perhaps its last with Kobe and Shaq, the Lakers have noticed a
new willingness from Bryant to play within the team. His passing
in particular has helped the Lakers go on a 12-4 run since the
All-Star Game, and through Sunday they stood fourth in the
Western Conference, a half-game behind the San Antonio Spurs.

"Since the break he has been much more into the team flow," says
Jackson. "I used to tell him, 'Don't try to take over the game.'
He used to take that as a challenge. But I don't have to do that
anymore.... This might be the first time in Kobe's life that he
is not in control of his own fate. Everything has gone brass ring
for Kobe most of his life. He's won titles, All-Star Games--and
now here is this situation that he cannot exert his will over.
That has got to humble you a little bit."

And a humbled Kobe is, implausibly, a more fearsome Kobe. His
fellow Lakers believe that he has discovered the real value of
teammates, repeating the word sanctuary when asked about what
basketball means to Bryant right now. While he may not connect
with his teammates in the locker room, he can at least trust that
they won't make his legal issues a topic of conversation. "Sure,
he has to appreciate the guys more," says Fox. "When he's with
us, he knows it's all basketball, none of that other stuff."

As if in gratitude, Kobe has been consistently delivering the
ball to his teammates for dunks and open looks. Early in the
first quarter of the Lakers' recent blowout of the Nets, for
example, he snatched a defensive rebound 10 feet off the left
baseline. Payton had released early and was already approaching
the three-point arc downcourt. Bryant hesitated for a moment. His
options were to fire the outlet or to dribble through the Nets'
scattered defense, either of which would have most likely led to
a bucket. For an instant, it looked as if he would put the ball
on the floor. Instead, he lofted a pass that hit a streaking GP
in stride for a layup.

The new, improved Kobe has become so integral to the Lakers that
without him, they are a losing team: 8-9 at week's end when
Bryant was out, 35-14 when he suited up. During his last
appearance in Eagle, as Bryant strode stiffly into Ruckriegle's
courtroom and took a seat in a straight-backed wooden chair at
the defense table, his teammates were 1,300 miles away, preparing
for that game against woeful Atlanta. Before the tip-off a few of
the Lakers were exuberantly overconfident, asking one another,
"Can you name five Hawks?" On the court, however, the Lakers
minus Bryant (and Malone) were reminded that they are, at times,
an average team, an inauspicious portent for the franchise's
potentially Kobe-less future.

O'Neal may be, as he insists, the most dominant player in the
game, but without Bryant drawing defenders away from the paint
and opening up the lane, Shaq hasn't always succeeded this year
in taking over games. After the upset in Atlanta, Jackson was
told that Kobe might have to appear in court in late April,
during what would probably be the fifth and sixth games of the
first round of the playoffs. His reaction: "Ouch."

Yet as much as the Lakers need the dynamism and athletic
brilliance of Kobe Bryant, he needs the refuge of his team and
his game even more.

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COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AUTO-FOCUS Bryant's uncanny ability to tune out the world--which has sometimes isolated him from his teammates--has helped elevate his game despite his many trips to Colorado. COLOR PHOTO: MARC PISCOTTY/POOL/REUTERS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH DOING HIS FAIR SHARE Often isolated, Bryant has been handing out more assists to help connect with his fellow Lakers. COLOR PHOTO: ED ANDRIESKI/POOL/REUTERS FORWARD MARCH A day after he appeared in court, Bryant hit a game-winning shot at Houston.

For every fan holding up a KOBE 4 PRESIDENT placard, there is
another one who feels betrayed by Bryant.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)