The Great Unknown

Ten seasons into a certain Hall of Fame career, Kobe Bryant remains, to teammates and opponents, admirers and haters, as big a mystery as ever
April 16, 2006

I. THE IMAGE

Somepeople are going to like me, some people aren't going to like me,"Kobe Bryant is saying after a practice at the Lakers' El Segundo trainingfacility in late March. "The people who don't, just have to understand whoI truly am, and that can only happen through time. That's why you don't see medoing talk shows and things like that."

Opponents who marveled at Bryant's ability to compartmentalize his life whilefacing charges for felony sexual assault of an employee at a luxury hotel inEagle, Colo., in 2003--he would fly to Eagle in the morning for proceedings inthe case, then play an outstanding game in Los Angeles that night--say he hasbecome an even more steely-eyed assassin since his legal difficulties."It's like he's paying everybody back," says Portland Trail Blazersguard Sebastian Telfair. "It's like he's thinking, The best way for me toget my image back is to go out there and kill everybody. He wants to, like,murder you."

Were you expectinga chastened, contrite post-Eagle Kobe? Bryant is adamant in his assertion thatthere is not--and never will be--a charm campaign to mend his image. The Lakersdidn't do anything official to try to restore Bryant as an icon to the denizensof Staples Center, no meet-and-greets with season-ticket holders, noorchestrated interviews with Oprah or Ed Bradley. "Kobe's approach was:Let's have it be real, professional on and off the court; handle yourself theright way, every day," says John Black, the Lakers' director of publicrelations. "And, over time, people will respect that."

NBA commissionerDavid Stern recalls the pleas for Bryant to be suspended even after thesexual-assault charges against him were dropped. "That is not the Americanway," says Stern, who adds that "it's clear that Kobe hasn't made thisinto a case of either rehabilitation or image management. It's Kobe beingKobe."

Even before Eagle,Bryant's image was that of a loner, a fierce individualist who didn't connectwith his teammates or the public at large. Though several people close to himbemoan his lack of a common touch, Bryant disputes his portrayal. "I neverwas as lonely and solitary as people thought," he says. "When I firstcame [into the NBA] I didn't know much about anything. So I kind of shelteredmyself off. But I was 17 when I got here. Seventeen! It was hard figuring outwho I was."

Bryant's claims tothe contrary, there are signs that he cares about refurbishing his image, atleast in select forums. Earlier this year he wrote a first person article forDime, the hoops fanzine, addressing a wide range of issues. Most revealing werehis observations about his relationship with the black community. "I neverfelt like I deserved to be part of our tradition because I grew up overseas, inItaly," he wrote. "... I never truly believed that my own people wantedto identify with me."

As the editorswrote in an explanatory note in the front of the magazine, "This story wasimportant to Kobe; he viewed it as an opportunity to communicate unfiltered anduncensored with the public."

The article, ofcourse, was a no-risk proposition, Bryant calling the shots, leavinglittle--potentially unpleasant lines of inquiry, follow-up questions,unflattering photos--to the control of others. There was no mention of theColorado incident nor his role in splintering the Lakers and their run at adynasty.

II. THE PLAYER

For all thecontradictions swirling about him, there is this unassailable truth: Bryant isthe game's best all-around player. And according to many, including TrailBlazers coach Nate McMillan, he's getting better. "If you want to find aplayer to build around, he's probably it," says McMillan. "He's gotgreat size for a guard, he's pretty impossible to defend, and he is hard toscore against when he hunkers down on defense."

Facing thedefense, Bryant has no peer. He can avoid defenders like a stunt driverswerving through oncoming traffic. He can blow by for a dunk, pull up for ashort jumper or simply rise up and hit a long-range, heavily contestedperimeter missile.

With his back tothe defense, Bryant is equally dangerous. If a defender gives him space, hefaces up and banks in a jump shot. If a defender crowds him, he speeds past oroverpowers him. If he's double-teamed, he up-fakes, pivots and squeezes betweendefenders for a layup, almost always without traveling. Innate athleticismaside, he has labored like a Broadway dancer to perfect his footwork.

Besides leadingthe league in scoring, Bryant ranked in the top 10 at week's end in steals,minutes, field goals attempted, field goals made, three-pointers attempted,three-pointers made, free throws attempted, free throws made and playerefficiency rating.

It's been threedecades since a player from a .500-level team was the league's MVP--that wasKareem Abdul-Jabbar, who took the 1975--76 award even though his Lakersfinished 40--42. With Bryant's Lakers 41--37 and tied for seventh place in theWestern Conference through Sunday, even the "M-V-P!" cheers that eruptfrom time to time in Staples Center are tepid. But his play has been sooutstanding this season that he must be on any short list of candidates.

"I'm notsaying that he's the most valuable player, but he's certainly the bestplayer," says Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. "And it's not evenclose. He is utterly dominant."

III. THE GHOST

At times Bryantalmost eerily channels Michael Jordan on the court--the same fadeaway jumper,the same feral, crouched-panther stance on defense, the same pigeon-toed walkdowncourt. But the debate over whether Kobe is the next Jordan is settled. Asmuch as Madison Avenue might have wanted Bryant's crossover appeal to be asimpressive as his crossover dribble, it is not. Jordan's default facialexpression was a wide smile, Bryant's a cloudy frown. Still, the specter ofJordan looms inescapably over Bryant.

Like Jordan, he iscapable of reducing even All-Stars to little kids in his presence. In a nearlydeserted hallway long after a late-March game against Sacramento, Bryantemerged from the locker room to find his wife, Vanessa, and three-year-olddaughter, Natalia, waiting for him. Kings forward Ron Artest, whom Bryant hadbadly outplayed on this evening, came by, carrying a throwaway camera and hisfive-year-old son, Ron Ron. "Kobe, would you take a picture with myboy?" Artest asked, the way a timid kid would ask a teacher for a favor."Sure," said Kobe, stationing himself between Natalia and Ron Ron asArtest snapped away.

While Jordan, too,could be forbidding to other players, he also projected warmth--far more thanBryant does. "When players sit around, Kobe's not a guy you might talkabout and say, 'He's such a good dude,' like a Kevin Garnett,'" says LosAngeles Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley. "Nobody knows Kobe that well. He'snot a sociable guy. That's not a fault; it's just his preference. When I was arookie [in Houston], Scottie Pippen told me that Michael would go out with histeammates sometimes. He included guys and balanced everything out. I'm not sureKobe does that."

"From a talentstandpoint, he may be better than Jordan was at this stage of his career,"says Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy. "The part of his game that he has to getbetter as opposed to Jordan is in the leadership department, how playersrespond to him, how he gets along, creating a chemistry. Players loved playingwith Jordan. I don't know whether they do with Kobe."

It should be notedthat Jordan's übercompetitiveness, which sometimes led him to humiliate histeammates, was generally seen as a positive, perhaps because he did it (mostly)behind closed doors, partly because he was, well, Michael. The same trait inBryant is often seen as objectionable. "When he's being the nice Kobe, he'sgood with everybody," says San Antonio Spurs forward Robert Horry, ateammate of Bryant's in L.A. for seven seasons. "But when he's being thebutthole Kobe, he's difficult. There were days when the second team would beatthe first team, and he wouldn't speak to guys because he wanted to get backonto the court and beat them. He's just very passionate about hisbasketball."

As dominant asJordan was, he had a way of refraining from lording it over his opponents. Hedisagreed, of course, with suggestions that there were actually defenders whocould stop him (such as Detroit's Joe Dumars or Cleveland's Craig Ehlo), but heusually did it with grace and good humor.

Bryant does not.After he dropped 51 points on Raja Bell in a loss to the Suns last Friday, hewas asked about the physical battle Bell had given him. Bryant shot thequestioner a look that said Are you nuts? "Raja Bell?" he said,enunciating the name as if it were a contagious disease. "I don't eventhink about him. Man, I got bigger fish to fry than Raja Bell."

In The LastSeason, Phil Jackson's tell-almost-all book about the 2003--04 season, theLakers' coach labeled Bryant "uncoachable" and admitted that he triedto persuade general manager Mitch Kupchak to unload him before the Februarytrading deadline. "[Kobe] could have been heir apparent to MJ and maybe wonas many championships," Jackson wrote. "He may still win a championshipor two, but the boyish hero image has been replaced by that of a callous gunfor hire."

Two years later,having returned to the Los Angeles bench, Jackson is predictably conciliatory,insisting that Bryant would, for example, no longer defiantly remove himselffrom the offense, as he did during an infamous one-shot first half against theKings late in the 2003--04 season. "Kobe now plays that role of involvingguys in the offense without taking himself out," says Jackson. "It usedto be an either-or situation, black or white.

"I wanted Kobeto move into the realm where he's not only the driving force by his play butalso has a nurturing element," the Lakers' coach adds. "And that iswhat has come out this year. He's patient, accepting and friendlier to histeammates."

Some of the Lakersagree. "Before, Kobe wouldn't really say much and would just lead byplaying hard, coming early and staying late," says forward Devean George,who among his current teammates has been with Bryant the longest (seven years)."Now he's more vocal. Some of the younger guys, it might bother them.They're still trying to find their way. Kobe being the superstar player and abig name, it holds weight when he yells. But he likes everybody on the team. Idon't think he's doing it to put anyone down."

Bryant's mostimportant relationship among his teammates is with talented 6'10" forwardLamar Odom. Bryant and Odom have the potential to be a 21st-century version ofJordan and Pippen. But Odom sometimes defers to Bryant too much; around theleague it is generally thought that the Lakers' chances of flourishing in thepostseason depend on how much Odom asserts himself.

One of the mostintriguing subplots of the Lakers' season involves whether Bryant and Odomnearly came to blows after a 94--91 loss to the Wizards in Washington on Dec.26. With five seconds remaining, Bryant turned the ball over but pinned theblame on Odom for a botched pick-and-roll. The principals say there was nosubsequent altercation; other teammates confirm that harsh words wereexchanged. Nevertheless, Odom, who has heard throughout his career how muchbetter he would be if he had a warrior's mentality, sometimes seems in awe ofBryant's single-minded dedication to winning. "Kobe goes after it as hardas anybody in the league," says Odom. "He wants to win. That's what youhave to understand about him."

Still, it's hardto determine where the party line stops and reality begins. His teammates knowthat they will face Bryant's wrath if they don't get him the ball in clutchsituations ... and may face it anyway. After the Lakers lost close games at NewJersey (92--89 on March 17) and Cleveland (96--95 two days later), Bryantpointed fingers.

Against the Nets,Odom had trouble inbounding the ball and neglected to call timeout with 13seconds remaining. That, Bryant said afterward, led to a broken play and anawkward Bryant miss as time expired. Bryant also brought Luke Walton into thatconversation, angrily pointing to a spot on the floor where he presumablythought the Lakers' forward should've been.

In the loss to theCavaliers, it was Walton who had a hard time getting the ball inbounds toBryant on a last-shot play. Eventually he did, but Bryant received the pass 35feet from the basket and missed a shot as time expired. After the game Bryantsaid that Walton should've called a timeout. "I guess I could have called atimeout," responded an uncharacteristically piqued Walton, "but it's a48-minute game and we didn't lose because I didn't call a timeout."

IV. THEBELIEVERS

Bryant and hisfamily have, at least publicly, lived down the embarrassment of Eagle. "Mywife and daughter are my refuge," Kobe claims. The Bryants are expectingtheir second daughter in May. "Natalia can't wait to be a big sister,"says Bryant. And that is all he'll say on the subject.

Off the courtBryant certainly has his supporters. Earlier this year Bryant paid a visit tohis high school alma mater, Lower Merion in suburban Philadelphia, where he wasapproached by a member of the girls' basketball team. "How come you don'thook us up with shoes?" she asked.

The following daythe girls' team received $17,000 worth of Nike shoes and gear. Last month, asthe Lower Merion boys' team rode on a bus to the state championship game,Bryant called the team's captains to offer encouragement. He also left amessage on the voicemail of coach Gregg Downer offering words of advice:"The key for the kids to understand is: Refuse to lose. Period. It's onegame. Win this game. Worry about the next when it comes.... I'm sure you've had'em working hard all season long. This is their moment to take. Just make surethey go out there and do it. Call me after you kick their asses. All right,brother. Out."

"Look, I knowhalf the people out there think he's nasty or he's selfish," says Downer."But I'm telling you, there's a lot of good in his heart."

Duke's MikeKrzyzewski, who has built his success on athletes with virtuous reputations,has asked Bryant to be the leader of the 2008 Olympic team in Beijing."It's Kobe's time," Coach K says of Bryant. "He's 27 years old. Heshould try to assume a position of leadership [on] the team. I would think he'svery hungry to do this. I see him fitting in very, very well."

Stern echoes thatsentiment. "I have no qualms whatsoever about Kobe carrying the Olympicstandard for us," the commissioner says. "In fact, I think it'sgreat."

Nike had signedBryant to a five-year, $45 million deal just days before the Colorado charges.According to Ralph Greene, the company's director for global basketball, Nikenever came close to severing ties with Bryant. "He never ceased to be anintriguing basketball player or someone who could help us," says Greene."And we knew we could help him."

Still, Nike didmore or less hide Bryant for almost three years, launching their first Kobeshoe, the Zoom Kobe I, only this February. The decision to come out with aBryant model, Greene says, was not motivated by market research or focus grouptesting. "In terms of Kobe's endorsement value, we always knew that hisplay on the court was going to be the motivating factor."

V. THE HATERS

For an athlete torefurbish his image, he needs to advance through a set of concentriccircles--the home fan, the basketball fan, the nonfan. Even after Eagle, Bryantremained in the good graces of most Lakers acolytes, particularly the Hollywoodcrowd, which was always more enthralled with Bryant's graceful acrobatics thanwith Shaquille O'Neal's brute force. Staples became, in effect, Bryant'spersonal decontamination chamber. This season, mostly by dint of his play,Bryant is winning back basketball fans outside of L.A. In 2006 he was thesecond-leading All-Star vote getter, behind only Yao Ming, who is always buoyedby an international voting bloc.

Yet even withinthe game, there is a reluctance to fully embrace Bryant's virtuosity. His81-point game against the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on Jan. 22 drew, atbest, ambivalent reviews. Sniffed Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, "It'sremarkable, the execution and the efficiency, but we've got a lot of guys inthis league, if they took 70 shots, they'd score a lot of points." (For therecord, Bryant took only 46 shots.)

Here's a laugh:New Jersey's Vince Carter expressed concern for the underlying message sent bythe four-score-and-one. "The only bad thing about it is, young kids, whoseminds are easily warped, are going to think, Ohhh, I am going to go out thereand do it instead of [putting] the team concept first." This is the sameVince Carter who once wore his iPod through a layup line, all but extorted atrade from Toronto to New Jersey and loves to hoist fallaway 30-footers.

More damning,among the general public, Bryant's Q rating--which measures a celebrity'srecognition and likability--remains subterranean. In an extensive pollregarding 1,750 celebrities conducted last month, Bryant achieved a positiveQ-rating score of 12 and a negative score of 47. The average score was 17/25.Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the conniving Apprentice contestant, ranked deadlast, scoring 3/82. Bryant was in the company of Vince McMahon, Robert Blake,and even Barry Bonds.

"Kobe iseasily in the bottom fifth," says Steven Levitt, president of MarketingEvaluations, the Long Island--based company that measures Q ratings. "It'snot enough to have a great game or lead the league in scoring to overcome thedisgrace that's been heaped upon him. His negative is four times his positive.That should scare the hell out of [any potential sponsor]. You won't sellbatteries or peanut butter or Ball Park hot dogs or even Gatorade with thatranking."

In 2002 Reebokexecutive Henry (Que) Gaskins, then Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson'sadviser, memorably suggested that Bryant's skills outpaced his marketability toshoe companies because he didn't have any street cred.

Todd Boyd, aprofessor at USC's School of Cinema-Television and author of Young, Black,Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and theTransformation of American Culture, is more harsh. "Saying Kobe has streetcred is like saying Dick Cheney has street cred." Boyd says that Bryant'simage problems in part stem from an ambiguous racial identity. "If Kobe hadbeen a white American player, people would have seen him as someone visiblydifferent from the NBA population and accepted him as an individual who didn'tfit the culture. Well, he's African-American, but as far as his class anddisposition, he's not what people normally associate with NBA players. Then hegets charged with this crime, and suddenly [he seems] like everybody else.... Ihonestly can't name any African-Americans not professing to be Lakers fans wholike Kobe."

VI. THE LASTSHOT

Bryant woulddispute Boyd's contention. It is imperative to remember how he grew up, as aloner in Italy, the relatively privileged son of a former NBA player turnedexpatriate. Kobe's first hoops hero was not Michael Jordan or Julius Erving butD'Antoni, a heady white point guard from West Virginia who was Italy's mostfamous professional player during Kobe's formative years. Bryant adopted jerseynumber 8 because that was D'Antoni's number.

There are otherblack athletes who grew up in privileged circumstances, of course, but rarelywas one as divorced from the African-American experience as Bryant was. OutsidePhoenix's America West Arena, after his 51-point performance last Friday, hereferred to his first-person essay in Dime, in which he wrote, "When I wentto visit the victims of Hurricane Katrina and saw how their faces lit up whenthey saw me, how they embraced me and how my presence lifted their spirits, Irealized how wrong I'd been about everything. I'd wasted all these yearswanting to do things for our people, but thinking I wasn't the one to do them,that I wouldn't be welcomed. But now I see that isn't true. The experience ofKatrina and my own personal struggles brought me closer to our people." Heis ready, he says, to wear the mantle of African-American hero.

But Bryant seemsto want to get only so close to the larger public, to not even reveal that hecares about it. Here's more Kobe, after that March practice at the Lakers'training facility: "You can have one person say, 'He's got a terribleimage.' And you can have another person say, 'He has a great image.' What dopeople think of me? It's all over the place. That doesn't really give you much,does it?"

SI.COM
Jack McCallum offers the five best players who won't win the MVP award atSI.com/nba

"I'm not saying that he's the most valuableplayer," says D'Antoni, "but he's certainly the best player. And it'snot even close."

"It's like he's thinking, The best way to get myimage back is to go out and kill everybody." says Telfair. "He wantsto, like, murder you."

"I wanted Kobe to move into the realm where he hasa nurturing element," says Jackson. "And that's come out this year.He's patient, accepting, friendlier to teammates."

"Saying Kobe has street cred is like saying thatDick Cheney has street cred," says Boyd. "I can't name anyAfrican-Americans not professing to be Lakers fans who like Kobe."

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by John W. McDonoughLONESTAR - Though he keeps a distance from teammates and the public, Bryant insiststhat he is attempting to connect with certain groups, most notablyAfrican-Americans. TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by John W. McDonough TWO PHOTOSGREG NELSON

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)