Kevin Garnett and Karl-Anthony Towns
Dwyane Wade and Justise Winslow
October 26, 2015
Kobe Bryant and D'Angelo Russell
THE BLACK Chevy Suburban sloshed through the wet side streets of Honolulu's Mo'ili'ili neighborhood, turning into one traffic snag after another and providing the 19-year-old passenger in the middle row ample time to choose his words. What do I say? D'Angelo Russell wondered. What do I ask? I want to be myself, but I also don't want to mess anything up.
Three summers ago Russell watched the U.S. Olympic basketball team practice in Las Vegas, and afterward the players walked over to the fans—all except Kobe Bryant, who sank into a chair apart from the crowd. "That's Kobe," a few spectators muttered. "He's a jerk." Maybe they were right. Maybe he was a jerk. Or maybe, Russell suggested, he was just tired.
Since that day in Vegas, Bryant has torn his left Achilles tendon, broken a bone in his left knee and ravaged his right rotator cuff, season-ending injuries all. Meanwhile Russell has graduated from Montverde Academy in Florida, spent a year threading no-look passes at Ohio State, become the second pick of the 2015 draft and wound up on the same team as Bryant, in the same SUV, on the way to the same Waikiki Beach hotel. "I try to act tough like, 'Oh, it's Kobe, whatever,'" Russell says. But during the Lakers' six-hour flight to Honolulu for training camp, the wiry point guard kept turning his head toward the back of the plane, and in three-man drills at Stan Sheriff Center his eyes kept wandering toward the wing: Yeah, there's Kobe. He tried to shrug.
Russell was seven months old when Bryant arrived in Honolulu for his first Lakers camp, which happened to be Byron Scott's last as a player. "What do you want to accomplish?" Scott asked the rookie. "I want to be the best player in the league," Bryant replied, his left wrist still bandaged because he'd broken it in a pickup game at Venice Beach. He was cocky but curious. He asked a hundred questions, of teammates but also of opponents. He once asked Michael Jordan at a stoppage about the release angle on his fadeaway. He noticed, from the way Jordan crinkled his brow, that he'd earned a sliver of respect. Nearly two decades later Bryant sat next to Russell in the middle row of the Suburban, waiting for the kid to ask a question of his own.
"He asked me if I was nervous when I started," Bryant says. "He asked that because he doesn't want to be one of those players you forget about in 10 years. He wanted to know, Why does that happen? How can I make sure that doesn't happen to me?" Like an unplugged uncle, Bryant is at a stage where you can ask him almost anything—from the release angle on his fadeaway to the secret of life—and he will talk for 10 minutes. Russell didn't need to sweat the question. Anything goes.
"I told him, 'If you love the game, then you've already won,'" Bryant says. " 'You can't be beat. Because the reality is, a lot of guys don't love it. When I came here in 1996, I had the butterflies, and then when I got around everybody, it was like, Oh, I'm fine. Some of these guys don't love the game. I thought they did. They don't. It's a job for them. And when something is a job, you can have success for a week, two weeks, a month, maybe a year, maybe even two. Then you'll fall. It's inevitable. But if you love it, you can't be stopped. Because when you love something, you'll always come back to it. You'll always keep asking questions, and finding answers, and getting in the gym.
" 'Some people try to balance that love with other interests, but there's no such thing as balance, my man. Either you want to be one of the greats, and you understand the sacrifices that come with it and deal with them, or you don't want to deal with them and you want to be in the middle of the pack. Michael never worked a day in his life. He loved it. Same with Magic. He loved it. You play well, the attention is going to come, the endorsements are going to come. You play bad, the critiques are going to come, the naysayers are going to come. Don't worry about that. Just stay focused on the love.'"
OVER THE past two years, when Bryant was not rehabbing his many broken parts, he was searching for his second love. He started a business, called Kobe Inc., and purchased an office building in Newport Beach, Calif. He hired four employees, including two former executives from Gatorade and Nike, and presided over weekly staff meetings. But the company's purpose remained hazy. "I read, I studied, I dabbled," Bryant says. "At first I thought, What's the biggest industry I can get in to generate the most revenue? That was a huge mistake."
One day Bryant was brainstorming in the office with Simon Sinek, an author and motivational speaker he admires. "Off the top of your head," Sinek asked, "what is the most fun thing you've ever done?" Sinek was treated to an even more elaborate answer than Russell.
"The first person I thought of was Jeanne Mastriano, my great speaking-arts teacher at Lower Merion [High in Pennsylvania]," Bryant says. "Senior year, English class, we had an assignment to invent a story and tell it to the kindergartners. I forgot about the assignment. So the day comes, we're all walking down to kindergarten, and I was like, What are we doing? Then it dawned on me. Oh s---, I have to think of a story. So I came up with one on the fly about a kid who never cleaned his room—because my bedroom was a mess that morning. The kid's mom was always on him. Then one night all the socks and shoes and toys on the floor came to life and turned into monsters, and they scared the daylights out of the kid." For months afterward the kindergartners giggled when they saw him, and the parents thanked him for instilling order in their homes. That was it, Kobe told Sinek. That was the most fun thing.
"What I love," Bryant says, "is storytelling. I love the idea of creative content—whether it's mythology or animation, written or film—that can inspire people and give them something tangible they can use in their own lives. I call it creative education. The best way to teach isn't by preaching to somebody. It's by sharing stories. I'm trying to build my whole business off that concept."
In February, Bryant released a documentary called Kobe Bryant's Muse, which aired on Showtime and earned a bronze Clio Sports Award. Last month, as Bryant flew home to Orange County from a speaking engagement at Nike's headquarters outside Portland, a tsunami advisory was issued for Newport Beach. Bryant was petrified, but not because he would have to fly into the storm. "I have to get my damn Clio!" he told his companions. When he landed, he drove straight to the office and fetched the award, taking it home for safekeeping. "That trophy means more to me than any trophy I've ever won," Bryant says.
He sounds, in those moments, ready to retire from basketball. He's won five NBA titles, been to 17 All-Star Games, scored more points than Jordan. But then here comes Russell, a darting, probing reminder of the one thing he hasn't accomplished. If Bryant bailed tomorrow, he would leave without a successor to carry his mantle and extol his influence, as much a part of an athlete's legacy as his ring count. There would be no young headliner in purple and gold to defend Bryant against the tired but inevitable charge that he was lacking as a teammate and leader. There would be no one to talk about him the way he talks about Mrs. Mastriano. Bryant is a renowned student of the game, but Russell represents what might be his last chance to teach, which is why the stakes for this season are high, even if the Lakers' odds of making the playoffs remain low.
Bryant wants to leave an imprint on the next generation, and in his defense, he hasn't had many opportunities. Over his first 17 years in the league the Lakers picked in the lottery only once, selecting oddball center Andrew Bynum 10th in 2005. In the spring of 2014 they chose power forward Julius Randle seventh, and when he broke his leg on opening night, it was Bryant who hovered over him and whispered in his ear. "I could feel his presence," Randle says. "And then later he sent me the text that got me out of the somber mood I was in. His encouragement was what helped me come back."
Randle is important to the Lakers' future, but Russell is critical, and Bryant has spent considerable time pondering how he can relate to a sidekick so young. "I've thought about that all summer," Bryant says, "because this is a generation that I've completely missed. What music do they listen to? What are they interested in? I don't really know." Bryant, for his part, enjoys visiting the sets of television shows in his spare time and watching the different ways actors transform into their characters. "Have you ever done anything like that?" he asks Russell.
"I've been to the ESPN car wash," the rookie replies.
There is a lot of work to do, and not much time to do it. Bryant is 37, in the last year of his contract and maybe the last year of his career. His future will probably be determined by his health. But Russell, and whatever satisfaction Bryant derives from grooming him, will play a role. "The student is always a teacher," Bryant says, "and the teacher is always a student." He is not the type of tutor who will hand out stickers and straight A's. He will follow the same instincts that guided him with those Lower Merion kindergartners. "What I'm going to do," Bryant says, "is share my story."
RUSSELL KNOWS much of it already. "Favorite Kobe Bryant memory?" he says. "Utah series, '97, when he shot the air balls." Never mind that Russell was one year old when the Lakers' precocious rookie unleashed those four fruitless heaves in crunch time of an elimination-game loss to the Jazz. "I love that moment because of how he reacted afterward, how he drove down to UCLA and looked at the [students there] and wondered, Did I make the wrong decision?" Russell says. "That's when he really took off. He kept shooting. I'm sure I'll have the same kind of moment, when I wonder if I should have stayed in college, if I should have stayed the man for a little longer. I'll keep shooting too."
Russell had a brutal summer league. His body was sore and his stroke was off, and when the team ran wind sprints, shooting guard Jordan Clarkson lapped him. "That can't happen," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told the bonus baby. Russell promptly moved to L.A., and when Kupchak looked out his office window every day, he saw Russell's legs churning on the practice court.
Behind his starstruck facade, Russell possesses an edge Bryant can appreciate. He publicly lobbied the Lakers to draft him, begging for the pressure—and the punishment. "So many people feed you that b.s.," Russell says. "Kobe is going to give you the real thing. He's not going to make anything easy, and I don't want it easy. He's not some soft, nice guy, so why would he pass his torch to some soft, nice guy who doesn't have that killer in him, that dog in him? I know I got it in me."
Russell is from Louisville, and his high school coach, Doug Bibby, was Rajon Rondo's high school coach. Russell yearned for Rondo's approval, perhaps too desperately. "Every time he came around, I never performed like I would have if he wasn't there," Russell says. "I put a lot of pressure on myself. Also, Rondo isn't that much of a people person. Kobe is." In 2015, that may be true. "I had a big transition when I started to understand that my teammates viewed me like some damn machine who didn't feel anything and was oblivious to pressure," Bryant says. "They found that very unrelatable. I had to explain that I had the same fears, flaws, vulnerabilities, so they could relate to me." He is referring to former Lakers such as Lamar Odom and Luke Walton, Shannon Brown and Ronny Turiaf, who came to treasure Bryant for reasons that transcend assists.
"People who have very limited knowledge of sports always say, 'Passing the ball makes everyone better,'" says Bryant. "No. That's not it. That's not making them better. That's giving them an opportunity to be successful. If you want to make them better, you don't just hand them the ball. You inspire them to be the best version of themselves, and I do that by sharing things which are very personal to me, things I've struggled with, and letting them relate that to their own journey."
With Russell, Bryant started a different way. "He doesn't like my shoes," Russell mentioned after the first day of training camp. "He said the material is cheap and won't support my feet." The rookie immediately changed kicks but still reported a bruised right foot two days later. Despite the injury, he refused to skip a practice. Maybe he would have done the same thing back at Ohio State—or maybe he knew that Bryant hoisted jumpers last season the morning of his shoulder surgery ("It doesn't really hurt that bad," he told incredulous staffers) and that Bryant was working out in the gym at the Hilton Hawaiian Village at 5 a.m. "All that stuff filters down," says Kupchak, who played in Washington with Wes Unseld and still cringes when he recalls the agony Unseld endured to keep hitting the glass.
In this Age of Calipari, when the best prospects are rarely older than 19, influential veterans have become vital. "These kids have no idea what being a professional is all about," Kupchak says. "How would they know? They're blank slates. Maybe something is scribbled on there, but it's not in indelible ink." Russell isn't a locomotive like Derrick Rose, nor is he a sniper like Steph Curry. He is a methodical playmaker, in the mold of James Harden, who must use his 6'5" frame to reach his spots. Bryant, one of the finest shot creators in NBA history, pulls him aside to demonstrate tricks. Russell already offers a hilarious impersonation of a Bryant fadeaway, with no fewer than six pump fakes.
Kupchak wants to buy the Kobe-as-mentor story line, but he knows better than to count on it. "He does want to teach," Kupchak says. "He is aware of the legacy issues. And he's so much more patient than he used to be. But he's still such an instinctive competitor, at some point that patience runs out and those instincts kick in: I gave them their chance, and it's time to take over because I can do it better than anybody else." It was only 10 months ago that Bryant stormed out of a practice, sniping at Kupchak, "These motherf------ ain't doing s--- for me." As tough as Russell may be, a repeat performance would shake any teenager's confidence.
"It's much more like juggling eggs," Bryant says. "You have to handle them with care because you don't want them to fall and crack." Traditionally, he is not a man who juggles eggs. He is a man who tempers steel. "I know one gear, and I'm not very balanced in my life, which isn't the healthiest way to be," Bryant continues. "Some people like that approach and some people don't, and that's where the split happens, the hero/villain split. You need to have a villain, an antagonist, and for a long time I've been this black mamba character. It's how people needed to know me. But when I go full bore into my second act, I think they will know me for something else."
Kobe Bryant, storyteller, motivator, instructor. His vision for his company is still coming into focus, but he'd like to create biographical portraits of luminaries, probably in digital or video form. He may discover that few tales are as rich as his own. "No," Bryant protests. "I guarantee if I dig into your story—Why do you do what you do? What was your seed? What were the trials that led you to where you are?—I'll pull something that's pretty f------ powerful. Pretty f------ powerful."
But that's for another year. The most relevant story in this Lakers season is D'Angelo Russell's. Someday he will be asked about the transformative experience of his young career, being Kobe Bryant's rook. His response will have implications for both. He has to love it.
BRYANT IS IN A NEW POSITION: MENTOR. "FOR A LONG TIME I'VE BEEN THIS BLACK MAMBA CHARACTER. IT'S HOW PEOPLE NEEDED TO KNOW ME. BUT WHEN I GO FULL BORE INTO MY SECOND ACT, I THINK THEY WILL KNOW ME FOR SOMETHING ELSE," HE SAYS.
THROWBACK: KOBE THE ROOKIE
Caused a stir in 1996 when he announced, "I've decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA." (Sound familiar?) No guard had ever made the jump from high school, and Bryant lasted until the 13th pick, when the Hornets selected him and shipped him to the Lakers for center Vlade Divac.
Bryant's first Lakers team featured two guards who would become NBA coaches: Derek Fisher (who, like Bryant, was a rookie) and Byron Scott (who is now Kobe's boss). But the focal point was another newcomer to L.A.: 24-year-old Shaquille O'Neal.
Backed up Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel in '96--97, starting six times and averaging 7.6 points on 41.7% shooting for a 56-win team that lost in the second round of the playoffs.