GREAT article about Kobe. He's unusually candid here...
Kobe Bryant's world is again lit up by the most brilliant of suns, the gold ball that sits atop the championship trophy the Lakers won again last June. What's more, there isn't a cloud in this sky, quite a shift for someone who has fronted as many storms as he has.
He is the 2008 NBA MVP and 2009 NBA Finals MVP, and his No. 24 jersey leads all others in worldwide sales. He is at the zenith of his power and popularity. That much is seen by the stir he caused at Dodger Stadium just making his way to his seat for Game 2 of the NLCS.
So how is it he can also be somewhat of an afterthought?
The Lakers' Web site put out a 950-word report on Coach Phil Jackson's meeting with reporters just before training camp, looking ahead to this possible repeat championship season. Amazingly, not one of those words was "Kobe."
That's because he is winning again, but without new controversy. Bryant is no longer a man of mystery. He is neither misanthrope (to his haters) nor misguided angel (to his believers).
He simply became respectable, in every sense of the word.
Leading up to his 14th Lakers season, the Newport Coast resident sat down for an exclusive interview with the Register to explain that he has been more repaired than reformed.
"Circumstances," Bryant said. "I really haven't changed much."
But Bryant did acknowledge one thing has turned around completely. Upon sharing it, he tried to add dismissively that it's "just something personal for me."
He has come to care more what others think of him.
"I'm more in tune with it. I pay more attention to it. I have a greater sense of responsibility for it," he said. "It's all a part of how you are going to be remembered as a basketball player when it's all said and done. I care about it significantly more now than I did in the past."
If Bryant cares more about the rest of us now, it then makes sense that we can more readily connect with him. Moreover, we connect far better with a guy having to scale a mountain for a fourth NBA championship than someone seemingly waltzing to those first three titles in 2000-02.
"I've been through so much," Bryant said. "We didn't make the playoffs (in 2005); we went through down-and-out times. I think me having the intestinal fortitude to try to get us back to the top – and having to fight through so many different things – makes it a different kind of emotion as opposed to me being 20 years old, just coming in here and winning a championship."
If it's possible for something in Bryant's highly public life to have gone underreported, he'd say it's the underdog angle.
As a youngster, he had to crack the American blacktop courts with a game made in Italy. As a high school freshman, his team went 4-20 – but rose up to become state champs his senior year. He was the skinny kid who turned pro at a time no high-school guards had dared challenge the NBA's Goliaths. He overcame epic rookie-year humiliation in the form of all those air balls in the playoffs to forge a surefire Hall of Fame career by age 31.
"Emotionally, I'll always feel like the underdog – just because I've been that way my whole life," Bryant said. "So it's just something that has become a part of me – that mentality that just stays."
Asked how he could possibly still feel like the underdog now, Bryant recalls some whispers back in 2000 about the Lakers benefiting in their first title run from San Antonio missing injured Tim Duncan. Bryant narrows his eyes now to lock in on anyone who might remember Boston lost Kevin Garnett to injury and soon its title defense last spring.
"So it's time to prove ourselves all over again," Bryant said.
INSIDE KOBE'S LIFE
That's just how the overdriven Bryant mind works: more, more, more.
More 6 a.m. personal training, more ice both in front of and behind the knee just to make sure, and more payoff: "I feel better now than I've felt since I was 26 or 27," he said.
More 1-on-1 time with 3-year-old daughter Gianna, who deserves as much solo attention as 6-year-old Natalia got (the very reason the Bryants haven't yet had a third child, Kobe hinted).
More championships, obviously.
Bryant is asked if he is "satisfied" with his career to this point. His answer: "I'm very thankful and I feel very fortunate for winning four championships thus far. 'Satisfied' is a strong word. I'm very happy and pleased with where I've come."
Asked how he'd feel if he'd managed 10 championships in these first 13 seasons, he said: "Ten out of 13 is fantastic. But there are still three years …"
This success addiction was at the root of Bryant's last controversy: his 2007 trade demand.
"The only thing I regret was how public it had to become," he said. "It was something that I'd been dealing with internally for quite some time and me wanting them to make moves, as was said to me (upon re-signing in 2004). Those things were not happening, it felt like I was just out there showcasing and doing my individual thing, and they had no aspirations to spend money to try to bring a championship here.
"So I felt like something had to be said so we could get the ball rolling here. Get people to start talking about it, and the city becomes a little more impatient with the situation, and hopefully we'll get something done. And to their credit, they made a great acquisition in Pau (Gasol) and another great acquisition in Trevor (Ariza). They went out this summer and spent the money to get Ron (Artest) and locked in Lamar (Odom). To their credit, they did the right things."
IS KOBE DIFFERENT?
Bryant calls himself "naïve" for not hiring his own team of people earlier so he could play zone instead of man-to-man in defending his reputation.
"I kind of used to just roll with it," he said. "Whatever they said about me, they said about me. I know it's not true, so I just let it be. Instead, having people around you who care about that and that's their job, they protect you. There's no sense in going out there and just taking gunfire."
Shaquille O'Neal's itchy trigger finger did cost Bryant dearly, he is certain.
"That fractured people who supported me and people who didn't support me," Bryant said, "because it was like, 'Well, you can't support Shaq and support Kobe at the same time.' "
Since the sexual-assault charge against him was dropped in 2004, Bryant has gradually regained ground as a pitchman. He's back as a prime-timer, matching up against the sport's other transcendent star, LeBron James, in fun-filled Nike and VitaminWater ads.
His latest mainstream gig has him endorsing NBA 2K10, the best-selling basketball video game out there.
On the cover of the game box, Bryant is proudly pulling on the front of his gold Lakers jersey. There in the lower left corner is a big "E" to convey the recommendation made by the Entertainment Software Rating Board to the masses about Bryant's game: "EVERYONE."
There's irony in that stamp of approval. If there has been one constant with Bryant over the long haul, it's that he has not been meant for everyone.
KOBE IS NO TEDDY BEAR
If there's any doubt that Bryant's edge remains sharp – and bear in mind that his personal Nike logo is a knife holder, which makes getting the symbolism easy – consider his comments about the perception that he's a better teammate now:
"It's funny to me when people talk about the notion of making other players better, and they talk about just passing them the ball. It's just the most ignorant comment I've ever heard in my life. No, there are other things that have to come into play besides getting assists.
"It's helping them get the championship mentality and attitude and work ethic and drive and persistence. All that goes into it. It's not just passing somebody the ball, and wow, he hit a shot; I made him better.
"If the effort is there, I can respect that, I can understand that, and it helps me be more patient, because I know that they're trying. When guys aren't trying or guys are just out there (screwing) up and not giving the effort, I feel like killing 'em. Same as always.
"If you don't give the effort, I'm done with you. You might as well go play someplace else."
The polarizing figure has not sold out to become a teddy bear.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was asked a few years ago about the oft-criticized Bryant being a modern-day Howard Roark, Cuban's fictitious idol from Ayn Rand's 1943 novel, "The Fountainhead." Roark's unwavering commitment to individual integrity and righteous production challenged society's established standards, and his life was not so easy.
"Such a comparison might not be out of line," Cuban said.
Yet by the end of book, Roark manages to explain to society just what he is all about, reversing long-held misunderstandings: His drive to lift himself to unforeseen heights? It is meant to be proof of what all mankind can do.
Kobe Bryant is a thankful, fortunate, happy, pleased and unsatisfied 31-year-old man who does not want to be like everyone. He would love for everyone to understand him – and understand why he is going to keep playing and producing and winning much longer than seems imaginable.
Yes, he really did just drop a reference to John Stockton, who didn't retire until age 41.
"It's fascinating to me," Bryant said. "All the years of being here in Los Angeles with the fans and everything, and some think, 'Aw, he's getting older and the clock's ticking and blah-blah-blah-blah.' I've been playing for all these years, and you guys still don't know what I'm about."
He leaned forward and clapped his hands for emphasis as he spoke. He also laughed before continuing.
"It's fascinating to me. Understand that you have a player here who is going to do – by any means necessary – whatever it takes to help us get back to that level. No matter what."
There have been enough misunderstood artists over the course of history, toiling away for self-fulfillment and not connecting with those around them.
Bryant's museum is now open to the public.
[ Edited by LA9erFan on Oct 23, 2009 at 4:35 PM ]