Originally Posted by THE FIRE INSIDE
TO UNDERSTAND KOBE BRYANT,
ONE MUST FIRST LEARN THAT NO ONE DESIRES TO WIN AS BADLY AS HE DOES
A GREAT MOMENT IN HUMILITY IT WAS not. After scoring 18 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Conference finals against Denver, Kobe Bryant
said of his scoring prowess, "If I wanted to go out there and put up 35 points a night, I could do that."
Granted, the Los Angeles Lakers star was just being honest, but tact would dictate that he let others say such things about him. As you may have noticed, though, Bryant isn't big on tact. Time and again over the last decade he has announced the particulars of his awesomeness. As teammate Luke Walton dryly puts it, "Kobe does not lack for confidence."
Just as Bryant's bravado irks some O.K., many it also makes him riveting to watch: Like the man himself, the manner in which he bears down is never subtle. Spurs forward Bruce Bowen, Bryant's foil these many years, says there's no indicator of an impending scoring binge, joking that you can't tell "by the way he chews his gum or something." But that's not true at all. Rather, his eruptions are almost comically predictable. Former teammate Devean George, now with the Dallas Mavericks, speaks of "that Kobe face where he starts looking around all pissed off." His coach at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., Gregg Downer, says he can recognize this expression even on TV. In these moments Bryant's youthful impudence, which flummoxed Del Harris when he was L.A.'s coach during Bryant's first two years in the league, resurfaces. "Kobe would put it on the floor and start going between his legs, back and forth, back and forth," says Harris, "and only then would he decide what to do."
So there was Kobe on May 19, with the Lakers down five to the Nuggets in the fourth quarter, putting the ball on the floor and shaking his noggin like some enormous, ticked-off bobblehead. What followed seemed, in retrospect, inevitable: the deep jumpers, the twisting drives, the scowls and, finally, six cold-blooded Bryant free throws (on six attempts) in the last 30.5 seconds to cap the 105-103 win. Watching him manhandle the game, you could feel the series tilting westward, and indeed the Lakers dispatched the Nuggets in six games as Bryant averaged 34.0 points for the series.
Call it what you will: killer instinct, competitive fire, hatred of losing or, as former NBA guard Sam Cassell once said, "that Jordan thing." It's what has spurred Bryant, what the Lakers relied on to win their first post-Shaq championship, what separates Kobe from the rest of the players of his era. In 2002 Bryant said, "There's only two real killers in this league," meaning himself and Michael Jordan. Well, now there is only one. And it ain't Fabricio Oberto.
Because Kobe is Kobe, however, he cannot (or will not) soften his edge, the way Jordan did with his buddy-buddy NBA friendships, his who-would-have-thunk smirk or his endorsa-riffic smile. With Bryant, it manifests itself during practice, during games, during summer workouts, during conversation. "He can't turn it off, even if he tried," says George, one of a handful of NBA players relatively close to Bryant. And for that, Kobe has often been pilloried. But is this really fair? "Kobe wants it so badly that he rubs an awful lot of people the wrong way," says Lakers consultant Tex Winter, who has known Bryant since 1999. "But they're not willing to understand what's inside the guy."
O.K., then, let's try to understand. Starting at the beginning, moment by basketball moment.
IT'S 1989, AND BRYANT IS 11 YEARS OLD AND LIVING in Italy, where his father, Joe, is playing professional basketball. One day Kobe bugs Brian Shaw, a Boston Celtics first-round pick playing in Rome because of a contract dispute, to go one-on-one. Eventually Shaw agrees to a game of H-O-R-S-E. "To this day Kobe claims he beat me," says Shaw, now a Lakers assistant. "I'm like, Right, [I'm really trying to beat] an 11-year-old kid. But he's serious." Even back then Shaw noticed something different. "His dad was a good player, but he was the opposite of Kobe, real laid-back," says Shaw. "Kobe was out there challenging grown men to play one-on-one, and he really thought he could win."