Last season when Derek Fisher was with the Utah Jazz, behind enemy lines, a fidgety, excited rookie, Ronnie Brewer, approached him.
The topic: how to guard Kobe Bryant. Brewer was about to undergo his initial baptism by Bryant, a rite of passage for fledgling wing players who must defend him
For rookies or veterans, guarding Bryant can become a humiliating undressing in a sport that feeds off boasting and bravado.
Among his peers, Bryant is overwhelmingly the most intimidating. In a recent Sports Illustrated poll of current NBA players asking who scares you the most, Bryant garnered 35% of the vote, while the next four -- Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard -- combined for only 24%.
Bryant uses an array of dizzying moves-- from his scissor-kick jump shot and repertoire of pump fakes, to his jet-quick first step that gets him to the basket. His jump shot and ability to create shots on his own rank among the league's best, but he is even more frightening when driving. And when in the mood, he manifests into one of the game's best passers.
Just compete with him, Fisher told Brewer. Challenge him as best you can, Fisher counseled, and don't get overly frustrated because Bryant is going to score.
Bryant scored 27 points that night. In their next matchup, Bryant dumped in 52 points.
"I don't think he predetermines any move that he's going to make," Brewer said. "If you back up off of him and play soft, he's going to come down and dribble the ball and pull up for a three[-pointer]. If you overplay him, he's so quick off his first dribble he can get to the basket and finish at the basket with contact."
At 29, Bryant is in his prime. A 10-time All-Star, with scoring titles the last two seasons, he has scored 50 points or more 24 times, a feat topped only by Wilt Chamberlain (118) and Michael Jordan (31), and this season he may win his first most-valuable-player award.
One Western Conference advance scout compared Bryant favorably to a mathematician. At its core, basketball is a game of geometry and if opponents take bad paths to guard Bryant, they've already failed, because he quickly reads defenses and angles, capable of making split-second decisions that usually work in his favor.
When Kirk Snyder, a Minnesota Timberwolves guard, defended Bryant for the first time, he was left trailing behind, many times. "As a basketball player, you try to come up with little things you can do to stop somebody and when he covers all those areas, it makes it really hard," Snyder said.
"It's kind of disturbing sometimes because guys aren't supposed to be perfect. If he's loose with the ball one time, he'll come down and tighten it up the next. He knows everything you are going to try and do before you even try and do it."
Opponents no longer gawk at Bryant's moves. The unexpected, they say, is the expected.
"You've just got to see what's not going for him and see if you can keep it up. If his shot ain't falling, then you want to keep giving him shots," the Portland Trail Blazers' Travis Outlaw said. "If his shot is falling, see how he does getting it to the rim. He can score, so there isn't anything that ever surprises me."
Defenders' "success" stories guarding Bryant are rare.
"There's been a couple times when I feel like I've been guarding him pretty good, pretty well, and he's made a ridiculous shot," the Clippers' Quinton Ross said. "That's when I'm like, 'Damn. He made that shot?' "
Generally, teams adopt the Fisher approach in conceding that Bryant will score. The trick is, in what manner?
The Houston Rockets were pleased by their effort in a win last month. Shane Battier shadowed Bryant and forced him to Houston's help defense. Several times TV replays showed Battier not attempting to block Bryant's shot, but putting his fingers directly in front of Bryant's eyes to limit his vision.
Bryant scored 24 points, four below his season average, making only 11 of 33 shots.
From the free-throw line, with his dribble intact, Bryant is at his best, players say. From there, he can shoot, be at the rim in one dribble, and if a double-team comes, either find a cutter to the basket or split the defenders himself.