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Lakers: Prince of the City

Kobe Bryant in L.A. is a match made in basketball heaven. Now all he needs is a season

Long, long ago, back before the NBA lockout, before owners and players squared off to decide which was the more oppressed group of multimillionaires, before Mark McGwire replaced Michael Jordan in the nocturnal fantasies of corporate ad executives, before the Dodgers replaced the Clippers as the laughingstock of professional sports, before TV's armchair analysts employed the 24-hour clock to debate the wisdom of Bill posting Monica down low, even before Phil Jackson retired and Jerry West unretired and Jordan began to ponder to cogitate to muse about retiring, the Lakers looked like a pretty good shot to win the NBA title and 19-year-old Kobe Bryant stood on the threshold of his dream.

It was a simpler, more innocent time—April 19, 1998, the last game of the regular season, the Lakers pitted against their premier conference rivals, the Utah Jazz, both teams clawing for four quarters until the Lakers put it away in the final minute when Kid Kobe, playing what Lakers coach Del Harris would later call his finest game of the season, drove in the final coffin nail with a downtown three-pointer. A few minutes later, he and the other three Lakers all-stars—remember them?—were holding court in the locker room as bee swarms of media circled and gathered in the honey. Then, into the locker room strode Utah Jazz forward Antoine Carr, 14-year veteran of the league. With his imposing physique and implacable stare, he walked across the room to Bryant and proffered a pair of white and purple basketball shoes.

"Sign these for my son?"

Such a symbolic torch passing—the grizzled vet paying homage to the graceful kid, the duller than dishwater Jazz endowing the future to the son-of-showtime Lakers. At least that's the way Hollywood used to write this kind of script. It didn't quite turn out that way, of course. Three weeks later, it was the Lakers who got torched by those very same Jazz in an ignominious playoff series sweep while the catcalls from the upper reaches of the Great Western Forum poured down like acid rain. Yet following the decisive game three, the one that seemed to break the Lakers' spirits like a dry twig, it was Kobe who stood his ground in the middle of the locker room and held firm against a very different media swarm, this time stinging venom. "Do you really believe you can still win this series?" one reporter asked. "I can guarantee you nobody else in this room thinks you can."

"Yeah, I do," Bryant replied, conceding nothing, his 300-watt smile in place and his confidence unshaken. "Yeah, I do."

Come to think of it, that is the way Hollywood writes the script these days. Why give away the whole yarn in one reel when you can cash in big with the sequel?

Right now, by NBA standards, Bryant is a pretty good basketball player. By the standards of marketing and entertainment, he's a global superstar, the most popular commodity in the league after Mr. Jordan. His visage is omnipresent, hawking for Adidas, Spalding, Sprite, his own Nintendo game and God knows what else. "We were watching some talk show together at home the other day, says Sharia Bryant, the older of Kobe's two sisters, "and the Nintendo commercial starts flashing KOBE BRYANT—NBA COURTSIDE. It came on about six times, and I'm like, `You're haunting me. I'm so tired of seeing your face. Get away from me!'"

"The opportunities are incredible," confirms Bryant's agent, Arn Tellem. "Most players have shoe deals and one or two others, but the opportunities Kobe has had are far greater than any other team athlete, aside from Jordan—and Kobe's have come quicker."

And why not? Already Bryant's story is the stuff of myth, proof biblical that even after Jordan, God's divine plan for his favorite sports league continues to unfold: how the son of former pro journeyman Joe "Jellybean" Bryant grew up in Italy, where his father finished his career, watching videotapes of his hero, Magic Johnson, practicing his moves with obsessive fervor and determining to usurp the Magic Man's blend of crowd-pleasing flash and unquenchable will; how he returned home to America, led his Philly-area team to the state title and was anointed U.S. high school player of the year; how a seemingly rash decision to forgo college and head straight to the NBA—a leap only rarely consummated with even modest success and never by a guard—led to a workout before St. Jerry West (the man who could, as sportswriter Jim Murray once put it, "spot a great player from the window of a moving train") that so impressed the Lakers' resident genius that he resolved to risk all by trading the team's starting center to the Charlotte Hornets in return for Bryant, the Hornets' draft pick that year at number 13. Later that summer, West filled the resultant void at center by winning a high-stakes poker game for Shaquille O'Neal—and voila! Can you say ... Lakers dynasty? So it was writ.

Well, not yet. But know this: Shaq and Kobe still bookend that plan. What's ironic is that Shaq-a-doo, oft criticized for constructing a one-man entertainment conglomerate at the expense of his game, has evolved into a tremendously effective player, even if he never quite convinced the younger moviegoing set that he was also a lovable genie worthy of mass adulation. Kobe, by contrast, evinces such natural charisma that fans selected him to the all-star team last winter despite his failure to crack the Lakers' starting lineup. Part of Bryant's popularity has to do with his eye-pleasing offensive skills—he's one of the few players in the league capable of taking his defender off the dribble anytime, anywhere. Partly, it's panache. Whether throwing blind passes or driving the lane for windmill thunder jams, he exhibits a rarefied strain of athletic grace.

But mostly it's because of who he is or seems to be. Or to put it another way, what's not to like? He's got youthful elan, an incandescent smile, a genuinely friendly manner and style, too. While other players meet the press in the locker room after games in various states of undress, Bryant arrives out of the shower room impeccably attired, often in three-piece suits. And he's worldly. He not only wears Italian, he speaks it. And let's not ignore the role-model factor: In a league where an uncommon number of budding stars have a way of making the news for toting guns and marijuana, you can't help but notice how often Bryant shows up in the gossip columns-like, never.

The guy lives at home with his parents. Even his sister calls him a mama's boy. Ask Bryant to describe his perfect L.A. day, and this is what he says:

"During the season? Practice in the morning, shoot around, win all the games, go home, come back for the game, win the game, go home, go to sleep."

"Off-season? Get up in the morning, go jet-skiing or something, come home, watch videos with my sisters, go down to 3rd Street Promenade, see a movie, eat at a nice little restaurant, come home, go to sleep."

And he means it.

But perhaps the real Kobe Bryant is harder to find. Once the season is over, this is literally true. While other players go home to shoot hoops and work the backyard barbecue grill, Bryant's travel itinerary gets global—those multimillion-dollar sneaker contracts do come with shoelaces attached. Representing Adidas, which figures to pay him about $2 million in endorsement fees this year, Bryant spent a month traveling through Asia last summer and was the star attraction at basketball camps from Korea to Australia to Japan to the Philippines.

Shortly after his return, he hosted a bowling party in the San Fernando Valley to raise cash for his charity foundation, which donates money to various children's organizations. Since bowling is the one sport in I which world-class athletes are at a decided disadvantage versus old fat guys with beer guts ("I haven't bowled since I was about 10," Kobe admitted before taking to the lanes, and it showed—he barely cracked 100), the competition is all in fun. But the joint was also lousy with corporate clients eager for a meet-and-greet, so Bryant dutifully spent most of the evening working the room, signing autographs and making small talk with middle-manager types, playfully hoisting their kids over his well-sculpted shoulders. He looked a little weary, though, and not without reason. Two days earlier, he'd been running such a high fever that he couldn't even eat, let alone get out of bed. Business or basketball, the kid's a gamer.

"He's so good about it," Sharia marvels. "I won't even go to the mall with him anymore because it's such a pain signing autographs. I've seen some of his teammates just turn down people in public, you know, but Kobe is always the one that: says, `Sure, no problem.' Eventually, it's going to be a negative, because he won't be able to do that without standing in the same place for four hours."

A few days after the bowling party, Bryant was off on the European leg of his Adidas-camp run, to Paris and such, then back to L.A. Two days after that, he was sitting in Tellem's office on the top floor of a Westside minimall, informally attired in contemporary jock, playing with his agent's kids and grilling them about Michael Jordan. "Do you think he's gonna retire?" Bryant asked. One thought no, one wasn't sure. "What do you think?" I asked Bryant. He smiled but didn't say anything—perhaps even to speculate on Jordan might be construed improperly down the line—so I asked him how he was enjoying his summer vacation. This time, the smile took on a sardonic angle. "What vacation?" he replied.

That's about the closest Bryant gets to uttering a complaint. "At a certain point, it can definitely get to be a pain in the butt," he remarks of his megacelebrity status. "I'm not gonna say it's all smooth sailing. I'm only human. It is fun, though," he brightens quickly. "I mean, it's different. When I went on the Europe tour and overseas in Asia, I was treated like a pop star, man! People just want to touch you, grab you. Sometimes you have to focus and concentrate, you know, like, `The door's over here—walk straight to the door,'" he says with a laugh. "Sometimes the public's demands on you, from certain people's perspectives, can be too harsh. Me, personally, I shrug it off."

But it's only going to get worse. "Don't you worry about spreading yourself too thin and losing your privacy?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "I've always been the type of person who makes sure I have my privacy. Ever since I was really, really young."

He's very comfortable with himself. He's had to be. Unlike most contemporary sports stars, his development was almost exclusively an act of self-invention. Without any real peers to test his skills in Italy, he grew up playing ball with his shadow, visualizing a move, a shot, a situation, then executing his vision with Zen-like focus. "Know what you want to do, see what you want to do, and go get it," is how Bryant puts it. "Train your mind. I've been doing it since I was little."

His regimen hasn't changed much. L.A. is full of summer pickup games with pro-level competition, but Bryant doesn't play in them. He weight-trains each morning under the eye of strength coach Joe Carbone. After that, they repair to a gym, where Bryant works on his game for several hours—alone. "You know I can't give you no specifics," he laughs, anticipating the question. "It's top-secret information. But I've been working really hard."

But alone?

"Oh, yeah," he nods. "That's what got me to this point. I put a lot of time in, a lot of dedication."

What first fueled his obsession is anyone's guess. "I don't know where it came from, but it's always been there. I used to get in a lot of trouble when I was younger, runnin' my mouth, talk talk talk. And then backin' it up, which gets the older guys even more upset."

"You mean going back to high school?"

"Going back to Italy! Six, seven, eight years old, man. Going back to those days."

"He was always so serious about everything he did as far as sports," Sharia recalls. "Always so intense. When he was 8 and I was 11, we were in the same basketball league. The rest of the kids just wanted to play, and he was like, `I want to win. There's 30 seconds left, and we're down by two, give me the ball.' I mean, he was into it. He's always been that way."

There's the gene pool, for sure. Joe Bryant was a college star and a decent pro, though you don't acquire a nickname like Jellybean for your killer instinct. "He was a good player, but let's put it this way," says Bill Walton, a former teammate, "NBA coaches didn't stay up all night devising defenses for Jellybean Bryant."

"From the enthusiasm aspect, his love to play, I am more like my father," Bryant suggests. "But on the court, I'm more like my mother. She's like a pit bull. Her temper is like that!" he says, slamming his palms. "Very competitive. So I have the best of both worlds."

After Jellybean's NBA career wound down, he became one of the first American pros to take his game to Italy. He was a popular player who starred for several teams there, and the Bryants moved from city to city with him, rootless gypsies though by no means impoverished.

The Bryant family remains an extremely tight-knit unit to this day. Although Kobe's parents no longer grant interviews about their increasingly famous son, preferring not to bask in reflected glory, they still live together. After Kobe was drafted by the Lakers, he bought a big Spanish-style hacienda in the Palisades and moved everyone in except for Sharia, who was finishing her senior year at Temple University. Having since emigrated to L.A. as well, she lives nearby with her husband and is putting her business degree to work in Kobe's marketing campaigns, which stand to net her younger bro about $5 million overall in deals this year.

"That's the kind of attitude we developed in Italy," Kobe says. "The backbone is the family—once you have that, then everything else is cool. Whether you score 50 points or 0, your family is gonna be there. The Italians have that same thing; they're very warmhearted people. We were very comfortable there. We fell right in it."

The one thing that bugged him was the way his Italian friends would deride his game. "Just to get on my nerves, they used to say, 'You're good over here, but once you get back to America, you won't be so good; it's a different game over there.' There was nothing I could do about that—I couldn't fly in an American kid or anything. So when I came back to the States, I remember my first day in middle school, I'm just eating my lunch and this guy comes up to me, right? He says, 'I hear you're a pretty good basketball player. Well, to be the man you have to beat the man,' talking about himself. I looked at him like, yeah, okay. So I played him after school—and I shut him out!" Kobe practically shouts, still excited by the memory. "And I got my respect right there. That's what I was looking for all my years in Italy. My adrenaline was running so much." Kobe laughs heartily. "He had no idea."

Since then, he hasn't lacked for confidence. His rookie season with the Lakers ended on an unfortunate note, with Bryant hoisting successive air balls in a desperate last-ditch rally against those darned Utah Jazz. But what some observers failed to appreciate was that a teenage rookie had the nerve to take those shots. At such pressure moments, more than a few veterans become suspiciously unselfish. Bryant does not. He hungers to be The Man.

"I don't think anyone can teach the desire and fire he has for the game," says Bryant's backcourt mate Derek Fisher. "He has the talk, he has the air of confidence about himself—nothing is impossible for him. I learned something from him. I was watching one of his commercials, and he was saying, `You can't expect other people to believe in you, you have to believe in yourself.' And it kind of hit me, because sometimes that would waver with me, even though I knew I could play. But Kobe has the ability to keep himself mentally in place, where even if he goes 3 for 12 one night, he believes, maybe he can go 10 for 12 tonight. That's something you can't teach or coach. That's what makes him Kobe Bryant."

"People are always saying it's a high school adjustment, but most of the players have been the man in college, so it's an adjustment for them, too," Laker teammate Robert Horry observes. "Maybe it's more for him because it's the first time he's played with people who can do the things he can do—or can almost do the things he can do. Kobe can be unbelievable sometimes."

Most observers would agree, not always approvingly. Harnessing Bryant's explosive talent to a team that boasts three other all-stars has been what coaches like to call a learning process. He began his second pro season strongly, averaging 17 points through the all-star break, sparking the team off the bench; after that, his shot selection got wobbly and the team's fortunes began wobbling with it. But confidence comes in handy for such trials; toward season's end, Bryant was playing the best ball of his career, displaying particular chemistry on the floor with O'Neal, and the Lakers took 22 of their final 25 games. Then he missed most of the first round of the playoffs against Seattle with the flu, while Eddie Jones went wild, prompting another spate of unkind remarks. "Kobe? They don't miss him. It seems like the Lakers are more at ease without him," said Seattle forward Sam Perkins after one contest, sticking in the needle. After the disappointing Utah series, fans and commentators were tossing darts as well. That's the problem with being the great Hoop Hype; people invest in your dreams and then want instant dividends.

"Shaq will be the dominant player on any team he plays for," Bill Walton points out. "So Kobe's being pushed by the coaches to be a player who fits into a team structure and develops a game that's complementary to Shaq. But he's being pushed by marketing and many young fans who are looking for an individual to shine in a team game."

"What hurts Kobe is this is a team that's competing for a championship, so you can't just throw him out there for 40 minutes a night no matter what," adds Walton. "But that's how you learn to play in this league. Guys with Kobe's talent almost always start up on horrible teams, where they get the experience, the playing time. But he's not in that situation. He has a long way to go as a player; and sitting on the bench does not help. He can't get a set spot in the rotation, and it won't just happen because a shoe company wants it to happen—he has to make it happen. On the other hand, what can be better for a young, intelligent, articulate young man than to be a Laker? That's what young kids dream about. So it's both a blessing and a curse."

Bryant admits to a certain frustration. "The first couple of years, it probably would have been more fun if I went to a team like the Sixers or Clippers or something, because I would have been putting up 30 shots and scoring 30 points a night. It would have been fun," he repeats with a sly grin, savoring the notion. "But it might have taken six, seven years to learn what I have in a couple of seasons. Everybody here—Magic, Jerry West—they share their knowledge with you. So it was definitely worth it. And I knew since I first came out here for the tryout that it would be all about knowledge. Before the workout and after the workout, Jerry was giving me tips."

What kind of tips? Kobe won't give that up. "That's like sacred knowledge."

Well, does Jerry ever put the ball on the floor with you?

"When he's teaching me something, he'll actually put the ball on the floor, take a jump shot or something. He's still got it. But as far as lacing them up, no, not right now." Kobe's reverence gives way to a mischievous smile. "Because he knows I'll go after him."

Still, the rumors abound: How long can the league's most charismatic young star stick with a team where he's third or fourth banana? Bryant's natural position, shooting guard, is currently the province of Forum favorite Eddie Jones, a friend and mentor from Kobe's Philly days—and not incidentally a two-time all-star. Kobe has played well at small forward, but in the frontcourt, his height (officially six feet, six inches, which might include his modest Afro) is on the short side by NBA standards. "l have the versatility to play other positions," he says, "but as far as categorizing me, I'm a guard. I was born a guard. I will forever be a guard. That's my game. I'm a scorer."

On the World Wide Web, where there's no shortage of Kobe talk (146,000 Web sightings, according to Infoseek, versus, uh, 626 for Antoine Carr), one Kobe page invites fans to speculate on the question: Will he play out his career in Los Angeles? Bryant becomes a free agent after this season, and there's been talk he'll move elsewhere if he's not a starter by then. There are about 28 teams in the NBA who would love to believe that.

Let them dream. Bryant is foremost a family guy—his agent was already watching Kobe's father play when they were both high school students in Philadelphia—and the Lakers are part of the clan. Consider that Tellem and Jerry West are such good friends that they take extended family vacations every summer. Consider that West, who put his reputation on the line to get Kobe in the first place, recently signed a five-year extension as executive vice president, that the Lakers have a new downtown arena with high-priced luxuryseats to fill and that showtime-style basketball is very much owner Jerry Buss's idea of a good time. Nick Van Exel may get shipped off to Denver for the NBA equivalent of a bag of beans, Elden Campbell remains available to the lowest bidder and Eddie Jones to the highest. Kobe's going nowhere.

"He loves it here," Tellem says flatly. "My hope is that ultimately he'll be what Jerry West has been for the last 40 years. That he'll be forever tied to this team, that his number will be up there in the rafters next to Jerry's and that he will always be a part of this organization. Jerry will endure forever here, and my hope is that Kobe will have that same lasting relationship."

It's a stirring vision, for which the Lakers will be expected to pay through the nose. Kobe figures to command a five- to seven-year deal worth $60 million to $90 million after this season, dependent on his play, of course—but in any event, a considerable bounce upward from his current three-year, $3.5 million rookie pact.

But hey, stars cost money. You don't hear the Lakers complaining about it—Kobe least of all. "It's great here," he says of Los Angeles. "Driving to the store or to work out, you look around and see somebody with a surfboard or something like that, and you think, 'Damn, you live in L.A.!' I'm spending the rest of my life in California because it doesn't get any better than this."

Such wide-eyed excitement catches you off guard—does anyone really talk about L.A. like this anymore?—and reminds you that The Kid is still 20 years old, perhaps not entirely the equivalent of the mature, worldly persona he presents to the public. "He's mature when he's doing business," explains Sharia, who still can't come to grips with the hoopla surrounding her little brother. "When he's home, he's a jokester. He got this Scream mask from [director] Wes Craven, so that's his latest thing. He'll put on a long black trench coat and hide in the bushes, so everyone who comes to the house gets scared to death. That's how mature he is."

Home is the sanctuary, a sprawling place with all the accoutrements of NBA stardom. There's plush rolling stock in the driveway (Lincoln Navigator, BMW 740) and a bedroom replete with views of the mountains, the ocean and the city. During downtime, Kobe's in his room watching videos of the great ones—Magic, Michael, Larry—studying their advanced theorems, analyzing their court geometry. Or he'll sit in the far end of the family pool, not swimming, remaining still, recharging. Or he'll write poetry, fitting rhymes together for the hip-hop album he's in the process of making with some old friends from Philly, soon to be released on Sony Records. "I don't talk about guns and drugs and stuff, that wouldn't make any sense," he says of the raps in progress. "But the lyrics are intricate. Some might be competitive songs, me going up against another guy. Some might be about a particular lifestyle I see coming up, stuff that I'm around that I try to stay away from. It's a chance to kind of free yourself."

Freedom to hang with friends is a rare commodity in Kobe's world, but that's part of the price tag for living The Dream. "When I do have a chance to hang around with them, it's cool. But I really don't have a chance because the dedication I have, you have to sacrifice something at some point, so they're kind of on the outside." He shrugs philosophically. "To gain something, you got to give up something."

Indeed, Bryant's vision that he will become a great player, perhaps the greatest in the game, and win championships and create his own hallowed place in basketball history is so strong that, in his presence, you forget that, well (pardon the heresy), it just might not happen. 'Tis a pretty big dream, after all, full of real-life variables, and that script has yet to be written.

"At this point, he's just potential," Walton cautions. "Most players in the league can have a successful life and make money and have a nice home, but for the great ones, the real satisfaction comes with competing for the championship and being a factor. And he's not there right now. But hey, the guy loves to play basketball, he desperately wants to be great, he's happy about life, his dream is coming true in a positive way. So he has a chance. Will he get there? You never know—that's what makes it so exciting."

Bryant harbors no such doubts, of course, but he enjoys the quest. "Most of the attention right now—they're very excited about the hype because I have so much talent," he figures. "The funny thing is, when I first came into the league, everybody's expectations were down there, and mine were up here. Now everyone's expectations are up to here"—he raises his arm to chest level—"and mine are up there." He extends his arm high in the air.

"So it's better in a way that you haven't won a championship yet? That you still have mountains to climb?"

"What else have we got to do?" Kobe laughs. "That's the most fun to me, really. You hate to say it because you always want to be up by 15. But being down and then coming back—that's what's really fun."

"What do you fear?"

Kobe looks amused, as if fear meant ghosts and goblins. "Nothing."

"Nothing? Not even in your dreams?"

"Well, when you have dreams, something bad is gonna happen sometimes," he concedes. "But I never fear it."

"How about recurring basketball dreams? Do you have any of those?"

"Oh, yeah," Kobe says with a smile.

"And what happens?"

He smiles again, warm and easy. "I hit the winning shot."