The Summer Kobe Bryant Made 100,000 Shots
I first met Kobe Bean Bryant in the summer of 2007. He had just turned 29. He owned three NBA championship rings, two scoring titles, and the record for the second most points ever scored in a game, 81.
And he was universally disliked.
By players, by fans, by the press. Even by people who knew nothing about basketball. Just the mention of his name would elicit epithets.
When we met up, Kobe's reputation had hit rock bottom. Some people hated him because of recent public events in his private life—arrested in connection with a sexual assault on a hotel employee in Colorado, the case was dropped after the woman refused to testify; an out of court settlement was reached; Kobe admitted to adultery and gave his wife an 8 carat purple diamond ring, valued at $4 million, as a symbol of his contrition.
Other people hated him because it was rumored that he'd catalyzed the trade of beloved teammate Shaquille O'Neal, the clown prince of basketball, with whom he'd won three back-to-back championships. Like two stags seemingly driven only by raw and inarticulate instinct, it was said that the two superstars could not find a way to work together.
Lakers fans hated Kobe because he was talking in the press about leaving the Lakers. After the team had stood by him through his difficulties; after he'd trashed the team by driving out Shaq, now he wanted to be traded?
While his jersey continued to be the best selling NBA product worldwide, at home he was grudgingly respected, universally disdained. It was as if he was just too good, too dedicated, too wrapped up in his own excellence. By comparison, he made everyone seem like a slacker. And he didn't seem to have any inkling that this was the case. Later, he would tell me as much. He didn't read the newspapers in those days. "I had no idea what people were thinking," he'd say.
Having entered the league as a teen, Kobe had little in common with his teammates; while the older men preferred strip joints and other male pursuits, Kobe was escaping into fantasy novels and ordering room service burgers. When in town, he was often seen picking up his girlfriend after high school every day in one of his flashy cars. It didn't help that he'd been raised in a cosmopolitan European atmosphere by a dad who was a pro baller himself (a supremely talented player who was not particularly well-liked in the NBA).
From the beginning, he was one of a kind. All talent and raw ego, an ultimate fan who had studied every nuance of the game. He was ridiculed for being over-eager. He shot airballs in clutch game situations, engaged Michael Jordan in a heated battle in his first All Star game, which all the players know is supposed to be a laid back showcase. Kobe was even said to routinely dress for games in the training area, deliberately removing himself from the comradery of the locker room.
I spent something like 12 hours with Kobe and his wife Vanessa over a five-day period. Celebrity interviews being what they are, you can't always tell who you're getting, someone real or someone playing a role. As a basketball fan, I've watched Kobe from the beginning, having moved to Southern California at the same time Kobe moved into his slot on the Lakers roster. For years I taped and later DVR'ed every game that was televised in San Diego. I've attended games when good tickets were available. I've watched him grow.
One time we were talking and Kobe told me about the early weeks of the 1999 season, when he fractured the fourth metacarpal bone in his right hand. He missed the first 15 games of the season; he used the opportunity to learn to shoot jump shots with his left hand, which he was later known to do in games if necessary.
The fourth metacarpal bone is below the ring finger. To splint the break, the finger was taped to his pinkie. When the injury healed, Kobe discovered that his four fingers were no longer evenly spaced; now they were separated, two and two. As a result, his touch on the ball was different; that season, his shooting percentage went down. Studying the film, he noticed that his shots were rotating slightly to the right.
To correct the flaw, Kobe said, he went to the gym over the summer and made 100,000 shots. That's 100,000 made, not taken. He doesn't practice taking shots, he explained. He practices making them. That always stuck with me. They talk a lot in basketball about "doing things the right way." Kobe loved basketball so he took no short cuts. He knew there was nobody to cheat but himself.
The next season, 2000, the Kobe/Shaq Lakers won their first of three NBA Championships.
These days, people talk a lot about Kobe's work ethic, but back then, all they were talking about were his troubles in Colorado, the diamond apology ring, his arrogance.
In later years, Kobe has grown as a teammate and as a man. Undergoing tough seasons of injury has humbled and wizened him. Though he is universally respected, he has never been particularly loved. In that way he will always be more like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than Magic Johnson, two others with whom he will forever occupy the Mt. Rushmore of Lakerland.
Like Kareem, Kobe never wanted to be loved. He just wanted to be great at basketball.
And so he will be remembered.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.