Kobe Bryant Doesn't Want Your Love
Originally published in the November 2007 issue
Four miles east of Las Vegas Boulevard, well beyond the glitter of the Strip, the Valley High School gym is cool and humid, redolent of floor wax and old socks. The ball pounds on the polished hardwood, the sound echoes off the familiar glazed concrete blocks that form the inner walls. Sneakers squeak. Voices rise and fall, curses and laughter. There is high tragedy and low comedy, often displayed on the same face split seconds apart. There are no fans, no sportswriters. There is no trash talk, no ego, no dispute. There is nothing but this court, this play, these men, this ball—this peculiar ball, the usual orangey brown, only this one dressed up with the two white rings of international play—as it traces a high arcing parabola through the air, meanwhile rotating sweetly backward, a shot born of the countless other shots that have preceded it, hundreds of thousands of shots, perhaps millions taken and made over years and years of solitary practice in gyms and driveways and playgrounds from Italy to Philadelphia....
Kobe Bryant bobs in place on the balls of his feet, holding his pose, frozen for a split second in his red-white-and-blue Zoom Kobe II's, his impossibly long and Pilates-sculpted arm, bark brown and moist and smelling of complimentary hotel lotion, still extended overhead like a kid raising his hand in class. The names of his daughters, Natalia Diamante and Gianna Maria-Onore—which he pronounces with the proper Italian inflections, the t in Natalia more of a hardened th sound, the r rolled in Maria, a bit jarring against the contrast of his usual dialect, a somewhat put-on version of hip-hop (from age six to thirteen, he lived in Italy, where his father was a pro basketball player; later they moved to Wynnewood, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia)—are tattooed on the meat of his forearm, which is now facing the basket, his wrist still holding its perfect gooseneck follow-through, a gesture at once delicate and strong, like something from ballet, and so essential, adding as it does the ball's backward rotation, the so-called shooter's touch, which acts as a damper around the rim, helping to ensure that the 9.5-inch-diameter ball will fall with greater frequency into the 18-inch-diameter hole.
A few years ago, Kobe fractured the fourth metacarpal bone in his right hand. He missed the first fifteen games of the season; he used the opportunity to learn to shoot jump shots with his left, which he has been known to do in games. While it was healing, the ring finger, the one just adjacent to the break, spent a lot of time taped to his pinkie. In the end, Kobe discovered, 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, his shooting percentage went down. Studying the film, he noticed that his shots were rotating slightly to the right.
To correct the flaw, Kobe went to the gym over the summer and made one hundred thousand shots. That's one hundred thousand made, not taken. He doesn't practice taking shots, he explains. He practices making them. If you're clear on the difference between the two ideas, you can start drawing a bead on Kobe Bryant, who may well be one of the most misunderstood figures in sports today. It is a tragic misunderstanding, for his sake and for ours. You can blame it on the press. You can blame it on the way the world revolves around fame and money. You can blame it on Kobe himself.
Having just celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday, Kobe is about to begin his twelfth season in the NBA. Lately, somewhat grudgingly, people are beginning to acknowledge him as the greatest all-around player still active in the game, mentioned as a peer of Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. This year, Kobe will make upwards of $45 million from salary, endorsements, and business ventures. He is constantly in the news, usually on the wrong side of public favor as he continues to play for a once glorious team, the Los Angeles Lakers, that simply doesn't have the manpower right now to will itself into contention. Spending five days with Kobe—a dozen hours, really, spread over five days—is to glimpse the life of a highly skilled craftsman. He sees his work as his art, his calling. Like Jason Bourne and James Bond, two of his cinematic heroes, Kobe sees himself as an über-practitioner: a modern warrior able to solve any problem, able to train his way into dominance. He is the self-styled black mamba, known for its striking ability, aggression, and speed. All those sweaty commercials for Sprite and Nike? Those were his idea. Film my workout, he suggested. That is the essence of me: the guy who guts it out on every rep. Kobe's logo, which you will hear more about in the coming years, is called the Sheath. It is drawn to resemble the sheath of a samurai's sword. The sword is the raw talent, Kobe explains. The sheath is the package it's kept in—everything you go through, your calluses and your baggage, what you learn.
"Scito hoc super omnia....Tempus neminem non manet....Carpe diem," he proclaims in Latin (which he learned in elementary school in Italy) on the home page of his Website, KB24.com. "Know this above all else....Fully use every point, moment, and hour that you have. Time waits for no man....Seize the day." He wakes at 5:30 in the morning to work out. He eats five times a day, a special diet, stressing not just the ingredients but the way they're cooked. He studies tape of past, present, and world players with the curiosity of a scientist in the lab. (As a kid, he used to study bubble-gum basketball cards in order to see which moves the players were showcasing and "which of their muscles were firing to make the move happen.") He can look at a random still photo of himself making a particular shot from a game and tell you exactly when and where and what happened. He has spent hours at a time chasing tennis balls along the floor, running the same patterns again and again on an empty court to get his cuts right for the triangle offense, running steps, running suicides, running distance. After his first season as a pro, when he was the Lakers' sixth man, his summer workouts stressed ways to keep himself mentally involved in the game so he could come off the bench ready to contribute. Before Phil Jackson was ever even mentioned as a possible coach, Kobe contacted Tex Winter, the godfather of the triangle offense, to discuss the intricacies of the play—just because he was a student of the game and wanted to learn everything. In his first season without Shaq, he added fifteen pounds of muscle to handle the heavier workload he expected. This summer, he lost eighteen pounds, partially due to his need to watch his cholesterol (a family history of diabetes and heart disease) and partially to take some strain off his body in general and his knees in particular, which have been operated on several times, once in Colorado, an ill-fated trip undertaken with life-altering results.
According to his specifications, Kobe's shoes have been designed with a special alloy band inside the arch to cut, he believes, hundredths of a second off his reaction time. For the same reason, he's asked Nike to design a sock-and-shoe system, maybe something like pro soccer players have. That fraction of a second he loses when his foot slides inside the shoe is the time it takes him to blow by a defender, he says. When he ices his knees, he ices the backs as well as the fronts, something that is usually overlooked because it takes longer. He has also asked Nike to design a new kind of warm-up that will wick heat away from his knees and thus enhance recovery time; recovery time, he says with conviction, is the most important element of working out.
With one ball and one rebounder, shooting his usual 80 to 90 percent in practice (with no defender), Kobe can make five hundred shots in about sixty minutes. Last year, as a result of all that practice, all those hundreds of thousands of makes, Kobe scored at least fifty points in four consecutive games and led the league in scoring. Two years ago, he turned in an electrifying eighty-one-point performance at home against Toronto, the second highest total on record, after seven-footer Wilt Chamberlain's hundred-point game, all of which came from within fifteen feet of the basket. The reaction to Kobe and his achievements has been puzzling, as it has been since the beginning of his career, when he was voted into the All-Star game as a second-year player (he was the sixth man on the Lakers at the time), and then criticized for inciting an electric duel with the reigning king, Michael Jordan. Perhaps no figure in NBA history has been at once more loved and more reviled than Kobe Bryant.
Now, in the gym, the ball arcs perfectly through the rim and ripples the bottom of the net with a distinctive, thrilling swish. The moment is unfrozen; time moves on. Kobe nods his head once, almost imperceptibly, as if to say, That's what I'm talkin' about, an expression he uses with exuberance when he's in private, when something catches his fancy, when something he believes is borne out. A picture of Kobe seldom seen: his perfect white teeth bared in the large carefree smile of a young man who loves watermelon and those yummy ice cream Kahlúa drinks he and his wife had the other night for dessert at the restaurant in Las Vegas before seeing the show Kà, and who is lately in love with the Harry Potter series, which he read at a breakneck pace, trying to beat out his wife, the first books he's read since twelfth grade, when he became obsessed with the sci-fi thriller Ender's Game, about a boy who suffers greatly from isolation and rivalry but ultimately saves the planet.
The doorbell chimes musically. Kobe and his party have arrived, a contained but complex weather system of youthful energy and expensive perfume.
Leading the way is the bodyguard, Rico, a soft-spoken man of unremarkable size, a former LAPD SWAT-team member with a background in martial arts. It is said that Rico (his first name is Cameron; nobody thinks it fits) is trained to hold off a surging crowd long enough for Kobe to get to safety. In a few days, Kobe will be off on a Nike-sponsored tour of Asia, six cities in seven days, where his apparel sells through at almost twice the normal rate and where surging crowds are actually a threat. Worldwide, Kobe apparel outsells that of all other NBA players: The undisputed fact of his statistical dominance seems to outweigh the perceived negatives of his personal history—the aloofness and selfishness of his early career, the Colorado sexual-assault case that was dropped by prosecutors and the civil suit that was settled out of court, his pissing match with America's beloved clown-giant Shaquille O'Neal, his on-again, off-again insistence on being traded from the Lakers.
Jerry Sawyer is Kobe's marketing manager, six foot two with Malcolm X–style black-frame glasses and an enviable collection of vintage sneakers. His father managed boxers; one of them was Leon Spinks. Jerry carries two different communications devices in the pockets of his oversized shorts. He's one of the four pillars of Zambezi Ink, Kobe's mixed-media ad agency. Like record labels owned by rappers, Zambezi is Kobe's attempt to harness the means of production. Jerry also does a lot of other things for Kobe, from screening press contacts (like me) to dealing with charitable causes, like the After-School All-Stars, an enrichment program for needy kids in L.A., which we visited together one day with the predictable uproar (snapshot: a large cooking class of middle-school-aged black and Latina girls learning to make potato salad, wearing hairnets and plastic gloves and holding knives, screeching at the top of their lungs). Jerry was also charged with making sure that Kobe's black-and-white polka-dot polyester sport coat, custom-made for him by Gucci (as are many of his clothes—he sits at the dining-room table with his wife and chooses swatches), was pressed and delivered for this photo shoot, which is finally about to happen in this borrowed suite in the Wynn Tower on the Strip in Las Vegas, where Kobe is playing in a summer tournament with the U.S. National Team, attempting to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. The Wynn is booked solid the entire month with basketball royalty.
Clutching tight to Kobe's hand is the former Vanessa Urbieta Cornejo Laine, twenty-five, she of the infamous $4 million purple makeup diamond. Kobe met Vanessa—and her mother, who was along as chaperone—on the set of a video shoot for his rap album, an experiment in cross-marketing that came and went with little fanfare. (Note: Try Googling the lyrics of "K.O.B.E.," performed in duet with the model and TV personality Tyra Banks.) At the time, Vanessa was still a seventeen-year-old high school junior. Kobe himself was only twenty-one, a four-year veteran of the NBA. (You will recall, perhaps, that he took the pop singer Brandy to his own senior prom.) Criticized early in his career for holding himself separate from his teammates—while they were playing cards, going to clubs, and discussing child-support payments, Kobe was playing pay-per-view Nintendo and ordering room service—Vanessa seemed more his speed. A sheltered Catholic girl from Orange County, she was as close to her family as he was to his; after residing with his own parents for two years, Kobe had only recently started living on his own. Vanessa had been discovered outside a hip-hop concert by a music producer and had recently begun booking jobs as a dancer and an extra. Kobe tells me unabashedly that when he met her, it was love at first sight. They've been together every possible moment since. The first week, he flooded the administrative office at her high school with flowers for her; he'd pick her up after the bell in his big black Mercedes, causing a stampede of lookie-loos.
Vanessa's dark beauty and silken coal-black hair bring to mind the kind of idealized Mexicana frequently seen in tattoos sported by Latino gangbangers. She is known by some as Kobe's Yoko. I have seen her, purring and demure, at Kobe's side in her four-inch heels, her makeup and wardrobe obviously the work of someone with ample time and money on her hands, bringing to mind the image of a tower-kept princess before her mirror, primped to the last eyelash, the last curl, the last bangle. In public, she patiently endures the endless cell-phone pictures taken by all comers, who seem to be lying in wait around every corner, all the time, graciously thanking each and every person who comments on her looks: You're so very kind, she will say, her smile royal and Splenda sweet, thank you so very much. And I have seen her go off— off like a mother bear, like a cornered cat, like a streetwalker on D.C.'s notorious Fourteenth Street strip, zero to sixty in a snap of her manicured fingers, hurling a string of expletives outside the Lakers' dressing room at a fat guy who she perceived had been looking at her daughter in an inappropriate fashion. She might well own the record for the most motherfuckers in one sentence.
Kobe calls her Mamacita. He holds her hand everywhere they go. Sometimes he speaks to her in Spanish. Later this afternoon, when his fruit plate finally arrives, Kobe will ask her: "Quieres un poquito de fruta, Mamacita?" Kobe and Vanessa are teaching their kids Spanish and English. Sometimes, Kobe throws in some Italian, too. He'll say mangia, for instance, telling them to eat. Natalia, four, known as Nani, will look at him like he's crazy. "You're not saying the Spanish word, Daddy," she will chide. Nani, of course, is tall for her age. Kobe's older sister, with whom he is very close, is six two. Kobe's mother, Pam, as long as we're doing this, is five ten. His father is six nine. Joseph Washington "Jellybean" Bryant, a product of Philly and La Salle University, left school early for the NBA through the "hardship draft," after showing financial need. He was nicknamed for his love of sweets. (He named his son after the pampered Japanese beef: Kobe Bean Bryant.) The rap on Joe is that Kobe didn't get his work ethic from Joe's side of the family. Joe was known as a showboat. He played eight years in the NBA, four with his hometown Philadelphia 76ers, who stuck him under the basket in their old-school, East Coast offense. Jellybean thought of himself as more of a Magic Johnson–type player who was being held back from greatness. In Italy, he became the player he dreamed of being, high scoring (he had two fifty-plus-point games) and beloved; Kobe remembers the fans singing songs about his dad. When Kobe was a toddler, he'd put on his little Sixers uniform and watch his dad on television. Kobe would pretend to play in the game, mimicking his dad's moves, taking time-outs for water when the team did. As Kobe got older, he would end up playing for the same Italian club team as his dad, only in a younger division, wearing the exact same game uniform for real. Frequently, Joe would bring Kobe to his own practices. At age eleven, a team from Bologna tried to buy him from his parents. By thirteen, Kobe was beating his dad's teammates one-on-one. Kobe's daughter is athletic, he can already tell. Nani is playing soccer, a game Kobe still loves. (He picked his U.S.A.–team number, 10, because it was the number of his favorite soccer players—Pelé, Maradona, Ronaldinho.) Usually, when he plays games with Nani—the younger, nicknamed Gigi, is only eighteen months—Kobe lets her win. Occasionally, he goes ahead and beats her at something. He's noticed she plays a lot harder the next time around. His daughters' all-time favorite game is something called Tickle Man. As you might expect, it involves Daddy.
This weekend, with the Tickle Man in Vegas playing his own big-boy game and Mamacita here to keep him company, the girls are being watched by Vanessa's mom at their big house in guard-gated Ocean Ridge, near Newport Beach, California. The couple has lived there since their marriage in 2001. It is not publicly known whether it is still decorated, as was earlier reported, with his Star Wars memorabilia and her Disneyana. Presumably, it is big, with a lot of kids' stuff everywhere. The Bryants do not employ a nanny.
After much discussion, the photographer, Nigel Parry, an affable Brit known for his stunning black-and-white pictures, has managed to secure this suite for a photo session. Once the date was set, Jerry e-mailed Esquire's photo editor, saying that Kobe needed to have his own stylist for the shoot and that Vanessa Bryant would fill that role. Esquire assented, offering Vanessa its standard $250. Jerry countered with a request for "a more typical" rate somewhat higher. After a bit more back-and-forth, a compromise was happily achieved.
Now, upon arriving in the suite and making everyone's acquaintance, Kobe and his crew set about ordering the aforementioned fruit platter. Vanessa—who has asked to be identified as Lady V in the photo credits—dives right in, voicing her concern with Nigel about his choice of black and white for the photos. As it happens, she has picked out a wardrobe of black-and-white clothes—prints on prints, everything from the Gucci to the size-16 lizard-skin shoes—all of it to be dramatically offset by the red paisley on a Neiman Marcus one-hundredth-anniversary tie. "The brown seamless has gotta go, too," she tells Nigel, referring to the backdrop that he and his three assistants have so painstakingly raised. She turns and addresses her husband. "Kobe," she demands, "did you know it was going to be black and white?"
For one long moment, the room becomes very still. All eyes are turned toward the big man. At six six and 207, he dwarfs most of us by nearly a foot. On the court, however, with the rest of his U.S.A. teammates, huge specimens like LeBron James and Dwight Howard, he appears small and wiry, almost delicate.
Kobe looks at his wife intently with his exotic, almond-shaped eyes. "I didn't know that," he says. "I did not know that."
"It needs to be color," she says with conviction. "Otherwise, we can't see the red in the tie."
"Can you shoot both?" Kobe asks Nigel.
"We can shoot both," Nigel says.
"You do have color, right?" Lady V asks, not convinced.
"Ain't no big deal," Kobe says, sweet but preemptively, raising his chin, exposing the large escarpment of his Adam's apple just beneath. "It's all good."
And so it is. With help from Vanessa and Jerry, Kobe gets dressed and into a seated position. Nigel and his assistants go to work, the flash popping, followed by the electric whine of the recharger. Lady V chooses a couch off to the side. I stand next to her, so as to be close.
"That looks really sexy," she says.
"I only have two facial expressions," Kobe muses.
"Smiling Kobe and Intense Kobe."
"Look smack-dead onto me," Nigel says. "Bring your eyes down."
"Not so fierce," says Vanessa.
"Fierce is good," says Nigel. "I like fierce."
"He's fierce in every photo! A little softer."
"She don't want me to be intense all the time," Kobe explains.
"Yeah—it's the same picture in every magazine. And at Nike. I love when he smiles."
"We're changin' it up over at Nike this time around," Kobe says. Yesterday, he had a meeting with Nike designers, his player rep, and his agent, Rob Pelinka, who played college ball with the NCAA Division I–champion Michigan Wolverines—on the same team as the Fab Five. (He was open on the wing at the moment Chris Webber called the fateful illegal time-out, or so the story goes.) At the meeting, they previewed Kobe's new fall line of apparel. Per his suggestion, it had a retro, old-school theme, circa Yo! MTV Raps.
"You should see these shirts they made," he tells his wife. "One of 'em looks like it comes with a complimentary bong!"
"Yeah?" she says, a little unsure.
"It's got some pink-and-green checkerboard and shit." Big smile.
"That's it," says Nigel. "That's awesome. You do have a great smile."
"This is the Kool-Aid smile," Kobe says, adjusting the jelly-bean-sized ruby he is wearing as a solitaire in his left ear.
"Awwww," Vanessa coos. "That's like the pictures we have at home. I love it when he smiles." The look on her face says that she has just been smitten all over again by her man.
"By the way," Kobe says, "they made me a pink tracksuit."
"Oh no, they did not," exclaims Vanessa, her tone straight out of the O.C., her head swiveling on her neck.
A deep voice, singing: "Oh yes, they did."
"What shade of pink?" she challenges.
"I don't know. Pink. Dusty pink."
"Like mauve? Or like bubble gum?"
"Bubble gum," he declares, enjoying the game. The Nike rep had sold it to him as "a dusty gray-pink." He flashes a huge and untroubled smile.
"That's nice, excellent," Nigel says. Pop. Whine. "Now: No smile. Intense."
"Like when you're looking at Nani and Gigi," Vanessa says.
"But I can't help smiling when I look at them."
"Like when you're fixing one of their boo-boos."
"That's right." says Nigel. Pop. Whine.
"I forgot to tell you," Vanessa says. "Nani spilled some Kool-Aid on the couch today. She told me when I called. She said, 'Mami, I have to tell you something. Grandma gave me Kool-Aid and I spilt it on your couch.' "
"The white couch?"
"My mom says she got it out 'cause she was quick. My mom was like, 'I told her not to'—you know, she's not allowed to take any juice in there. But give her credit. Nani told me herself what she did, thank God. I'm like, 'I appreciate your honesty, Nani. Don't do it again.' "
"I wish they were here, man," Kobe says wistfully. "They'd be running around this whole place. Nani is such a poser," he tells Nigel proudly.
"Yeah?" Nigel asks, a bit distracted. It's easier to take portraits when people aren't talking so much.
"She'll do a million different poses for you," Kobe says.
"That's nice," Nigel says. Pop. Whine. "Would you mind taking your jacket off?"
"Nope," Kobe says.
"Nope," Lady V reiterates.
"Huh?" Nigel asks, taken aback.He looks from Kobe to Lady V and back again.
"No go," confirms Kobe, command tone. He cuts his eyes to his wife, who nods her head once, almost imperceptibly, as if to say, That's what I'm talkin' about.
And then the doorbell chimes musically. The fruit plate has finally arrived.
Kobe's suite, the 30th floor. Mamacita is gone, whether out shopping or gambling or back home with the girls it is not for me to know. He drags a barstool over to the living room, where there are two sofas and a coffee table, so as not to have to bend his knees so acutely when he sits down. "Ain't gettin' any younger," he explains.
Yesterday, a Sunday with no scheduled Team U.S.A. practice, Kobe went to the gym and made five hundred shots. With two balls and two rebounders, he managed to do it in one hour, stopping only long enough to chat with Indiana's legendary coach Bobby Knight. They'd never met before; Kobe was overjoyed—by all accounts, he looked like a kid meeting Kobe for the first time. Then last night, in another Tower suite, he spent two hours signing nine hundred autographs for Upper Deck—a feat made all the more difficult by the heavy "camera pen" that documents the execution of each numbered signature. (Among the items offered: a limited edition of 124 Kobe-inscribed laser-engraved basketballs for $699.99 each.) This morning, he was supposed to be up early working out and doing Pilates, but he canceled.
"You get to a point where you learn to listen to your body and make adjustments from there," he explains. He speaks of his physical self in terms of a finely tuned machine, which of course it is.
I sit on the sofa. He is on the barstool. It is awkward; I feel like I'm sitting at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial. I drag another barstool over to the living room. Now I feel like I'm doing a talk show, with Rico the bodyguard as our audience, sitting quietly in a corner. Kobe is warm and chatty. I've been around awhile, he has become accustomed to me—though I was still not allowed to ride in a car with him or to be with him alone or to spend any unstructured time with him at all. But at least now he's feelin' me, as they say in the L. The other day, at the photo shoot, by way of jocular greeting, Kobe's big open palm suddenly whipped down from on high and slapped me pretty hard in the solar plexus. "What up, Mikey?" he said playfully. Luckily, I flexed in time to avoid getting the wind knocked out of me.
For the next ninety minutes, we talk. About how he loves sharks and would like to go down in a shark cage, how he would like to skydive—both of which after he retires. How he grew so fast as an adolescent, he had horrible Osgood-Schlatter disease—so bad, it hurt when someone even breathed on his knees. How he just bought an Akita to go with his two Pomeranians and how having untrained dogs should be a crime, like a form of parental abuse. How Michael Jordan has become a confidante and how his advice "is like getting advice from that Buddha that sits on the top of the mountain, who has everything figured out and passes on some of his knowledge to the next guy who's trying to climb that mountain." How awed he felt one time in Taiwan in this big arena with five thousand screaming kids who had come just to see him run a little clinic. He remembers standing there thinking, This is weird. This is just insane. I'm goofy. I'm silly. I play basketball.
We talk about the philosophy of his logo, the Sheath. We talk a bit about baggage, how it's the place you store your energy. About his image in the league, how he got off to a bad start and never recovered. "When I first came into the NBA," he says, "I was one of the first to come out of high school. I was seventeen years old—at the time the NBA was much more grown-up. It wasn't like now. I thought that you come into the NBA, you play basketball all day. The thing I was most excited about was coming to the NBA not having to, you know, not having to worry about writing a paper or doing homework. It was basketball all day, this is awesome.
"The aloofness thing, honestly, I didn't really hear about it until later. A lot of it was just naive, because I didn't read the papers. I didn't watch, like, the news. I had no clue what was going on, what people were saying about me. It sounds silly to say, but it's true. And I think because of that, a lot of people looked at it like, 'Woah, he must be arrogant.' But I didn't know what the hell was going on. I had a reporter one day come up to me and ask me about it, you know, 'People think you're arrogant, what's up with that?' And it absolutely just seemed to come out of left field. I was just like, 'What are you talking about?' And he was like, 'Haven't you read the papers?' From that day forward, I started reading the papers."
I ask him about Colorado. He starts to say something and then he stops himself, like maybe he wants to talk but knows he shouldn't. I push him a little bit. He laughs and shakes his head. "I'm not sure I can dive into that one without really diving into that one."
"Can you dive into some of it?" I ask.
There is a long silence.
"I...uh...hum," he says. "I don't know how to touch on that without really sayin'—you know what I'm sayin'?"
What about the whole thing with Shaq, about the whole thing with wanting to be traded from the Lakers?
"If I had to do it all over again, I just never would have said anything in the press," he says. "Some things need to remain behind closed doors. Do the fans really need to know everything? Do you need to know everything about what goes on in your neighbor's house? Do you even want to?
"I just want to continue to push. To just become as good as I possibly can be, to see what other aspects of the game I can get better at. 'Cuz you know, it's fun. I just enjoy doing it, so when you enjoy doing it, you wanna find out new ways to do it. Like the eighty-one game? I had worked extremely hard the summer before that. That game was a culmination of days and days of hard work.
"The thing about that game—and I know it's going in the history books and all that—the best thing about that game is it feels good because we won. It was a tough one. We had lost, like, two or three games in a row; it was just a rough patch. And it was my grandfather's birthday who had passed away not too long ago, and my grandma was at the game, and my wife and daughter were at the game, so it was special, yes, but to me, winning is everything. That's the challenge, the ultimate challenge—how do you get to that elite level as a group? As a whole? Right now, I don't care about points or any of that stuff—it's how do you get to that elite level and remain at that elite level as a unit. What are the things you need to do?
"You have to be open-minded and not be rigid. If you're rigid, that's weakness. All you can do is forget about the bad stuff and then move on. You just kind of roll with it, you just kind of learn. I will not make the same mistakes in the future that I have made in the past. I will make new mistakes, I am sure. And I will learn from them, too. You have to be fluid. Your body changes. As that happens, your moves need to change, your training program needs to change, you have to be able to adapt.
"I am going to work extremely hard. I'm not going to cheat the game. I am going to take all the steps and do all the work necessary. It's like, God blessed me with the ability to do this, I'm not going to shortchange that blessing. I'm going to go out there and do the best that I can every single time."
Kobe excuses himself to leave for Vegas's Thomas & Mack arena, a tune-up game for the impending twelve-day international tournament. Over the coming two weeks, Kobe and his U.S.A. team will outclass all comers, winning by an average of more than thirty points, clinching a berth in the Olympics, earning the U.S.A. its first gold medal in international competition since 2000. And while Kobe will go off for twenty-seven points in the grudge match against Argentina, who won the gold in the last Olympics, throughout the rest of the series, he will distinguish himself with his leadership, his tenacious defense, his artful passing. In every game, he will ask to be assigned to play against the opponent's best scorer. He will hold Brazil's NBA standout, Leandro Barbosa, the tournament's leading scorer, to just four points. Kobe will also be among the leaders in minutes and assists.
He will be the heart of Team U.S.A.
That's what I'm talkin' about.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.