The following story appears in Dime #39, on newsstands for a few more days…
Sean stands on an empty Philadelphia sidewalk at three in the morning, peering into the frigid darkness, his right hand raised to halt a black-tinted Navigator idling in the street behind him. One of the few lit lamps at this time of night beats down on Sean’s silver, slicked hair, and ruddy, Irish face.
Sean is a man of very few words. He is middle-aged, all business – ex-army or an ex-police officer – paid to watch, and when necessary, protect. It’s an amalgam slightly disarmed by pastel-colored earmuffs, but Sean is still clearly not to be messed with.
He is on personal security detail in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philly tonight. It’s a developing area of the city that’s been attracting artists and galleries for the last few years, but still lies precariously close to the badlands of North Philly. And at this time of night, well after the local bars have closed, one cannot be too careful. When Sean is satisfied that the area is clear for his charge, he gives the green light.
Kobe Bryant emerges from the far side of the black Nav. He is dressed head-to-toe in white â€“ kicks, sweatpants, jacket and knit cap – cutting a sharp figure in the inky night. His normal, easy-gliding gate is specked tonight with a detectable hitch â€“ the result of a deep thigh bruise sustained two days prior, further aggravated by a physical contest earlier in the evening in Cleveland and the stiffness brought on by the immediate flight afterwards to Philly.
This late-night shoot here was Kobe’s idea. It could have been accomplished in Los Angeles, on the road between game days, or potentially even a few days later when the Lakers visit New York City â€“ every one of those scenarios physically easier on Kobe than tonight’s rendezvous following a game in another city, with another game the next night against the Sixers.
But this is where Kobe most wanted to do it, his rationale being that since entering the League 11 years ago, he had never done a shoot in Philadelphia. And tonight would the best, and only, opportunity to accomplish it this season, even if it is in the middle of the night. “This is my hometown,” he’d say later on that evening. “This is where my true competitive nature was born. It only seems right to do something here. This is where I became who I am. Growing up here is something that is still important to me to this day. To this day, pretty much every time I see Rip Hamilton, I tease him about how we beat him my senior year on the way to the state championship, just me and a bunch of doctors and lawyers.”
Sean leads Kobe into the studio space and adjoining room bustling with photo assistants, video cameras and a barber waiting to give Kobe a pre-shoot shape-up. Bryant seems a bit taken aback by the amount of people here at this time of night, but quickly composes himself, thanks everyone for coming and announces, “It’s late, I’m sure people want to get some sleep, so let’s take care of business.”
Kobe Bryant is undoubtedly one of sport’s most complex athletes; one facet of his personality being that if Bryant believes in something, he will go above and beyond to make it happen, and he expects others to do the same. He is fond of referring to his “vision” in regards to many things in his world, whether that be a magazine feature, the tone adopted by Team USA this past summer, the Lakers, or his own legendary workout regimen, that in the offseason consists of waking before sunrise, running, lifting weights and literally shooting hundreds of jumpers almost every single day of his summer.
“I just go. I just go. I just keep going until it feels right to me,” Kobe says of his habits. “If something doesn’t feel right, I’m gonna stay there until I get it right. I just continue to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. That’s all I’ve known. That’s how my parents raised me. If you’re going to be focused on something, if you want to do something, you can’t, you can’t go about it in a half-assed way. You really gotta dedicate yourself to it, try to be the best at it. That’s the only way.”
That personality trait seems to pervade everything he does. An example that sums up his nature: More than a year ago, at a press event to debut the then-latest version of his signature Nike shoe, the Zoom Kobe II, Bryant told a story about being so enamored with Orca Whales after reading about their pack-hunting mentality, he wanted his Lakers to attack their opponents in the same way on the basketball court. So captivated was he by the thought, he took a helicopter ride out over the Pacific Ocean to observe the whales and their tendencies first-hand in order to report back to his teammates. Nothing is half-assed.
And the general perception is that you’re either with Kobe and his vision, or you’re left behind. And it’s something he makes no bones about. A perfect example, presented by Kobe later that night, came when talking about the surprising success of his Lakers this season (as of press time their record was 26-11, good enough for second in the Pacific Division). Bryant responded to a question about how he has pushed his teammates above and beyond expectations: “Well they know they gotta come with it. You know it’s … this train’s gotta keep moving. You either gotta be on the train or get run over by the train. But the train’s gotta keep moving. We want to win a championship and we want to win one now. That fire â€“ sometimes you gotta light it. The players have all stepped up and all responded and everything.”
His steadfast vision of the world and how things should be lends itself to Bryant’s existence as one of the most polarizing athletes in recent memory. Talking to him, Kobe clearly has a different opinion of himself than what outsiders see when analyzing him. It’s a fact that inevitably infests the media’s coverage of him, more times that not, leading to negative portrayals of him. It’s something that contrasts markedly with what teammates and other NBA players have to say about Kobe when asked about him.
This past summer, Bryant was riding a wave of overwhelmingly positive coverage for taking the reigns of Team USA and assuming the alpha dog leadership role on a team of international superstars, alongside players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Team USA ran through the competition in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Las Vegas, decimating everyone in their path. And at the forefront was Bryant, garnering nothing but praise from his coaches and teammates.
When I asked Carmelo Anthony about his experience this summer playing with Kobe, he acknowledged Bryant’s contributions. “You know, it was something I was always aware of, but I just got a firsthand look at his toughness,” Carmelo said. “His focus, how he approaches each game and how hard he works at getting better.”
Andre Iguodala, who led a team of younger NBA players in scrimmages against the varsity, agrees. “I think everyone on the U.S. team knew Kobe was the best player out there and they followed his lead,” says Iguodala. “He was very focused on getting all the guys on the same page by being vocal. They could score at will against anyone but he set the tone for the team on defense.”
NBA rookie Kevin Durant, who spent a portion of his summer practicing with Team USA, believes that of all the superstars on that team, Bryant is the one who separated himself from the pack. “I think that a lot of people say that he shoots a lot and doesn’t pass the ball,” says Durant. “But from playing with him over this summer and playing against him this year so far, he’s very unselfish. He plays hard every possession, and basically he can score when he wants. He does whatever his team needs him to do. He’s the one guy that stuck out.”
“I take pride in the respect I get from players, more so than anything else because those are the people that you face on a daily basis,” says Bryant when told of what other players have to say about him. “You know, they have a deeper level of understanding of the game of basketball. So, to have respect from them is what matters most to me.”
If you go by what players tell you, the problem then, seems to be with the media. Bryant is often portrayed as petulant, selfish, and at times overbearing in newspaper coverage and magazine profiles. When a member of Dime attended a Nike event this past summer with Charles Barkley, Charles was asked his opinion of Bryant. Barkley responded with: “I like Kobe. I think he’s the best player in the NBA, but he’s got some issues. I think he could make Dr. Phil take one of them breaks.”
It’s a perception that Bryant hasn’t helped to dissuade. There was the incident in Colorado a few years back, the public feud with Shaq, the amateur video that surfaced at the start of this past summer (where he allegedly criticizes Lakers center Andrew Bynum and calls Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss “an idiot”), and the very public trade-demand showdown between Bryant and the Lakers organization before the start of the season.
Bryant hops out of the barber’s chair. I ask him about the incidents that have come to add to the media’s portrayal of him, especially the video tape from the summer where he reportedly said the Lakers, in regards to holing on to Bynum and not giving in to New Jersey’s demand that he be included in a trade for Jason Kidd, should “Ship his ass out.” Kobe nods in acknowledgment and says of Bynum: “For him, it’s just important for him to understand there’s a sense of urgency. I’m not waiting for you. You need to be ready and be ready now. It’s the same thing I had to do. I was 20, 21 years old. Shaq was roughly the same age I am. You know, he didn’t want to stick around and wait for his point guard to develop. In fact there were talks for me being traded for Jason Kidd at the time. So I had to step up to that pressure and meet those expectations right away.”
Many point to the video as being a major factor in Bynum’s warp-speed development this season. During the summer, Bynum hired a conditioning coach and has since turned himself into a fearsome, athletic low post force in the West with a ceiling much higher than many had ever thought possible. His development has been a huge factor in the Lakers unexpectedly high level of play in the first half of the season. Right before this issue went to press, Bynum went down with a knee injury that will sideline him for two months. So far has the relationship come between Bryant and Bynum though, that Kobe told the L.A. Times the same day of Bynum’s diagnosis, “We’re a championship-caliber team with [Bynum] in the lineup.”
After the shoot, Kobe sits on a wooden box and stretches his sore leg. It’s been a long night, what with the travel, the photo shoot and the game earlier in the night – a loss, where Kobe struggled from the floor, going 8-22, and missed the game-tying shot at the buzzer. He jokes that the next night, after his bad game, he’s going to “kill” the Sixers. He is upbeat and affable even as the clock pushes past 5 a.m. He clearly enjoys joking with the crew â€“ even the guy who is teasing Kobe about how he remembers a young Bryant playing in a Philly tournament back in the day with L.A. Gear socks jacked up to his knees.
Kobe and I talk about the disconnect between what other players have to say about him and they way he is presented in the media, and I cite an Esquire feature on him that dropped prior to the start of the season that painted Kobe as somewhat of an odd, aloof, insulated character.
“What am I, a hermit?” Bryant asks with exasperation. “It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. Just because I didn’t grow up in the hood and I actually have brains, I worked hard on the books or stuff like that, people think that I don’t go out or I don’t interact or I don’t hang out â€“ it’s ridiculous.”
Sean prepares to lead Kobe back out to the Navigator that is still idling out front, waiting to whisk Bryant back to the Four Seasons Hotel in Center City for some much-needed rest. Kobe is bundling up to head back out into the biting cold but has one more thought.
“It’s funny. I think a lot of people, a lot of writers, try to take shortcuts in their assignments and just regurgitate what somebody else may have written, you know, instead of truly saying what’s going on,” Kobe says. “I’m no different than anybody. Basketball to me, it’s a game that I want to try to be the best at, try to work at as much as possible. But I understand it’s a game. But I’m extremely outgoing. People say, ‘He’s quiet’ and all that stuff. That’s crazy. They obviously don’t know me. So, I mean, people that know me and people that seen me interact, stuff like that, I’m completely opposite of what they read. And a lot of people actually tell me that. They’ll say, ‘Man, you’re nothing like I thought you were.’
“Well, what the hell did you think I was?”