SlamOnline article - Kobe Bryant :: 8 is...

 
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PostPosted: Thu Mar 02, 2006 3:31 pm    Post subject: SlamOnline article - Kobe Bryant :: 8 is...

Kobe Bryant :: 8 is...

WORDS :: RUSS BENGTSON
PORTRAITS :: CLAY PATRICK McBRIDE


If there’s any one constant in Kobe Bryant’s life, it’s that he is always in control. Some of that control may not come from him directly—he didn’t ask what other players were being interviewed for this article, his agent did—but nothing at Kobe, Inc. occurs without his approval, his blessing. On the court, he gets the ball when he calls for it, shoots whenever he likes.


Off the court he travels with an entourage quite unlike the one on HBO, more like the one surrounding the President. Kobe dresses Kanye-neat, in a fully- buttoned vest, button down, and perfectly crisp jeans, keeping his language polished and radio-friendly. But it’s funny how all that changes when you hand him a snake. He doesn’t take it right away, instead choosing to pepper the handler, Duke, with questions. Where do they come from? How are they so used to being handled? How do you train them? What would get them spooked? He’s genuinely interested, fully engaged.

And then he’s handed the snake—a king snake—four feet of jet-black sleekness. It’s calm, nearly sedated, decidedly non-lethal except to rodents; but then, while Kobe’s attention is elsewhere, the head comes up, and the snake’s tongue flicks his hand. Suddenly, the veneer cracks. “Oh (bleep)!”

For a second, he’s really, truly shook. But, just like he does on the court, Kobe recovers quickly, completely. “I hope you got a spare pair of boxers back there,” he drawls. “I think I shat myself.” Moments later, he’s yelling playfully at his Nike rep, Nico—who’s clearly petrified of snakes and keeping a healthy distance—to come check it out. And by the time the shoot gets rolling, Kobe is comfortable enough with the snake to kiss it.

The whole snake thing wasn’t entirely our idea. Kobe’s latest self-given nickname is “Mamba,” as in black mamba, a snake whose combination of length, speed, aggressiveness and toxicity makes it one of the deadliest animals on the planet. As the shoot progresses, Kobe quizzes Duke on the mamba, and he suddenly gets excited. “Yo! Come here! Duke, repeat that.” Duke does: “Most snakes will shy away from you, even a rattlesnake. But a black mamba will chase you down and kill you.” Duke goes on to add that it can leap at you and strike from up to six feet away.

Kobe just stares, eyes gleaming. Ball in one hand, long black snake wrapped around the other. “See? That’s real.” There are a variety of reasons why Kobe Bryant hasn’t appeared on a SLAM cover since before the ’03-04 season; suffice it to say, a lot of it was just Kobe being Kobe. Which is something we still haven’t been able to figure out. The more you talk to him, the more you watch, the less you feel you understand. And maybe that’s OK. Maybe you just need to take what he gives, and let that be enough. Lamar Odom has played with Kobe for just over a year, but he seems to have it figured out. “I know people love to watch him play,” Odom says. “You’re not gonna know everybody, everybody’s not gonna let you in their life. So…I’ll buy the ticket, know what I’m sayin’?”

Judging from the Jordanesque response Kobe’s been getting at home and on the road, and the 2.2 million-plus All-Star votes he received this year (the fifth-highest ever), LO isn’t alone. Perhaps Kobe’s most-hated status is exaggerated. Or maybe his detractors just speak the loudest. A lot of people hate George W., but he was still (sort of) elected President twice. Still, the perception remains. “I think that’s his biggest thing, that’s what separates him from Jordan—that nobody likes him,” says Hawks forward Al Harrington. Thing is, Harrington has a lot to say about KB, almost all of it positive. His reaction to the mention of Kobe’s name is simply a verbal headshake. “He cold, man. He’s nice. I don’t care if everybody wanna say he’s selfish and all that, that dude’s unbelievable.” It’s a sentiment shared by a lot of the rest of the League. Bonzi Wells, who saw Kobe torch his Kings for 51 earlier this season, just laughs. “Kobe—woo. Woo! Kobe’s the best guy that’s touching the basketball in the world today. Does that sound accurate? The stuff he’s doing right now is just unbelievable.”


It’s hard not to appreciate what Kobe’s doing, and impossible not to notice. He’s doing things Michael Jordan never did, things that no wing player in history ever did. Score 62 in three quarters, outscoring the entire opposing team. Four straight games of 45-plus. And the 81, including 55 in the second half and the Lakers’ last 22. You can argue all day about who the best player in the League is, but right now there is no better scorer than Kobe Bean Bryant. He does it every which way, too—drives to the basket, pull-ups over double-teams, 28-footers, trips to the line that he earns by any means necessary (including from the behind the arc, a trick he must’ve cribbed from Reggie) Oh, and he set a Laker record for consecutive free throws made in the process—62 straight. And he never seems to have a bad game. “When you think about it, he don’t have nights where he has, like, 12,” Harrington laughs. “He don’t do that. I’ll go on the record, I think he’s gonna score 100. This season. I done told everybody. I was like, He’s gonna put it together for four straight quarters and it’s gonna get ugly.”

There are two traits that Kobe possesses in abundance that made him the most likely player to come close to Wilt—and the most likely to take another crack at it. The first is relentlessness, an unceasing need to score, to attack. He’s always been like this. Ask Rip Hamilton, who’s been going up against Kobe since they were in high school.

“I used to call and ask him about what it was like in the League, what type of things I needed to be ready for,” Rip remembers. “The thing he always told me was, ‘When you come here, hit first. You got to hit them first before they hit you.’”

The second is a kind of tunnel vision that allows him to narrow his focus to the basket and nothing more. That’s what allows him to pull up from 25 feet over two defenders and know it’s going in, what allows him to keep driving and attacking with 70-plus points and the game decided. And perhaps it was a broader version of that same tunnel vision that let him simultaneously deal with a rape accusation and still lead his team to the Finals.

Someone at The New York Times beat me to it in print, but I said months ago that Kobe is tracing the arc of Jordan’s career—only backward. Got the rings while he was young, and now he’s an army of one, relying on a tireless right arm and spring-loaded legs to shoot his team to victories. Through 40 games he was averaging 27 shots per, a stunning total. He has to know this can’t work out in the long run, right? Will the Lakers ever win another title with everyone else taking a back seat? Perception from outside is different. “I think he’s tryin’ to average 40 this year, that’s what’s on my mind,” says Wells.


“I think he’s just trying to separate himself.” He’s done that. Shaq’s gone, and while Phil has returned, there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that this is Kobe’s team, Kobe’s world. After MJ torched the Celtics for 63 in a 1986 playoff game (a game the Bulls ultimately lost), Larry Bird said, “He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.” This year, Odom said, “It’s like God put Kobe here for us to watch him play basketball.”

SLAM: A lot of people see you being on a mission this year, just in attack mode all the time. Is that something that you were doing purposefully coming into the season?

KB: What I wanted to do was be at a conditioning level to be able to sustain maximum effort for an entire game. So if my team needs me to win a game on the defensive end for 48 minutes, or they need me to go on a scoring binge for 48 minutes, I need to feel confident I can sustain that energy level.

SLAM: Did you do something different last summer?

KB: Nah. This was the first summer I had the chance to get back in the kitchen, you know. And just from the experience of previous training regimens that me and my trainer [Joe Carbone] have implemented, we know what works and what doesn’t. So it makes it real easy for us to cut out the fat. That’s what we did.

SLAM: It seems like you almost have this tunnel vision on the court sometimes, where it’s just you and the basket. And it seems like you’re able to do that off the court, too, just focus on the matter at hand. Is that accurate?

KB: Yeah, I just—a lot of it is just understanding what your situation is. If you’re in a game—and basketball is such a metaphor for life anyway…For example, after I scored the 81 points, we played Golden State, and I was shooting the ball poorly, had five points going into the fourth quarter. But instead of dwelling on that, you step back and say, OK, the situation is what it is, now what are you gonna do about it here in this fourth quarter. Tune in [snaps fingers], in focus, let’s go.
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