The future Hall of Famer had a single-minded focus on greatness and was driven by his legendary competitive desire
POSTED: Apr 11, 2016 1:03 PM ET
Kobe Bryant's combination of brashness and clutch play made him an idol to hundreds of NBA players.
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Thousands made a pilgrimage 20 years ago to a pyramid not to pay homage to the ancient dead, but to witness a greatly anticipated birth. They braved the notorious traffic and ignored a day made for the beach to spend the afternoon inside and satisfy a curiosity that made them excited.
They had to know: Does he really exist?
This place of worship was indeed named The Pyramid, a Disneyesque knock-off of the famous shrines in Egypt, 18 stories of glass and silver soaring above the Long Beach State campus. It houses a sports arena that's home to the school's basketball team, and in 1996 was the site of the NBA Summer League.
Usually, these games involving fringe NBA players draw fans who are bored hoop junkies looking for a summertime fix, except on July 14 of that year, the box office line ribboned around the block and spilled into the parking lot. The Long Beach summer league had never sold out for a single game before, until now. This became the first documented proof of the reach and pull of one Kobe Bean Bryant, an appeal that would eventually stretch well beyond that line and last a basketball lifetime.
Funny thing about his official debut in a team-issued Lakers uniform: Kobe back then was mostly word of mouth. He had no deep basketball history; he wouldn't turn 18 for another two months. He didn't play college ball and therefore wasn't overexposed, missing the chance to get the usual gushing from ESPN analyst Dick Vitale in the NCAA tournament.
He groomed his game far across the country, in Philadelphia, via Italy, and therefore few if any in the Pyramid actually saw him in person before. Because this was pre-LeBron, his high school games weren't breathlessly televised or exploited on cable. This was also pre-Twitter, and there was no YouTube back then; therefore no mixtapes.
Yet, people knew. They just knew.
They knew their beloved Los Angeles Lakers surrendered a lovable Serbian seven-footer to get this kid — yes, there was actually some public debate whether deal-meister Jerry West erred in the Vlade Divac-for-Kobe Draft-day swap — and therefore he had to be worthy of the interest. Mystery combined with hope made for an irresistible appetite for Kobe.
I mean, part of the reason why I'm here is because of him. He sent me to the gym when I was a kid to work on my game. I tried to be like him. I watched him and tried to copy him.
– Pacers forward Paul George, on Bryant's influcence on his game.
Wearing his sweatband high on his left arm, much like his idol Michael Jordan, the kid pumped 27 points on a variety of slippery moves against the Detroit Pistons in his first Summer League game, then dropped 36 on the Phoenix Suns. The standing room-only crowd cheered every basket. Del Harris, the Lakers' coach then, tried in vain to calm the masses: "It's just Summer League, folks. It doesn't count."
One of the assistant coaches for the Suns was Alvin Gentry, now a 25-year NBA coaching veteran. Gentry chose to believe his eyes that day: "It was unreal," recalled Gentry. "Nobody on the floor could stop this kid. I would say he was a man among boys, except he was just a boy."
Kobe Bryant is now 37 and ready for retirement, and plenty has been said about Kobe in the two decades in between. He even summed up his profile in a pre-packaged, marketable two-word assessment: "Hero/Villain." Feel free to choose your side, or accept both. What is undeniable, though, is how he elevated himself a notch above the many great players in this aspect: Only a select handful managed to cast a spell over an entire generation.
In that sense, Kobe had it. Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were among those who did not. Michael Jordan did, too. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did as well, thetwo pioneers forever joined at the waistband who went about re-energizing the game. What about Allen Iverson and the way he was worshipped by Generation X? Yes, without a doubt.
Kobe is a member of that club. Kobe is a cinch candidate to be carved on a Millenniums' Mount Rushmore, and that is the legacy he's leaving us with. Not the 81-point game, or the three titles with Shaq, or the two without, all of which are obviously quite considerable in their own right. Yet they're mere achievements and entries on a Hall of Fame resume. The true and lasting meaning of what Kobe did is scribbled across the faces and styles of a legion of players he's leaving behind, such as the Indiana Pacers' Paul George, who stammered recently when he took a stab at what Kobe did for him:
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"I mean, part of the reason why I'm here is because of him," said George, a three-time All-Star. George grew up in Southern California and, like thousands of impressionable young playground rats, was sucked in by Hurricane Kobe. "He sent me to the gym when I was a kid to work on my game. I tried to be like him. I watched him and tried to copy him."
How exactly did Kobe dictate the way millions watched and played basketball? Why was he christened by today's players as "our Jordan" so much more than any other? Well, the formula that created Kobe is actually easy to understand. It was made possible by one-part circumstance and one-part Kobe himself, the perfect basketball marriage.
Here's how the basketball Gods delivered their end of the deal: Jordan was nearing the finish line of his career and preparing an exit strategy when Kobe was developing. There was a strong demand for a fresh copycat. Kobe spent his entire career in splashy Los Angeles with the biggest brand in American sports after the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees. He entered the NBA as a teenager and hooked that demographic. And, he had the fortune of joining a Lakers team that just signed Shaquille O'Neal and was ready to paint an era purple and gold.
Meanwhile, Kobe did his part by relentlessly sharpening his game, showmanship and competitive stink-eye stare, enhancing the notion, real or not, that no one was more bloodthirsty.
As he prepares to wave good-bye, it's proper to seek the answers to what we just witnessed for two decades. For the best clues you must rewind to the foundation, right after that Long Beach summer league, which first opened our eyes and Kobe's.
You start by observing a typical flight on the Lakers' charter in the 1996-97 season where, not long after reaching cruising altitude, the plane would transform into a lounge. The poker games began, and they were boastful and loud. Other players chatted up flight attendants. Some took a nap. One player stood out for being solitary.
"Kobe didn't play card games or socialize or really do any of that. Kobe would look at videos of basketball, being totally oblivious to any of the shenanigans Shaq might be up to that kept the rest of the team loose," recalls Harris. "He had no interest in anything except getting ready for the next day."
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Harris spent 25 years on a bench the NBA and was attuned to the NBA lifestyle and culture. The sight of an 18-year-old Kobe spending his free time studying tapes of Jordan and other stars was a switch. But Kobe's relationship with those videos went deep. Growing up in Italy without nightly NBA games, videos were his only way to see the players he'd heard about in the States. It also afforded Harris, the coach for Bryant's first two seasons plus 20 games, a front-row seat to observe the singular focus of a basketball nerd who would become an all-time great.
"Of course, being under aged, he was not lured into the club life, but seemed to have no interest in it anyway," Harris said. "He exuded the qualities that one would hope for an 18-year-old. He was just a regular kid for the most part, not like many youthful people who come into instant fame in LA."
Everyone wanted the microwave treatment for Kobe. I knew that was not the right thing to do and my players were watching closely to see if I would give in and favor Kobe.
– Dell Harris, Bryant's first NBA coach.
Harris saw that being a kid trapped an adult world actually forced Kobe to focus on basketball. While his adult teammates went their separate ways after practice, Kobe was left to himself. With few friends his age around to occupy his time, he played ball. It was either that or nothing. He had no hobbies or other passions. He grew tired of sitting at home with his parents, who at the time lived with him.
Hard to imagine it now, but as a rookie Kobe would show up at high school gyms, health clubs and even parks to copy moves he saw on those videos in private, or play pickup games against total strangers, because the Lakers lacked their own permanent facility. (He missed most of his first training camp because he broke his left his wrist playing on Venice Beach.)
From an age standpoint, Kobe didn't fit in with the Lakers. From a basketball standpoint, he was very much in his element. Being the son of former Philadelphia 76ers reserve Joe "Jellybean" Bryant meant Kobe was exposed to professionals first as a young boy. He then studied professionals in Europe when Joe Bryant continued his career there and, lastly, Kobe the high schooler played in the summertime in Philly against NBA talent.
"When we chose sides for the teams," said Rick Mahorn, a regular at those games in Philly, "he wasn't the last one picked."
Kobe's transition into the NBA was easier than most preps-to-pros players in another respect. Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, J.R. Smith and others were drafted by rebuilding teams that lacked talent and lost often initially. The Lakers were fresh off a 53-win season and just traded for O'Neal. There was no immediate pressure on Kobe, who was the caddy to All-Star shooting guard Eddie Jones, coming off the bench for all but seven games in his first two seasons. And as the first guard ever drafted straight from high school, Kobe still had a teenage body -- lean and scrawny with muscles still under construction.
Yet Harris said Kobe never saw himself as an apprentice or secondary player. In his mind, said Harris, Kobe was more ready than anyone believed.
"While it was a disappointment to Kobe to be relegated to the bench, as competitive as ever as a teenager, he managed it," said Harris.
The coach felt nudges from fans and even within the Laker organization to give Kobe more playing time, almost from the start, and those demands accelerated at midseason when Kobe won the 1997 dunk contest. Yet Harris, whose role in Kobe's development remains underrated to this day, wouldn't budge.
"Everyone wanted the microwave treatment for Kobe. I knew that was not the right thing to do and my players were watching closely to see if I would give in and favor Kobe. My decision was to talk to Kobe and tell him how it was going to be and why I thought it was better for him if we followed my plan. I told him I was going to treat him as a man, not a teenager. He would have to do the same things as anyone else to earn playing time.
"I said his journey would begin like that of a challenger to the heavyweight title and he would have to knock out the players whom he was playing behind, and that all ties would go to the veteran player."
In terms of issuing a challenge, Harris essentially tossed a tennis ball to a puppy. The team noticed how Kobe stayed later at practice, just him and the gym lights. Harris asked Byron Scott, then 35 and on his last NBA legs, to mentor and keep Kobe's spirits up (in a coincidence, Scott is now Kobe's final NBA coach). Playing time remained parceled as Kobe averaged only 161 minutes his rookie season, and Harris knew the competitive side of Kobe seethed. But there were no issues between coach and player.
Late in the season, as the Lakers prepared for the playoffs, Kobe approached Harris with an idea that would help define Kobe's competitive drive.
"He asked if I would move Shaq out of the paint so he could take a player one-on-one. He said he could take anyone in this league," Harris said. "I answered that we were not going to do that now, that I can't move Shaq out, but your day would come."
How prophetic that it would arrive sooner than either thought. Game 5 of the 1997 Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz will be forever known for Kobe's air balls, one at the end of regulation and three more in overtime. Those shots were a critical point in Kobe's evolution as a great player, although it escaped many at the time as the Lakers lost the game and, eventually, the series 4-1.
"It was an early turning point for me," Kobe said. "It helped shape me."
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Those shots were made possible by Shaq fouling out, leaving the Lakers without their primary option. They still had Jones and Nick Van Exel, but with the score tied in regulation, Harris drew the hero play for Kobe, and never thought twice.
"I said to myself, `He will either make or miss, but either way he will know that his coach had the confidence in him in his rookie season to put the ball in his hands in this most crucial moment.' I don't think he was daunted when he missed those shots. If the game went into another overtime, I think he would have wanted the ball again. You could say it's arrogance, depending on your view. I call it supreme confidence. The great ones have that," said Harris.
If anything, after that failure, Kobe's popularity soared. As a 19-year-old in 1997-98, he became the youngest All-Star Game starter in league history. The created scenario of Kobe at Madison Square Garden playing against Jordan in a pass-the-baton showdown was too irresistible and natural. At one point in that game, Kobe waved Karl Malone out of the paint. It was a humorous sight, an 18-year-old telling the league's best power forward and reigning MVP to beat it, although the sensitive Malone didn't laugh. And neither did Kobe, for that matter. He was dead serious.
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He already had the edge and ego of a superstar, and very soon, the performances to match.
As Kobe became physically stronger and showed an ability to assume a bigger role, Lakers GM Jerry West catered to him, stoking the desire. Van Exel and Jones were traded by early 1999, just before Phil Jackson was hired as coach. Befor long, Kobe earned a starting job though not the privilege of being the face of the franchise, which still belonged to the gregarious O'Neal. When the Lakers ripped off three straight titles and Kobe averaged 29.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists in the 2001 playoffs, he still rode shotgun to Shaq if only from a perception standpoint.
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But that shifted, at least in Kobe's mind. He became determined to be the best in the game and Brian Shaw noticed. Shaw served as Kobe's teammate and assistant coach for 12 years and the transition, to him, was soon apparent.
"There were guys trying to establish themselves in the league who played his position, like Ray Allen, Michael Redd, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Kobe would circle the calendar when they came to town," Shaw said. "He'd start asking the video department for film on those guys two weeks before we were going to play them, just so he could study their tendencies and weaknesses."
Shaw said Kobe's famous knife-twisting instinct, which ultimately became a signature trait, was taken to the extreme.
"Whenever players got together for the All-Star Game, there'd a lot of buddy-buddy talk between them," Shaw said. "Those gatherings were fun, low-key, you know, very innocent. Well, Kobe would use the All-Star practices to see if he could get any kind of advantage on them when he'd see them the rest of the season. The practices! That's how determined he was. You know how everybody wants to be everybody's friend? He wasn't like that. He had animosity toward anyone who was considered to be on his level. He wanted to establish himself as the best."
Shaw said Kobe became an expert on tactics and psychological games and used them to his advantage.
"He would send a message early in the game against the guy he was playing against," Shaw said. "He'd elbow the guy to get a reaction. If you didn't respond or if you backed down, he smelled weakness. He knew those guys would be in for a long night, and he'd pounce on them right away."
If the title years with Shaq made Kobe a winner, the years without Shaq in 2004-07 cemented Kobe as an all-time great. Were they selfish years? Perhaps. Lean on playoff success? Yes. They were also heavy on epic games and highlights that generously helped build his personal brand.
This was when Kobe scored 50-plus points for four straight games and 10 in one season, switched jersey numbers from 8 to 24 (which outsold all others in the U.S. and China), earned a second All-Star MVP trophy, a scoring title and became the youngest to reach 20,000 points. It was a mid-life crisis for someone who wasn't yet 30.
When he added Gasol, the demolition continued; Kobe averaged 32.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists in a five-game romp over Orlando in the 2009 NBA Finals which invoked comparisons to Jordan's title runs.
"The impact that (Jordan) had on me, from when I was just a kid, is immeasurable," Kobe said. "I wanted to be just as good as him and I wanted to have the same kind of impact on the game. When players today say I'm their Michael Jordan, I laugh because all these years I've tried my best to give them an idea of the player they weren't old enough to see. He meant that much to me."
Here in his walk-away season, when his talent and showmanship was reduced to nostalgic flashes, Kobe adopted an interesting way to leave the game. He became a self-appointed mentor to all, not just his teenybopper Laker teammates, but anyone in hi-tops. Especially those who saw him the way he once saw Jordan.
"My guess is everyone wants to gain a little more knowledge, to understand what made him tick, and tell him how much he meant to us," said Paul George.
Immediately after every game, and then again in the bowls of NBA arenas, a precession line waited to give respects and to accept any advice from the basketball Yoda. The 'Kobe Receiving Line' was a Who's Who among the twenty-something NBA set that grew up watching him, and even players who weren't in the league yet, led by Buddy Hield of Oklahoma. Bryant enjoyed these exchanges, perhaps more than the games themselves. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich asked him to mentor Kawhi Leonard, who's already an NBA champion and Finals MVP, and Kobe was moved.
"You always try to leave your mark on the game, and raise the bar so that others will reach for it," he said. "I wanted to do my part to help this great game."
Twenty years ago, a teenager with a Jones for Michael Jordan, but who hadn't scored a single point in the NBA yet, nonetheless caused a long line to rope around an arena used for Summer League. But look what else Kobe Bryant pulled off after 20 years: The players and generation he influenced have formed another line, only longer.
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