by Lang Whitaker

I have always loved Kobe Bryant.

OK, that’s not entirely true. For a long time, I didn’t like Kobe Bryant. I didn’t like his arrogance, what I interpreted as a sense of entitlement. More than that, I didn’t like that Kobe always killed the teams that I liked. It’s the same reason I didn’t like Magic, didn’t like Hakeem, didn’t like Jordan. I respected all of them, but I didn’t like them.

Until last year, when Kobe climbed into my five. There was the 81 point game, then the run of 40 point games, playing on that terrible Lakers squad. It was obvious to me that he was doing everything he could to give his team a chance to win. It wasn’t his fault that his teammates weren’t very good.

Still, when it came time to do this cover of SLAM featuring Kobe Bryant, I was content to sit this one out. I’d done plenty of stories the last few months, and I’d just done the NBA Preview and the Kevin Garnett cover story in the previous issue. I was ready to take a break and focus on The Links for a minute.

Then, much like the Lakers, stuff happens. I was standing in line at Starbucks one morning, waiting to get my daily cup of capitalism, when Ben texted me: “Can U go 2 Hawaii nxt week?”

The writer we’d lined up had to drop out, and suddenly it was on me to do the Kobe story. I didn’t mind, because it was not only a free trip to Hawaii, but also because I’d never written a Kobe story for SLAM. Even though I’ve been at SLAM for seven years now and written about almost every NBA superstar in the game, a Kobe story had never fallen to me. Until now.

There was plenty to write about. Kobe had spent the summer alternately praising and torching the Lakers organization, seemingly trying to escape from L.A. Then all that settled down, and Kobe went off with Team USA, where he was able to show us what it would look like if he played on a team surrounded by talented players.

In talking with Team Kobe to set up the shoot, we were told that Kobe would do a photo shoot with us…but he wanted to do it in his Team USA gear. I was opposed to this plan, because the issue would drop during the NBA season and people would probably want to read about the NBA, not the team Kobe was going to try and win a gold medal with nine months later. Also, the Lake Show stuff was still relevant; would they be able to transcend their Playoff team status this season and become a contender?

Then, the more I thought about it, the less I thought it mattered. The Lakers as presently constructed probably weren’t going to win a title anytime soon, Kobe seemed to have given up on trying to get out of L.A., and he seemed to be looking at Team USA as his best chance to make a mark on the basketball world in the next year.

I flew out to Hawaii on a Monday morning. On Tuesday in Honolulu, I spent the morning playing golf with SLAM photographer Atiba Jefferson and then went to the Lakers/Warriors game that night. On Wednesday, after the Lakers practiced, we had our Kobe Bryant photo shoot and interview scheduled. We set up in an unused ballroom at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort, where the Lakers (and Atiba and I) were staying. It was a very populated hotel, so much so that Kobe basically couldn’t leave his room. I saw almost all the other Lakers players strolling around, and for the most part people left them alone (or maybe people just didn’t know who Jordan Farmar and Andrew Bynum were). But Kobe would’ve been mobbed. Before our shoot, his people even had to come down and check out where the room was to figure out the best way to get him there without traipsing through the huge outdoor lobby area.

Kobe came rolling in around 3:00 p.m. that afternoon. We shot him in a variety of gear, from his Team USA uniform to a bunch of Nike stuff he’d had sent over. And then Kobe and I sat down to talk. We hustled through all kinds of stuff, from his workout regimen to Team USA to his thoughts about the Lakers this season. There’s plenty of that coming up shortly.

The big wrinkle in all of this was timing. Specifically, the big wrinkle came about three hours after Kobe and I talked, when I got back up to my room and checked the internet. At the exact time that Kobe and I were talking, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss was doing an interview with three Lakers beat writers, during which he said he’d be willing to listen if teams came calling for Kobe.

Boom. All of sudden, Kobe leaving L.A. was a story again. A huge story. A story that Kobe and I hadn’t focused on at all.

Great.

The following night I went to the second Lakers/Warriors exhibition game and staked out the Lakers locker room, hoping Kobe would come through at some point. Pregame he never showed. Postgame he never showed.

Great.

The next morning I flew back to New York City, quote-less from Kobe about the brewing situation.

The only upside was that I had three weeks to write the story, so as my deadline approached I sat back and watched and waited and worked the phones while Kobe rumors swirled. He was going to Chicago! He was going to New York!

And then, as the season tipped off, he went…nowhere. So we were back where we started. In a way, it was a good thing that he went through so much drama the last few years, because by now the Dr. Buss story is just another entry on Kobe’s wikipedia page. I still wrote about it, but it’s not the center of the story.

Anyway, here’s some of the interview between me and KB24. There’s much more in SLAM 114, on newsstands next week…

SLAM: WHAT MAKES TEAM USA SO IMPORTANT TO YOU?

KOBE: Because it’s representing the country. There’s no greater significance. When you play for your team, you’re playing for a particular market, particular state. You have fans across the country, obviously, but it’s segmented. Playing for the USA team, you’re playing for your country. Whether you’re a Lakers fan or the biggest Celtics fan, it doesn’t really matter. When you put on those stripes, man, it’s time to go to battle.

WAS IT LIKE YOU EXPECTED IT WOULD BE, BEING ON THE FLOOR WITH THAT LEVEL OF TALENT ALL AROUND YOU?

It was even more, actually. It was, it was so…seamless. We all really just clicked. It was easy to play together, actually. We kind of breezed through it. We still have a lot of work to do, but one thing about our team is that we worked hard. Before practice, after practice, we would shoot in groups, and we’d all get together and shoot for 30, 40 minutes after practice.

YOU KNOW, I WAS WORRIED DURING THE TEAM USA GAMES BECAUSE I THOUGHT PLAYING WITH JKIDD WAS GOING TO MAKE YOU FEEL SPOILED.

Oh, I did! I think we all did. Because, like I said, it was just…so easy.

HOW DID YOU END UP KIND OF BECOMING THE DEFENSIVE STOPPER ON THAT TEAM?

I just got tired of hearing stuff. I have a lot of friends over in Europe, and I just tired of hearing about their guard play and how great it is, how we can’t do anything about it. And it ticked me off (laughs). So I told Coach K, I want that assignment, I want that challenge. I don’t have to worry about scoring 30 points, rebounding, all that other stuff. All my energy can be concentrated on this one person, to stop him.

I KNOW YOU LOVE COACH K, BUT A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T LIKE HIM BECAUSE HE’S THE DUKE COACH AND DUKE BEATS EVERYONE YEAR AFTER YEAR.

Well, they’re paying him a compliment. If they like him that means they’re getting run over all the time. (laughs)

WELL, IT KIND OF HOLDS TRUE WITH YOU, TOO. PEOPLE DON’T LIKE YOU JUST BECAUSE YOU SCORE 40 AGAINST THEIR TEAM.

Yeah, yeah.

DO YOU TAKE THAT AS A COMPLIMENT?

I do. I just try to do what I do, man, just help us win ball games. A lot of times on the road fans want to see me score 40, 50 points but they want to see us lose. As long as they enjoy the game, especially kids, because some kids might be their first time at a game, so they can go back, have stories.

LOOKING TOWARD THIS SEASON WITH THE LAKERS, DO YOU LOOK FOR A WIN TOTAL YOU’RE SHOOTING FOR, OR…

No, not really, I’ve never done that, never done that. It’s always about improving, it’s such a long season, you want to try to get better piece by piece, little by little, it’s a marathon.

SOME TEAMS, LIKE THE SPURS, DON’T SEEM TO CARE ABOUT THE REGULAR SEASON, THEY JUST WANT TO TURN IT ON IN THE POSTSEASON. CAN YOU GUYS DO THAT?

No, you can only do that if you’re a champion. The year we won our first championship, I think we won 67 games, something like that? You gotta push yourself to get to that elite level. Once you get there, then you understand you’ve played two long seasons in a row. Then it becomes like a maintenance situation, trying to keep yourself healthy.

JUST SEEING WHAT YOU WENT THROUGH TODAY, HAVING TO HAVE SECURITY AND ALL THAT STUFF, YOU’VE REACHED AN AMAZING LEVEL OF FAME. DID YOU EVER THINK YOUR LIFE WOULD BE LIKE THIS?

No. When you start out, you only think about one thing, which is basketball. You don’t think that basketball is going to take you to Asia. When you’re a kid putting a ball in a basket, you don’t think basketball is going to take you all around the world.

AND HAVE 100,000 PEOPLE OUT THER WAITING FOR YOU, LIKE WHEN YOU WERE IN ASIA THIS SUMMER?

Yeah, that’s crazy. That’s very surreal. But it’s really a blessing.

IF YOU COULD GIVE UP HOOPS AND JUST LIVE A QUIET LIFE, I’D GUESS YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO DO IT, RIGHT?

No, I love the game too much. It’s part of me. I’ve been doing it since I was two. It’s me.

HOW DO YOU WANT TO BE REMEMBERED?

As a winner and an overachiever. Because I think that, particularly young players out there, you can have a lot of talent but the work ethic doesn’t come along with that. If you can have talent and also have a work ethic that takes you to a higher level than people expect you to have, that’s extremely important.

YOU THINK PEOPLE DON’T SEE THAT WITH YOU? THEY DON’T KNOW HOW HARD YOU’RE WORKING?

When I was in high school, they always said to be the number one player in the world, you have to be 6-9 or 6-10 — you have to be a big guy. if you’re a little guard you can’t dominate a game the way a big guy does, all this other stuff. Then, coming into the NBA, I heard guards can’t make the jump. And being able to overcome that, to the point where people actually *forget* the challenges I had to overcome to get here, I mean…

THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU’VE BEEN THIS HEALTHY IN A WHILE, RIGHT?

Yeah, I feel, really, really good. I feel great, knock on wood. I’ve dropped about 20 pounds, I feel great.

YOU JUST WANTED TO BE SLIMMER?

I thought I’d be *better*. Just losing the weight, protecting your legs, quicker. Especially having to chase little guards around for FIBA, and also the upcoming season.

WE DON’T HEAR ABOUT THIS ANYMORE, BUT ARE YOU STILL THE MAMBA?

(smiles) The Mamba will still be in effect.