by Russ Bengtson

Let’s go back. Way back. (Well, in sports years.) July of 2001. The Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant have just won their second consecutive NBA championship. Kobe, just 22 years old, is in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, to speak at adidas ABCD camp. Six summers before this, he was the camp’s senior MVP. Now he’s got a signature shoe, a Slam Dunk title, a pair of NBA championships and a Secret Service like security detail.

I went out to Jersey to interview him for KICKS, just as I had the previous year. Which was kind of weird in a déjà vu kind of way. Same sneaker company, same event, same circumstances, even the same hotel. Only a lot had changed. There were the burly security guards, for one. There was also the matter of his getting married and buying an enormous house, both events which gave the Los Angeles gossip pages plenty of fodder.

Of course his biggest presence remained on the sports pages. The first championship was a beginning. Maybe even a fluke. This? This was starting to look like a dynasty. Kobe and Shaq were playing nice, Phil Jackson had seamlessly installed the triangle, and the Lakers had rolled over all comers (including the full-strength Spurs, who were missing Tim Duncan in 2001). The Lakers—and Kobe—looked as if they were going to keep winning for a long, long time. In the introduction to the KICKS piece, I wrote the following:

‘You’re in the presence of someone for whom virtually everything has gone right, all according to plan, and you can’t help but be happy for him. And you also wonder what the future will bring—how many times this feeling of deja-vu can persist.

You look at the ring, the Bling Bling from last year. You ask what will be inscribed on this year’s version, and the answer comes on a laugh. “Shaq wants to go with ‘Can You Dig It?,” he says. “I told him I don’t care what it says, as long as we get eight more.”

Can you dig that? Kobe Bryant, at 30, with a double handful of gold. At 30—with years of basketball ahead of him. The scary part is, you can actually see it. In that moment you forget the Sixers, forget the Spurs, forget the Suns. You see the future, paved in purple and gold, and you wonder. Can this really happen?
Stay tuned.’

Well. We did stay tuned, and we all know what happened next. One more championship followed by turmoil. Phil Jackson couldn’t help. Neither could Gary Payton and Karl Malone. And eventually Shaq ended up in Miami, Phil walked away, and Kobe ended up alone. He still isn’t 30 yet, still has years of basketball ahead of him. Phil’s back, so is point guard Derek Fisher—Kobe’s 1996 Draftmate. But you have to wonder—did Kobe ever think it would turn out like this? Here’s what he said during that summer of 2001, when the future was bright, the opportunities boundless.

SLAM: You gotta be used to it by now, the whole championship thing…
KOBE: [Smiles] I don’t think you really get used to it completely—because it’s such a rush. And it ends so abruptly. You can’t really grasp all of it.
SLAM: Did it feel inevitable this year, the way you rolled into the playoffs?
KOBE: Mmmm, we did a good job staying in the moment. As we started making our way into the playoffs we didn’t get too far ahead. But the time when it started sinking in is after Fisher hit that three to push it to a seven-point game—we were like, we’re gonna do this, there’s no doubt about it. The year before it came down to us making free throws, we had to do this and that. This time we didn’t have to do that, we could enjoy it on the court. As the clock was winding down, we were just, oh yeah, we got this in the bag, we just have to play keep away. It was a different feeling. It was like we know we got this, we accomplished this. It was different.
SLAM: What happened in Game One?
KOBE: We were rusty. I mean, you have to give Philly credit, because they came out and played hard like they always do, but we weren’t in the flow. Having nine days off, you’re gonna be a little rusty. We had spurts we played well, but it wasn’t good enough.
SLAM: You guys had seen Allen [Iverson] play obviously, but did he still catch you by surprise a little bit?
KOBE: Not really. Because you knew he was capable of doing it. We’d seen him play. But what Allen is good about doing is getting easy points, and he got them in the flow of the game. And they turned it into a win.
KICKS: Then you had to adjust for pretty much the first time. What did you change?
KOBE: Well, we’d been pretty good about adjusting. I think that was the first time in the playoffs we’d had to make an adjustment that everyone noticed—all right, we need to do something. [Laughs.] Tyronn came in and did a great job, [Derek] Fisher, they played their hearts out.
KICKS: What was the turning point for you guys this season?
KOBE: I don’t know. So many things had to happen, and they happened at the same time. When we went on that eight-game winning streak at the end of the season, which we had to do to get home-court advantage. We did that. Then we went to the playoffs—we just started playing well, and things just started happening. For some reason everybody was just on the same page, playing with the same mindset. It was crazy, I’ve never been a part of something like that.
KICKS: So it was different from last year.
KOBE: Completely. We’ve never been a part of anything like that. What we felt was just unshakeable. One through 12, we’re not going to budge. None of us. You could go to Devean George, you could go to Slava Medvedenko, Mark Madsen, we’re not budging, because we’re like this [makes fist].
KICKS: How do you carry that over—does that carry over into next season?
KOBE: Most definitely. I think what we experienced this year was such a bond—it was very strong, it has to carry over.
KICKS: I guess the tough part is, you’ll be 23 in August, normally someone your age is figuring out what to do next, and you’re coming off of two NBA championships, you’re basically unbeatable. What do you do now?
KOBE. Win. [Smiles] Win. I think our goal individually is how to benefit the team collectively. We just traded one of our family members Greg Foster and brought in Lindsey Hunter. Our goal now is how to incorporate these new guys coming in into our community. That’s all we’re tryin’ to do.
KICKS: Do you feel like—going into those last eight games and the playoffs—this was what you were building to the whole time?
KOBE: I think it was built up from all the adversity we went through in the regular season. We all knew there came a point in time we were either gonna be the biggest flop in the NBA [laughs] or we were gonna make it stronger. And that was our philosophy, it was either gonna break us, or make us stronger.
KICKS: Especially going through these two championships, does the regular season just feel real long now?
KOBE: This season did, because of everything that we went through, and we were just waiting for the playoffs. Next season I don’t think so. I think we found a new love for the game, a new enjoyment of the game, because when we all play together it’s so much fun. It’s just not gonna be about a long regular season, it’s just gonna be about enjoying the games that we play together.
KICKS: Is this the most fun you’ve had playing basketball?
KOBE: Definitely. Definitely. [Pauses.] I had a lot of fun—I played wheelchair basketball with these guys in Barcelona. That was so much fun—I was only supposed to play for ten minutes and I wound up playing for an hour. It was wild, man. That was some of the most fun I’ve had playing basketball. But playing with these guys, it’s another level.
KICKS: The San Antonio series. Everyone talked about how that was gonna be the series, then after Game 1 it was over.
KOBE: [Laughs.]
KICKS: Is that when you guys came together?
KOBE: I think after Game 2 was it. After Game 2 we knew we had reached a level where we really surprised ourselves—we surprised Coach Jackson. With him getting ejected, San Antonio playing extremely well, us playing bad. And we still managed to pull it out.
We went into the series expecting it to be a heavyweight fight. This is going to be a battle. And that’s why we never let up. We said OK, we have a 3-1 lead—if they win one game maybe that’ll get ‘em back in the series. We didn’t want to give them any room.
KICKS: They just looked dejected—do you think that affects them next season?
KOBE: I don’t think so. They’re champions, they’ll be back.
KICKS: Speaking of champions coming back, do you think Mike comes back next year?
KOBE: I don’t know. As a fan, I don’t want him to. As a fan. Because it was a great ending for him. As a player? I don’t care. I think he just misses the game. His competitveness wants to go up against some of us young guys.
KICKS: Have you been watching some of the moves? Kidd getting traded for Steph…
KOBE: That shocked me. I didn’t understand that too much. I think Steph’ll love Phoenix—that up and down game? The West Coast? He’s gonna love that. Especially him—he’s little, strong and fast. He’s gonna love that.
KICKS. Like the All-Star game.
KOBE: See, this year I’m gonna have Steph on my team. That’s gonna be good. If only he can knock down some of those threes he knocked down last year. [Laughs] That’s gonna be good.
KICKS: You gonna play some this summer?
KOBE: I might go to UCLA and play a little bit. I try not to play five on five during the off-season, usually try to just recuperate and work on some skills.
KICKS: So you took some time off, got the house…
KOBE: Yeah, everybody knows about that. It’s on the internet, the TV, all of that…
KICKS: Has that [the attention] built up a lot even since last year?
KOBE: You know me, I never used to travel with security—I never really had the need to. But after we won the second championship then it started to get out of hand. My wife and I went to a movie theater and it was just crazy—there were people waiting outside the movie theater, waiting by the doors. We couldn’t enjoy ourselves. In order to walk around we had to walk really fast, with our heads down. We couldn’t look at stores, we couldn’t enjoy ourselves. So we said let’s try takin’ out security. So we took out security and we were able to just pace. Just go out, enjoy ourselves, look around. With guards around us I didn’t have to fear for her safety.
KICKS: Does the increased attention hurt your focus?
KOBE: No, no. Not at all. It’s all about the game. Attention, that comes and goes. Play good Monday night, good job. Play bad Wednesday night…[laughs]. All that matters is the game. That’s it.
KICKS: It looked like in the playoffs that you and Shaq were both able to play full-out without getting in each other’s way. Was that just from playing together so much?
KOBE: It was more about us as a team. What you have to understand is, it’s not about what Shaq does and how I respond to it; or what I do and how Shaq responds. It’s more about what he does, what I do and what our team does to respond to it. That was the most important thing. You noticed in the playoffs, in the first round Shaq was dominating. We went to the Sacramento series, they collapsed everybody on Shaq so they let me go do my thing. As a team we were able to respond to that and play well and not skip a beat. And that was really important for us as a team.
KICKS: Was that just from playing together?
KOBE: I think it’s not even playing together, but just from being around one another. Just understanding and trusting one another. Communication is the biggest key.
KICKS: So next year—D Fish is out for a while, so is Madsen. So you have a challenge right from the beginning.
KOBE: The thing that we have is that we’re hungry still. Still. We don’t feel like we’ve tapped our potential. We felt like last year in the regular season we cheated ourselves, so we had something to prove. Because people were still saying, ‘OK, you’re the champions now, but next year you might go through turmoil again,” so we feel we’ve got something to prove to them. We want to show you guys that we’re the champs. I feel like there’s a hunger there.
KICKS: The first one it seemed like people could say, ‘well, it was only one.’ Now that you’ve won two, is it more solid?
KOBE: The first one, people wanted to say that it had an asterisk next to it because Tim Duncan was hurt. Because we were supposed to play San Antonio at full strength, and they didn’t make it past Phoenix. This year everybody was there.
KICKS: Did that make it that much better?
KOBE: It felt good goin’ in on the road. Startin’ the series on the road. 36,000 people in the Alamodome booing. Goin’ in there and taking care of business. That felt good.
KICKS: Then winning three in a row in Philly.
KOBE: We had a confidence about ourselves, a quiet confidence that we were gonna win. Philly was crazy, man—we went from the hotel to the bus and we had 500 fans out there just booin’ us and yellin’ all this crazy stuff. Cussin’ at us and everything. And we talked back. [Laughs.] Gettin’ on the bus sayin’ “you ain’t gonna win, nah, you ain’t gonna win.” Just to kind of egg ‘em on, give ‘em a good time.
KICKS: What happened with you and Allen in Game 2?
KOBE: Just two competitors.
KICKS: But how did it start?
KOBE: I think he was saying something to our fans. Trying to pump up his team. Which as the leader of his team that’s what he’s supposed to do. But me, the leader of our team, I had to respond to that. I said hey, we’re gonna step up. We’re gonna come get you guys in Philly. You got one from us here in L.A. we gonna come down to Philly and do the same. And he responded back to that. And that’s the way you’re supposed to do that. If you’re not competitive like that you shouldn’t be playing.
KICKS: Did that fire you up to get ’em all? Once you won the first?
KOBE: It didn’t really fire up ourselves as a team because we usually stay pretty cool. But we kinda let them know that we don’t care how inspired you guys might be—we’re the champs, we figured this game out. And no matter how much heart you play with, how much emotion you play with, when you reach the NBA Finals against us that doesn’t matter—you have to execute.
KICKS: Allen seems to have that same competitive fire that you do.
KOBE: He’s extremely competitive—I love watching him play. He goes all out, he works hard. He’s got a lot of energy.
KICKS: You get more up to play guys like him?
KOBE: I do—I used to. But now it’s like, it’s not even about that, [Laughs.] You know what I mean? It’s difficult to explain. I never thought I’d hear myself say something like this, but it’s not about that now. It’s about what we do. We don’t get too high, we don’t get too low, we just come in, cut your hearts out, and go home. Really, that’s our mindset.
KICKS: Still, you’re 22. Most people are still trying to find their way, you just have to maintain.
KOBE: Just lucky, man. [Laughs.] Being around a great bunch of guys, a great coach, just got lucky.
KICKS: Does that make it harder—seeing that you have to keep winning championships just to maintain.
KOBE: It makes it harder, more challenging, but as a result it’s more enjoyable. The ride to the championship becomes more enjoyable. That’s what it’s all about—winning a championship is not the funnest part, it’s the ride.
KICKS: You seemed kind of drained after that last game.
KOBE: I was tired as hell. Sssshhhh, I wanted to go to sleep. [Laughs] I was so tired. It was such a long season, emotionally. I was done.
KICKS: How did the ankle injury change things?
KOBE: It changed things a lot. One of the main things that it changed about me was my respect for Brian Shaw, Ron Harper and Horace Grant, Robert Horry. Because they all played with limits to their game. Whether it was knees, bad backs, their games had limits. And as a result I respected them a lot more, because I couldn’t do what I was used to. I couldn’t just cut the corner and use my athleticism, I had to start thinking the game. I said man, these guys play 82 games like this. They have to really study the game and say OK, how am I gonna play? And my respect for them just shot through the roof.
KICKS: You talked about that a little last year with Harp.
KOBE: I don’t know how he plays. I thought this year, when Phil put him in the game against Philly—it was a tight game, Phil puts him in, I’m sittin’ there and I look, and I’m like Harp, what the hell are you doing out here, man? And he’s like [in decent Harp voice] “Awwww, go ahead KB.” What the hell, you look good in a uniform, man! He was like “Aaawwwww.” And he came in and gave us great minutes. Hit a three from the right corner, got a little tip-in here, a lay-up there, kept Philly at bay. He seems to be in the right place at the right time all the time.
KICKS: You have been too. 22, two championships, All-Star as long as you want. Do you wake up some mornings and think, I could be the best player to ever play? I mean, everyone has to think that way, but it’s within reach for you.
KOBE: I wake up every morning and just continue to win. Keep on moving. You just have to believe in yourself, and whatever happens, happens. Winning or losing, people judge you by it. People don’t remember the people who come in second. That’s the motto I live by, and that’s the motto we live by, the Lakers. We just move on, and keep on dreamin’. Somebody reaches over to pinch me, I move my arm. [Laughs.] Because that’s what it feels like, I’m just kinda floatin’ right now.
KICKS: And hope you don’t come down.
KOBE: Nah, especially not with these on [points at new shoes]. I just keep on floatin’. [Laughs.]