by Ben Collins
It’s the last day of January in 2007 and Kobe Bryant is in the process of performing his third or fourth up-and-under of the night. The first two or three up-and-unders were layups – relative doozies, I’m sure; it’s been a year, but it was Kobe – that had rallied that then under-talented, trade-demand-inducing group of Lakers over a Celtics team unwatchable.

But this third up-and-under? Boy, it was a joy to watch.

See, Kobe does this neat trick.

You know how he holds the ball close to his heart when he’s double-covered in traffic – like he has a baby clutched in his right arm and he’s the man of the hour, fearlessly, valiantly escaping a burning building — and he grips it so tight it looks like he’s deflating the ball a little?

This. This is how he answers questions. Your classic up-and-under.

He’ll up and field it for you, giving you some hope that he’ll give you a little bit of actual information or some true Kobe Bean Bryant heart or something (in truth, I don’t know what most reporters are looking for half the time), and then he’ll say a sentence, a phrase or a word vaguely pertaining to your well-thought-out question, but he will duck out of and, invariably, under the question itself.

Kobe has found the fire escape. No need to get emotional. This baby is saved.

We go through this whole charade six or seven more times until the Lakers media guy (or maybe it’s Kobe’s own media guy?) says, tonally-but-politely, “All right, everybody. Thanks!” and raises his arms through his blazer the way the guy holding the “QUIET PLEASE” sign at a PGA event does. This has become the universal sign for, “you’re just cracking the surface, but you’ve dug close enough to maybe see some actual personality here, so we must cut you off and, at media availability after practice tomorrow, you can start all over again from the beginning” and we must all accept it.

All of us, of course, except for a few beat writers. A couple of brave folks, I think they were probably of LA Times descent, decide to stick around and chat.

They’re not trying to get something out of him. Well, kind of.

These guys are talking about restaurants, how tired Kobe is, where Kobe’s going after the game. And how about that hotel they’ve got us locked up in, huh? No HBO? More like a bourgeois prison. Etc., etc., etc.

They’re trying to get something out of him later. They’re trying to, as they say in newspapers, “plant that seed.” They’re trying to “lay that groundwork.” Kobe is trying to show them, though, that there is very little landscaping involved in journalism anymore.

Respectfully, of course. One-word answers, but a smile. Almost no eye contact, but a smile. This is a working relationship and he would like you to recognize it.

The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy sees it everywhere. He used to get rides to the airport from Celtics players who lived down the street. They used to make the world’s best small talk on the ride to Logan. He used to know nicknames of the players! Nicknames! And he was even allowed to use them! What a wonderful world it was in the 1920s!

Now he can’t even get an interview with Kevin Garnett during the playoffs and he thinks this is the end of civility.

What this all is, though, is beyond civility. It is the Modern American Guide to Heroism.

****

From what I know about Kobe Bryant, he seems like he can be a real ass sometimes. This is probably unfair and based mostly on hearsay and rhetoric. For example, I put an enormous amount of stock – probably too much stock – into a Derek Fisher TV interview from a few weeks ago in which he said he was “thankful that Kobe has allowed” the rest of the team to shoot the ball more often in the first round of the playoffs.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like some real asshole talk to me. And this would be good because this would make him human.

But what’s important is that he only seems like he can be. In fact, he may be the exact opposite. Derek Fisher may have been legitimately grateful that a man that nice and talented would think about passing him the ball. But, again, what matters is that I don’t know.

Almost a decade ago now, Frank Deford wrote one of the best features in any Sports Illustrated about former Minnesota Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett and how he was canonized for years for playing hard, doing a fair-but-not-exorbitant amount of community service and just generally looking like – as a frumpy, relatively unathletic-seeming guy – a man of the people. Minnesotans eventually idolized him because he played hard every day and played well every day; and because he kept quiet, they assumed that he was doing extremely generous things in his spare time.

Turns out he wasn’t.

And although Kobe is not, say, consistently relieving himself in mall parking lots like Puckett had a habit of doing (of all of the things we don’t know about Kobe, it’s probably safe to throw that one away), Kobe understands that with this solitude comes mystery and with that mystery comes trust.

This is how we build – not to sound kitschy here – the American hero as it has become: compounded years of hard work masked in silence.

DeFord also quotes Oscar Wilde in that story.

“The Americans are certainly hero worshippers and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.”

DeFord wrote that it took years for Puckett to shed that nice guy image. Kobe, probably unjustly, does not have that luxury.

The John Wayne Theory. The bad guy saves the baby from the fire, ducks out the fire escape, hands off the baby to its proper place and walks away. He’s the hero, the man of the hour, and afterwards, he won’t even acknowledge it happened.

****

Before that semi-circle of beat reporters dispersed from Kobe – when they were still trying to find some common ground, somehow, with one of the only men in the world who is patently unrelatable to them – I came up with an idea.

Maybe I should ask him if he has a cat.

A kitty. A pet. Anything.

Maybe if I asked him the most straightforward, anti-evocative question I could think of, he will be so confused by this situation that his protective layer will peel off, his bubble will burst and he will break down into a ball of sorrows. He will tell us about how he rolls around with a cat named Whiskers to reenact the innocence of a childhood stolen by basketball and he will cry and cry and we will understand fully, wholly why he does the things he does and why he did the things he did. Or at least maybe he has a few cute kitty stories.

But I didn’t because he probably won’t. That guy in the blazer probably already brought him through Kitty Question training just like every other question. And I don’t blame him because, honestly, I don’t want to see Kobe like that either.

Everything will continue as it is now, forever. Kobe will twist and contort, up and under everything, and he will not say a damn word about it, or about how he did it, or about how he will continue to do it, or about his cat that he may or may not have, or about his twisted relationship with his wife (whom some say he has effectively bought off with jewelry) or his even more twisted relationship with DJ M’Benga (whom he has also effectively, weirdly, bought off with jewelry), or about his kid (like LeBron – guardedly, but it’s still something – will tell ESPN), or about anything off the court, or about anything on the court.

So, no, Kobe will not tell you anything at all. This is how America finally got over itself — or 200 or so sportswriters within it — and finally voted for him for MVP. This is why we root for him to singlehandedly take down the Spurs, a team of nice guys and vets without much character. This is why we like him.

And – sorry – no, Kobe will not be picking you up at the airport this evening or anytime soon.