KICKS 3 Presents: Eightball
KICKS 12 is coming; remember when Kobe appeared on his first KICKS cover?
Almost a decade later, all is merely a blur of memories in the rearview. His high school years feel like a lifetime ago; so does his rivalry with Rip Hamilton. That he was gonna attend Duke? Most fans probably don’t remember that. The air-balled shot in Mamba’s inaugural playoff series? Nobody cares; he’s more than made amends for that. And the joy of winning his first ring in L.A.? That was three rings ago. He probably doesn’t remember his first KICKS cover either. Or his second. Will he be on the cover of KICKS #12? Find out in a few weeks! ‘Till then, here’s a little reminder of Kobe’s first KICKS cover, KICKS #3.—Tzvi Twersky
by Russ Bengtson
Kobe Bryant finished talking, and strangely enough, there were no questions. Admittedly, it was noontime in New Jersey during high summer—not the time when 18-year-olds are at their most alert—but Kobe was on stage, open to answer anything, and the entire 2000 ABCD Camp class was silent.
Needless to say, there was plenty to ask. The 21-year-old Bryant was just coming off a season that saw him post career-highs in scoring (22.5 ppg), field goal percentage (47 percent), rebounds (6.3) and assists (4.9). Also, thanks to some mid-season advice from Gary Payton (and a Phil Jackson training camp), he had gotten his defensive game into first-team All-NBA shape. Then there was that little matter of an NBA Championship.
Finally, with a little provoking from Vitalesque adidas impresario Sonny Vaccaro, a hand rose. Then another. And another. Slowly the kids began to realize—‘Hey, this guy’s got a ring and a $70 million contract, and he was one of us a couple years ago.’ The questions started to come in a flood. Finally, someone asked the most logical one, given the crowd: “Have you ever regretted not going to college?”
Standing on the side, I prepared for the inevitable answer. As a matter of fact, I could have given it for him: “No, because I always wanted to go straight to the pros. That was my dream and I followed it. And you have to do what you think is right.” Which is why when Kobe responded with “Once,” it came as a complete surprise. He then went on to tell a story that may one day become part of the basketball mythos, like that of Jackie Jackson plucking quarters off New York City backboards or Moses’s “Fo’ fo’ fo’.” It went a little something like this:
“Richard Hamilton and I were big rivals in high school,” Kobe said. “And our team beat his for the [Pennsylvania] State Championship. Then, when he won the NCAA Championship [UConn, ’99], I got a phone call. ‘I got a college championship and all you got is high school. What’s up now?’ I said ‘If I went to college, you think you woulda gotten that damn championship?’”
Laughter. Kobe pauses for a tick.
“I guess I gotta give him a call now.”
That’s it. Pandemonium. Hard to believe just four years before he was still in high school. Two years before he was going one-on-one with Jordan in the All-Star game. Less than a month before he won his first NBA Championship. And less than two hours before he sat down with us.
KICKS: You grew up in Europe. What was the biggest adjustment coming back to the States?
KOBE: Just regular life, or basketball, too?
KICKS: Start with basketball.
KOBE: Basketball was a big adjustment because of the speeds of the game, the athleticism of certain players. Size. Just the overall talent. In Europe, the game is pretty basic, the tempo is pretty easy to pick up. As far as life, I wasn’t used to the pace, really. In Italy, everybody’s family, you know everybody, because we stayed in such a small city. So we came back here, and it was just so big, high school and everything…
KICKS: I don’t remember where I heard this, but is it true that you wear No. 8 because Mike D’Antoni wore it in the European League, and he was ballin’ when you were there?
KOBE: Nah [laughs], that’s far from true. Actually I got my number from ABCD Camp. My number was 143 when I played here, and I had my best week of basketball. So I just added ’em all up. My number in high school was 33, with the Lakers I can’t wear that number. So…
KICKS: Who was your favorite player growing up?
KOBE: Magic. I loved Magic. Because he could do everything on the floor—pass, shoot, rebound. Not a great one-on-one defender, but he was a good team defender. I admired the way he played the game, he played with a lot of charisma.
KICKS: Did you meet him for the first time when you joined the Lakers?
KOBE: I met him when I was like, three. His first pro game, he played against my pop. Then I met him when I first moved out to L.A., when I was like 17. We played in a pick-up game against one another. That’s the first time I ever really met him.
KICKS: What’d you learn from him?
KOBE: I learned a lot growing up watching him play. As far as in that pick-up game, I was just trying to take whatever I learned from him growing up and utilize it against him.
KICKS: Do you think he realized what you were doing?
KOBE: Probably so. Certain little spin moves. A skyhook here and there. Skyhooks I still use today sometimes.
KICKS: What was your first memory of the NBA?
KOBE: First memory of the NBA? Just watching? [Long pause.] There’s not one particular play that stands out, really. I think it’s just the overall picture of the rivalry that Bird and Magic had. I think that pushed everybody, myself included. Just watchin’ the games, and watchin’ how that rivalry grew. And watching the younger players come up—Michael, Charles, Hakeem. Watching those players develop.
KICKS: What was it like having your dad as an NBA player? Did that help push you towards knowing you wanted to do this?
KOBE: No, not really. My father was just there as a father. He just allowed me to play all types of sports, basketball was the one that I loved to play the most, and it just so happened that he was an NBA player.
KICKS: Have you ever talked to anyone like Ken Griffey Jr., anyone else in a similar situation?
KOBE: No. No. Our situations are kind of different from one another. When I entered the NBA, it had been a long time since my father played. The game had completely changed, on and off the court. There really wasn’t much he could tell me about it.
KICKS: What was your parents’ reaction when you told them you were gonna turn pro?
KOBE: All right [Laughs.] Whatever. That’s it.
KICKS: That simple?
KOBE: That simple.
KICKS: Did you ever consider what it would have been like if you went to college, or if Charlotte kept your rights?
KOBE: Not really. If I went to college and stayed four years, I’d probably be in New Jersey right now. And if Charlotte kept my rights, [shrugs] I’d be a Hornet.
KICKS: How did playing in camps like ABCD help you out?
KOBE: It helped me out because it got me out there. It gave me the respect of my peers. That’s all I wanted to come in this camp to do. To let my peers know—people across the country know—who the best player in the camp was. That’s all. Motivation, really.
KICKS: Was it the kind of thing that helped you figure out you wanted to turn pro?
KOBE: No. Not really. Because my whole motto was that if I go pro, which is where my heart is, if I’m ready, great, I’ll prove a lot of people wrong. If I’m not ready right away, I could make myself ready by learning and my continuous work ethic.
KICKS: Have you talked to any of the other guys that have gone straight to the League, like Darius Miles, DeShawn Stevenson…
KOBE: No, I haven’t talked to them.
KICKS: Has anybody come up to you at one of these camps to say, “Hey, I’m thinking about turning pro…”
KOBE: Nope. I think all these young men learn how to make decisions for themselves, which is good. Because they’re gonna have to do a lot of that when they get to the League.
KICKS: If someone did ask for your advice, what would you tell them?
KOBE: [Smiles] Make your own decisions. The only thing I can do for them is give them some examples, pros and cons of what I went through.
KICKS: Like what? Anything you wish someone told you on the way in?
KOBE: No, because I like to figure things out on my own. I think you appreciate the knowledge you learn a lot more when you go through it for yourself.
KICKS: Are you still going to get your degree?
KOBE: Probably so.
KICKS: Doing anything right now?
KOBE: No. My time is very, very limited. This is my profession.
KICKS: When you first came into the League, you stayed back at the hotel a lot. Was it difficult for you to break in with the team?
KOBE: No. That’s something I chose to do. Guys wanted me to go out, but I had a lot of work to do. Still do. That’s why I don’t go out much now. Especially during the NBA season. It makes no sense to go out on the road—hang around a bunch of people who want to see you lose anyway.
KICKS: What do you do in the summers?
KOBE: The same thing I always do—and that is play ball. That’s it. Work on my dribblin’, passing, defense. I pretty much stopped playing five-on-five, for the simple reason that the offense that we run is not your typical offense, is not your pro-set offense. So playing in a pick-up game, it won’t do too much for me.
KICKS: So what do you do?
KOBE: You just work on certain things that you know are gonna come out of the scheme of your offense.
KICKS: You work with a trainer?
KOBE: I’ve had a trainer since I was in high school, the same trainer throughout. Joe Carbone. He used to train the 76ers. When I was in high school, he used to work me out, then I turned pro. John Lucas actually introduced me to him.
KICKS: What was it like adjusting to playing with Shaq?
KOBE: That was a big adjustment. I’m used to penetrating, having a lane open. And playing with Shaq, somebody in the middle, it always felt like the middle was clogged. Playin’ together, you just kind of learn where the gaps are. And how you penetrate and get around him, or use him to get to the basket. Once we figured it out, it was pretty simple.
KICKS: Did things feel different going into this season?
KOBE: Yeah, because we learned something new every day. I think other teams, when they go to training camp, as far as the basic offense goes, they know pretty much all they can know. Because it’s fairly simple. But with us, because of the triangle, we were forced to learn something different. It gave Shaq and I a great deal of confidence because we knew where we were gonna be every time down the floor. Because of the offense.
KICKS: How difficult was it to pick up the triangle?
KOBE: It wasn’t that hard. Wasn’t that hard. The most difficult part is being on the same beat with the rest of your teammates, because you have to be on the same page.
KICKS: How hard is it for you to stay in the triangle?
KOBE: It’s pretty hard. Certain players move a little bit faster than others. Like with A.C., you kinda have to slow your speed up a little bit, let him catch up. Rick Fox, too.
KICKS: What did you do different on defense this year?
KOBE: [Laughs] I learned a few things more. My first game in the League, I was fortunate, because I was around guys like Eddie Jones, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Jerome Kersey—veterans who played this game a long time. They taught me some tricks of the trade. Then obviously Gary [Payton] helped me a lot this year.
KICKS: I heard that. You talked to him at the All-Star game?
KOBE: Yeah, he gave me a lot of good advice.
KICKS: How’d that happen, how’d you approach him?
KOBE: I just asked him [laughs]. We were havin’ a practice, a little shootaround or whatever. I just spoke to him about it, and he was very open.
KICKS: You learn from Harp, too?
KOBE: Oh yeah. Harp is like a different style of defense. The information Harp gives me about defense you can use when you get injured—like if you have a bad ankle. Because you know Harp plays on one leg. That’s how he plays D, pretty much. It’s amazing if you think about it, how he keeps up with players. He’s learned how to play the angles very well.
KICKS: What’s been the biggest difference with Coach Jackson compared to some of your other coaches?
KOBE: [Laughs] Phil can coach. Nah, I’m just playin’. Phil’s seriousness about the game, his focus. His attentiveness to minor details. That in itself is a difference with some of the coaches we’ve had in the past. Knowing how to relate to people. Knowing each personality; how to talk to certain guys, how to get ’em up. How to talk to ’em so they get the point. That’s a big difference.
KICKS: You think you guys gave him more of a benefit of the doubt comin’ in with those six rings?
KOBE: I think it helped [laughs], because it worked for him in the past. We’ve seen it work. But it wasn’t like we had a choice. [Big smile.] It’s not like we said OK, are we gonna believe the system or are we not? [Laughs.] Nah, either you did, or you’re out.
KICKS: Did you think you guys would win it all this fast?
KOBE: Our motto was somebody has to win it. And we kept knockin’ on the door in years past. So it was like, why not us? We got the coach, we got the system, we got Shaq who’s a dominant player, we got myself, I’m ready to emerge. So all the pieces of the puzzle were there.
KICKS: You got all this by 21–NBA Championship, Slam Dunk contest winner, All-Star starter, first-team all-defense. Do you feel like you paid your dues?
KOBE: To tell you the truth, I really don’t care. There’s always gonna be that, it was there when I first came in, and it’s gonna be there five, six, seven years from now. All I can do is keep on improving my game. To get to the point where people say, ‘Well, he doesn’t have any weaknesses in his game.’ That’s fine by me. Whether I think I deserve all this that’s coming my way or not, I don’t care.
KICKS: What’s the next thing you have to add?
KOBE: I think just improving the total package. Rebounds, assist-to-turnover ratio, free-throw percentage, three-point percentage. There’s a lot of pieces to the game that you can improve on year by year. Just pick one.
KICKS: What about that shot against Phoenix [Game Two winner with two seconds left]? What was the huddle like?
KOBE: After the shot?
KICKS: No, before.
KOBE: Well, it was kinda different, because the huddle was more of a defensive scheme, because Phoenix had the ball. They came down, we were able to stop ’em from scoring—and another difference with Phil is that other coaches would have called a time-out. And he just let us play, let us stay with the momentum. He wanted us to stay in the offense, in the triangle. That was the first thing he said to me when I went to the bench—I said, “Nah, Phil, don’t worry about it, I got it. Just spread it out.”
KICKS: So you just knew you had the shot right from the start.
KOBE: My teammates knew I was lookin’—some of the shots I’ve had in years past—I was waiting for that moment, waiting for that opportunity.
KICKS: Then that Game Seven against Portland. That had to be the kind of game you played in your driveway.
KOBE: Oh yeah. You just wish for that type of game. Some of the media in L.A. was like, hangin’ us, cause we went to Game Seven with the team with the second-best record in the League. We just had to come out and play—we fought 82 games for homecourt advantage in that type of situation—we just had to come out and ball.
KICKS: Were you nervous going into that fourth quarter? Do you get rattled?
KOBE: No. No. It was fun.
KICKS: How do you stay calm?
KOBE: Because it’s a challenge. It’s just a huge challenge. Playing against Portland is a challenge in itself, then once you’re down 15 points, it’s even more fun. It’s even more dramatic. And once you’ve won the game, you appreciate what you’ve done a lot more.
KICKS: What was it like, walking onto the court for Game One of the Finals, bringing ’em back to L.A.?
KOBE: It was a different kind of feeling. Because it was more of a numb feeling. Just looking around seeing the banners.
KICKS: Was it more than you’d prepared for?
KOBE: I didn’t prepare for anything—I just imagined how it would be. Then, once I got there, I just threw it all out the window and stuck to the Xs and Os. That way you don’t get emotionally wrapped up in the game.
KICKS: Game Four, Shaq fouls out. Did you really wink at him and tell him “I got it”?
KOBE: That was it. [Huge grin.] That’s the type of game that you dream about. I’m sure everybody in the building, everybody watching on TV thought that Indiana had the game in the bag. Reggie was on fire, Indiana was playing great basketball, Jalen was playing great. Rik Smits had a good game. All you gotta do is come out and hit a couple jumpers to keep ’em off balance, you know what I’m sayin’? Then everything was fine. To give your teammates the confidence that they need to say ‘OK, well, our big guy’s out, but now Kobe can lead us out there.’
KICKS: How badly do you want to be the number one option? I mean, I know you do eventually, but…
KOBE: But see, right now I’m comfortable being the number one option in the fourth. You know, you just kinda wait, put it in cruise control—you don’t attack, you pick your spots—bam, bam, bam. That two minutes shows up on the clock [laughs] all right, let’s go. Just give me the ball.
KICKS: Does it even matter how far you’re down?
KOBE: The deeper the deficit, the more fun it is, sometimes. Really. Once you’re able to pull your team out of that kind of situation, your teammates start looking at you like ‘Come on, man, pull us out, let’s get it goin’.’ And those are the types of feelings I love.
KICKS: What was it like when that Final buzzer went off?
KOBE: ‘Are you serious? Is this happenin’ for real?’ It happened so fast. The season was so long, when that buzzer sounded, it happened so quickly. You want to soak it all in but you can’t.
KICKS: How have things changed since then?
KOBE: I think there’s an added respect because you’re a champion. And everyone’s talking about us being champions, but it’s been all talk up to this point. But now we can back it up with one title.
KICKS: Are you thinkin’ about next season yet? Because everywhere you go people are gonna be gunnin’ for you.
KOBE: Nah, we’re still gunnin’ for them. We’re still goin’ to get them.
KICKS: But now every arena you go to, you’re the defending champs.
KOBE: We’re goin’ in their house to destroy them. It doesn’t matter who we play against, we’re goin’ in there to wreck shop.
KICKS: How important was it for you to stay on one team—you re-upped before even trying to become a free agent…
KOBE: Well, loyalty is very important to me. I’m a Laker man [Smiles].
KICKS: Now that you own a team, does that change your perspective about the game?
KOBE: About the game? No. You have certain owners in the game who are player-owners. Look at Jerry West. Michael, now. Certain GMs keep that player mentality, and I think that helps them be better GMs.
KICKS: Do you look at Michael as a model—considering how his career worked out?
KOBE: [Very clearly] It’s. Completely. Different. Our timetable is completely different, our style of play is completely different. We’re diametrically opposed.
KICKS: You look at that famous shot of Bill Russell with the 11 rings on, do you want that to be you?
KICKS: Do you want to stick around long enough to load up like that?
KOBE: If I hang around long enough. If God willing I can continue to play this game. If I don’t have a serious injury or nothin’ like that.
KICKS: You want to do that? You want to play until you’re like, 38?
KOBE: If I can play ’til I’m 38. Fight off some of those young cats.
KICKS: How tough was it to say no to the Olympics?
KOBE: Wasn’t that tough at all, really. ’Cause I have other things I want to do this summer. And being that it was so late, my summer was pretty much set. I think people can understand that; it’s not like I don’t want to represent my country, because that’s something I want to do. But at the same time it’s still just basketball, and I have life outside of basketball.
KICKS: Talk to me about some other players for a minute. Start with Vince Carter.
KOBE: Explosive. I really don’t know too much about him, I only played against him once.
KICKS: What about Rasheed?
KOBE: [Laughs] Long. Very, very, very long. Pretty much. Can score at will against us if he realizes how he scores against us at will.
KOBE: All over the place. Defensively, he’s a Doberman. You really have to be careful with the ball around Scottie.
KICKS: Do you get fired up playing against him? You always seem to be amped…
KOBE: In the past, yeah. This year, nah, not really. It was more about us against them. Last year it was like a measuring stick for me, because that was my position, the forward position. We had Eddie, and we had Rick starting at the time, then Rick got injured—the first game I had to go in and I was matched up against Scottie. So I had to kind of use him to prove to people that I should be in the starting lineup.
KICKS: You seemed to do that a lot before—in the ’98 All-Star game against Jordan, for instance. Would you do the same thing now?
KOBE: Right now, I’m reluctant to do that, because I like to stay within the team concept. But if you talk shit, I will get you. I will roast you.
KICKS: Like who?
KOBE: Well, [smiles] we had the Kobe Stopper last season. Mr. Ruben Patterson. You had the Kobe Stopper.
KICKS: That became personal?
KOBE: Somewhat. I wanted to shut him up, he was doin’ way too much talking.
KICKS: What about Gary [Payton]?
KOBE: Nah, it depends on the player. Payton talks to fire himself up. So you just kinda block that out.
KICKS: What about Reggie?
KOBE: Reggie didn’t talk that much during the Finals. He didn’t say too much. He just went ahead and played his game.
KICKS: What happened in Game Five?
KOBE: Um, makin’ it interesting TV [laughs]. Nah, they just came out and played well, they came out and hit a lot of shots. They didn’t miss. They were just making everything and wound up winning the game. That’s all.
KICKS: Did you pick stuff up during the run this year that you can use next year?
KOBE: The intensity that it’s necessary to play at to win a championship. I think that’s key, that’s something that we learned.
KICKS: What about you and Shaq, were things better this year?
KOBE: We figured something out about the game. It’s pretty simple. It’s just a matter of getting it down pat and improvin’ every day.