Kobe Bryant: A Man Apart
It’s all good now, but looking back to the off-season…
Finals time, so we look back. The Lakers are flying high now, but it wasn’t always so simple for their superstar. This screenplay appears in SLAM 114.
A Screenplay by Lang Whitaker
MUSIC IN: “ALL I NEED” BY RADIOHEAD
FADE IN EXT. THE LAS VEGAS STRIP – NIGHT
Massive hotels and casinos glitter in the middle of the barren desert. Camera travels down the Strip before settling on the Wynn Hotel. Behind the hotel at a service entrance, a few employees on break sit, nursing cigarettes. A dark SUV with pitch-black
windows pulls up to a door. The door opens, and a large figure in a baggy white sweatsuit is hustled out by two plainclothes security guards: a man with dark hair and a woman with her blond hair pulled into a ponytail. The sweatsuit’s hood obscures the main subject’s face. He hustles to the back of the car, hops in and the car drives off. The SUV turns right, away from the Strip.
INT. SUV – NIGHT
Kobe Bryant, 28 years old, 6-6, 205 pounds, slides back the hood, showing his face for the first time. The camera looks out the windows, and we see the casinos give way to warehouses and office buildings, then homes. The SUV pulls up alongside a high school gym. Bryant exits the car and enters, walks down to the floor and starts shooting jumpers in the darkened gym.
KOBE BRYANT (VOICE-OVER)
Playing for the team I play on, I don’t really get spot-up jumpers; I’m working off the move. With USA Basketball, one thing that has always been a challenge for us is shooting, because teams give us outside shots and all of us are not accustomed to being so damn wide open. [Laughs] So I made it a point to get in the gym and shoot spot shots and catch-and-shoot shots.
CUT TO: USA BASKETBALL HIGHLIGHT MONTAGE
MUSIC IN: “STRONGER” BY KANYE WEST
As the music blasts, we see a collection of plays featuring Kobe during the Tournament of the Americas. He makes jumpers, he sets up teammates, he flushes breakaway dunks. He looks like the greatest basketball player in the world. Which he is.
KOBE BRYANT (VOICE-OVER)
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.
Clips switch to show Kobe on defense, blocking shots, diving for loose balls, locking up his player away from the ball.
KOBE BRYANT (VOICE-OVER)
I just got tired of hearing stuff. I have a lot of friends over in Europe, and I just got 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.
Clips go from defense-oriented to the medal ceremony, where a gold medal is draped around Kobe’s neck. He has an indelible smile on his face.
CUT TO: EXT. HILTON HAWAIIAN VILLAGE HOTEL – DAY
MUSIC IN: THEME FROM MAGNUM P.I.
Sun is shining, weather is sweet. Out by the pool, tourists lounge in swimsuits, their tropical drinks decorated with little umbrellas. An electronic message board reads, “THE HILTON HAWAIIAN VILLAGE WELCOMES THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS!” People criss-cross the open-air lobby. Jordan Farmar and Coby Karl sit at a table outside the hotel’s pizza shop. Lakers center Andrew
Bynum stands in line at the hotel’s Starbucks. Coach Phil Jackson limps past Bynum toward the elevators.
INT. NONDESCRIPT HOTEL MEETING ROOM – DAY
Close-up shot of an iPod sitting in a speaker base. A hand reaches in and scrolls through the tracks, stopping on Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter II.
MUSIC IN: “THA MOBB” BY LIL WAYNE
Fluorescent lights make the room feel artificial, maybe even surreal. All of the room’s blinds are drawn. The only hint we’re in Hawaii is the door open to the outdoors, through which a beach and brilliant blue sky is visible. The large room is mostly empty, except for a table with a laptop, several cameras and three open cans of Coke. Behind the table is a rack of clothes with jerseys, shorts, sweats. In the front of the room, a huge white backdrop has been erected. Photographer Atiba Jefferson stands in front of the backdrop and adjusts the settings of his digital camera. Two photo assistants move lights around.
A writer, Lang Whitaker, sits on the salmon-hued carpet, his back against the wood-paneled wall. In his lap is a tiny yellow notebook that reads “Rodeo Queen Pocket Notebook.” Whitaker scrawls thoughts in his notebook and checks his watch. Camera looks over his shoulder as he writes, “Trying to write a story that defines Kobe Bryant is like trying to write a story
explaining an amoeba or a shape-shifter.”
Kobe Bryant enters the room, wearing a white t-shirt and long athletic shorts. He is accompanied by the same man and woman as in Vegas. Jefferson and Whitaker scramble to the door. Handshakes and fist-bumps are exchanged. Bryant hears Lil Wayne and starts quietly rapping along. He grabs his USA Basketball uniform from the rack and goes behind the white backdrop to change.
In his notebook, Whitaker writes: “We’re one week into training camp, and by the time this issue of SLAM hits newsstands, the NBA season will be well under way. People will be thinking about Kobe and the Lakers by then: Why does he want to be shot in his USA Basketball gear? Earlier this summer Kobe talked about wanting to be traded, but all that has calmed down. He’s a Laker for life now, for sure. For sure?”
Bryant stands before the white curtain in his No. 10 USA Basketball uniform, holding a ball, posing as Jefferson snaps away. Whitaker stands behind Jefferson with a digital recorder.
Kobe, why did your USA Basketball
experience mean so much to you?
Because it’s representing the country. There’s no greater significance. When you play for your team, you’re playing for a particular market. 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.
[Smiling] I was worried during the Team USA games because I thought you were going to get spoiled playing with JKidd.
[Laughs] Oh, I did! I think we all did.
Because, like I said, it was just…so easy.
What was it like finally getting to play for Coach K?
See, we had such a great relationship, and we talk quite often. Even now he just calls to say hello. That’s how he was to me in high school. That’s why I wanted to go play for him, just because he’s that type of person. He’s passionate about the game. [Smiling] Yeah, it’s somewhat surreal. It’s been, what, 12 years in the making, me playing for him? It was more than I even expected.
Was he getting you guys fired up?
You know what? His sense of humor is great. I don’t think people understand…You see him on the sidelines and he’s so intense all the time. But he’s a funny, funny dude. He’s cracking jokes, he’s BSing with us…
OK guys, let’s change the set-up. Kobe, if you want to take a break…
Bryant grabs an empty chair and takes a seat. Whitaker sits facing him and opens his notebook.
CUT TO: EXT. HILTON HAWAIIAN VILLAGE – DAY
Camera zooms out from Kobe’s shoot and zips a few hundred yards across the hotel grounds to a garden area. Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss sits on a wooden bench alongside a koi pond. Three reporters hover nearby, all with tape recorders and notepads.
Is it safe to say that now, after all the
craziness this summer, Kobe’s off the table if someone called trying to trade for him?
I would certainly listen. At any time, I think you have to do that with anybody. It’s just part of the game, to listen to somebody who has a dissatisfied player that you think is going to fit. You can’t keep too many loyalties. You’ve got to look at it as a business. He looks at it the same way I look at it.
CUT TO: INT. PHOTO SHOOT
Camera zooms back from the Buss conversation to the photo shoot, showing that Bryant and Whitaker are still in the chairs, talking, at the exact same time Buss is talking to the other reporters, just several hundred yards away but completely unaware of each other. Bryant slips on a purple-and-gold Nike hoodie.
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 at their first game, so they can go back, have stories.
When you get it going like that…well, last night in the game against Golden State you scored 16 in the third quarter alone. When do you turn it up and when do you lay back and try to involve everyone?
It’s a process. You want to make sure you balance what’s going on with the team, and when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.
This season with the Lakers, are you guys shooting for a certain win total, or how will you judge success?
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 put more focus on the postseason than the regular season. Is that the way you guys look at it?
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.
You turn 30 next year, right?
Turn 30 next year. Actually, my birthday is the day of the Gold Medal game. I enjoy it because it’s been a process for me. I enjoy playing, I enjoy watching the young players coming up. But I still have a couple more tricks up my sleeve [Laughs].
Seeing all that you have to go through, with full-time security and your crazy schedule and all that…I mean, you had practice this morning, photo shoot this afternoon, meetings after this. Did you ever think your life would become this crazy?
No. When you start out, you only think about one thing, which is basketball. When you’re a kid putting a ball in a basket, you don’t think basketball is going to take you to Asia and all around the world.
And have 100,000 people waiting for you around every turn in Asia.
Yeah, that was crazy. That was very surreal. But it’s really a blessing.
JEFFERSON (OFF CAMERA):
OK, we’re ready Kobe.
If you could have a completely normal life but you had to give up basketball, would you be willing to do that?
No, I love the game too much. It’s part of me. I’ve been doing it since I was 2. It’s me.
CUT TO: TELEVISION SET
Screen opens on static, then fades into a montage of news reports.
LOCAL NEWS REPORTER:
Since returning here to Los Angeles after training camp in Hawaii, reports are swirling that Kobe Bryant has cleaned out his locker.
PHIL JACKSON (AT PRACTICE):
There are things that are out of the locker. I will say that.
MAGIC JOHNSON (ON THE TNT SET):
I don’t think he’s going to get traded. I think they’ll try to keep him and make something happen in terms of trying to improve the team.
Bryant stands at his locker answering questions before an exhibition game.
Kobe, why haven’t you talked to the media for the last week about all this stuff?
Why do I need to bang my head up against a wall? There’s nothing much for me to say. Everybody was wondering if I cleaned out my locker and I told you guys I didn’t do that and there was
really nothing else for me to say after that.
ESPN TALKING HEAD:
NBA sources indicate that Kobe Bryant could be a Chicago Bull by the time the season begins…
DIFFERENT ESPN TALKING HEAD:
Chicago GM John Paxson announced today that the Bulls would not be trading for Kobe Bryant…
MUSIC IN: “NUMB/ENCORE” BY JAY-Z & LINKIN PARK
CUT TO: EXT. STAPLES CENTER – NIGHT
It looks like any other Hollywood premiere, as limos roll up to a red carpet and deposit celebrities. Floodlights swing back and forth across the sky. Dr. Buss exits a limo and strolls the red carpet, accompanied by a handful of beautiful girls.
CUT TO: INT. STAPLES CENTER – NIGHT
TNT announcers Kevin Harlan and Doug Collins stand courtside as the Lakers warm up minutes before tip-off against the Houston Rockets.
Thanks, EJ. We welcome you to opening night of the 2007-2008 NBA Season, as Kobe Bryant and the Lakers prepare…
Bryant shrugs off his warm-up jacket and towels his face before walking onto the court. We see Jack Nicholson take his seat along the sideline. Referee Jack Nies bounces the ball at midcourt, as Kwame Brown prepares to jump center against Yao Ming. Camera focuses in on Bryant and switches to slow motion as he and Tracy McGrady jockey for position.
I 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.
Camera zooms in on Bryant’s face.
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 a guard 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…
Nies bounces the ball one final time and tosses it into the air, as Yao and Brown leap after it…