Manchild in the Promised Land
A Kobe Bryant SLAM cover story originally published in March, 1998.
The Lakers win the next two games, extending their record to 11-0. The second, a rout of the crosstown Clippers, was Harris’ 500th win. At 9:20 p.m., the cameras that normally wait for Shaq or Eddie Jones are now waiting for Kobe. A few weeks ago it was a handful of people, asking the same questions: (What is it like being so young playing in the NBA? Are you dating Brandy? How did it feel to lose in Utah? Do you think you would have benefited from going to college?) Now he’s the hot man off the bench. The equalizer. A viable source.
“Tonight, when Eddie went down [with a nasty eye gash courtesy of Lorenzen Wright's elbow], I felt like I had to step up my game a bit,” Kobe says, explaining a sensational game which included no-look passes, a reverse dunk from under the rim and shaking and baking two and three defenders at a time, with a flashy crossover dribble.
“The Championship is what we’re thinking about. If we can’t get motivated for that, we shouldn’t even be playing. That’s what basketball is all about. Competition. Pressure. Living for the moment. I’m looking forward to this road trip.”
Life on the road with the Lakers is not everything you would think it would be. Of course there are the charter flights—every seat is a first-class seat, you get snacks and drinks before you even take off and every flight includes a meal and a movie (team favorites are a bootleg copy of Devil’s Advocate and Jerry Springer’s Too Hot for Television). But after the novelty wears off, it’s a pretty exhausting existence. You fly in with just enough time to get to your hotel, maybe sleep, then shoot around, play the game and, win or lose, hit the airport that night for a flight to the next city.
You go to the hotel. Watch cable. Order room service. Take long showers. That’s about it. You’re more likely to see 20 kids with pens waiting for autographs that you are groupies in the lobby with their titties hanging out, hungry for multi-million dollar black dick.
The Lakers hit Miami, exhausted from the flight, the sun already going down. Most of the team is in the lobby, on their cellphones, ready to hit the beach. No Kobe. I figure he’s up in his room, studying game tape, playing video games, writing rhymes. He’s got a game tomorrow, why bother him, right? Bad guess.
“You should have gone out last night, man,” says one Laker source. “We were out at South Beach, watching Gypsies, listening to flamenco music. I bet you thought Mr. Bryant was gonna be in the hotel, watching TV, but we saw him out with friends, living it up. We didn’t get in till almost three a.m.”
And Pat Riley and his well-rested team made the Lakers pay the price. Miami—the home of big booties, bodegas, blow and now basketball, since the former Laker coach has turned the Heat from slowpokes to no-jokes. Loud arena. Sound system blaring a Latin dance beat remix of Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart.” Sly Stallone and Don Shula have courtside seats. Just like the Forum, with fewer celebrities.
Except the Lakers lose big, 103-86 to a supercharged Heat squad.
“Losing is always a painful process,” Harris says afterwards. “The higher you fall from, the more it hurts.”
Kobe had a dynamic game, showing many why he’s considered the future. There were quick steals of bad passes; a juke and a fading, fall-away jumper against Dan Majerle who just couldn’t keep up, and a key reverse slam in traffic to tie the game in the third quarter.
But then there were the things that got him last year. Fourteen missed shots, and too much one-on-one basketball, attempting to take over the game and not quite being able to pull it off. Missing crucial free throws.
“He was probably overly aggressive tonight,” Harris says. “He’s so competitive, it’s sometimes hard to rein him in.”
Kobe Bryant hates to lose, and you can see disappointment on his face. But at the same time, he bounces back quickly—and never hides from the press. Besides, there’s another game coming up.
“You don’t want to lose two in a row, hell no,” he says. “We got to go to Boston tomorrow and kick some butt.”
True to his words, Kobe puts up 14, hits a three pointer and steals the ball as the Lakers crush the Celtics in the Fleet Center, 118-103. The momentum is back, and the Lakeshow heads for Philly, where the lowly Sixers were sure not to spoil Kobe’s homecoming. Right?
A roughneck named Iverson shows up and shoots up the party. He shakes Derek Fisher with a head fake so nasty that Fisher falls to the floor. Dishes a pass to Eric Montross underneath the basket in heavy coverage—he actually maneuvers the ball around his head and over his shoulder for the easy assist. Steals an inbounds pass with unbelievable speed and takes it coast-to-coast for the slam. It’s his world.
Kobe has his moments, though. Getting a nice pass from Van Exel after Elden Campbell steals the ball from Iverson, he runs down court alone and does a jaw-dropping 360-degree slam dunk, looking like a character out of a Wu-Tang Clan song, flashing the smile.
I have so many styles. Forgive me.
Doesn’t last. The Lakers lose. Kobe ends up with 19 points in 23 minutes, but by the end, he is sitting on the bench with a towel on his head, completely depressed at his own performance, as well as that of his team.
“Kobe feels bad when his team loses a scrimmage in practice,” Harris says. “It’s OK to feel bad. I let him do that. I like it if he hurts a little bit—so he doesn’t get used to it. I just touch his shoulder, and I move on.
“He’s way ahead of other 19-year-olds, except for maybe Magic at that age, but the test for him over the next five years for him will be to focus.”
Kobe sits in his locker, focused. Ten reporters crowd around, throwing questions, which Kobe fields with poise and grace. A distinguished looking older man, wearing a Lakers hat and a white adidas sweatsuit, stands a few feet apart, his familiar eyes beaming with pride. It’s John Cox, Kobe’s grandfather.
“He’s such a fine young man, and this hasn’t affected his personality at all,” Cox says, flattered that someone is even asking him about his ‘Little Kob’.’ “No way are you gonna win all the time and never lose. It’s a part of the game.”
Kobe stands up, dressed in a suit, looking older that he normally does. It’s a glimpse at a future when he’ll be the one everyone jocks for quotes, the last to leave the locker room, the first they look to give the ball to.
But he still isn’t too old to be little Kob’ around the right people. “Let me fix your collar, son,” his grandfather says, adjusting the collar of his grandson’s dress shirt. He gives him a hug and moves with Lakers’ PR director John Black for the bus. It’s time to go home and face the music.
Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant is a gentle giant, and it’s easy to see where his son gets his magnetic easy-going personality. The elder Bryant sits with his wife, daughter Shaya and one of her friends as they watch the Lakers manhandle the Toronto Raptors. Unlike many sports parents, Jelly is very low-key about his involvement in his son’s career.
“I’m a good listener,” he says. “I keep my eyes and ears open to what he’s really saying, and you gotta look at whether or not it’s emotion, or if he’s thinking about what’s really going on. So that was difficult for me, being an athlete and knowing what it’s like to lose on the line like that in Utah last year, but I wanted to wait for him to describe what he was feeling. He didn’t really say anything. He just got up the next morning, took his basketball and worked out.”
The Lakers won 105-99 in a game that was closer than it should have been. Kobe played 19 minutes, had three assists and two turnovers and scored six points. By 9:30, back in the Lakers’ locker room, the scene is quiet; most of the media is gone. Kobe, unlike normal, isn’t bouncing out to meet the press.
“The only problem I think that Kobe has is he takes things too seriously sometimes,” Horry says as he dries himself off. “He has to realize, you play 82 games, you got to let it go. It’s amazing that a kid his age wants to win so bad. It affects him that he’ll come out the next day and take it out against the next team. People talk about his age, but never his work ethic—that’s why, on the team, we don’t pay much attention to his age. He works so damn hard.”
Kobe is stretched out on the trainer’s table, a white towel around his waist and another around his head, making him look like Black Moses from an Isaac Hayes album that came out before he was born. He looks depressed. Doesn’t have much to say, other than “hello.”
He stares forward, thinking about the last few games, the things he should have done, the criticism from the coach, the points he should have scored, the passes he shouldn’t have made. Doesn’t matter that he has oh, maybe 1,230 games to play before he turns 34, Michael Jordan’s age. The young want everything now; and they’ll get it. What else would give a kid who could have been one of the best college players of all time—and with a 1080 SAT score he could have gone anywhere, academically—the balls to skip the majors?
Kobe Bryant lives and dies with every single game.
That’s just the nature of legends in the making.