As much as we talk about SLAM jinxes and the curses of long production schedules, sometimes our timing is pretty nice. Take this gorgeous Kobe cover and the long road it took to today, the first day we’ll be seeing hard copies of it:

I first talked about putting him on this, our “All-Star cover,” with some of his people before the season started. We started going back and forth about concepts (note: Kobe is not a big fan of just standing in front of the camera. He wants a concept before he agrees. Think about it: the snake, the American flag, etc.) in early December. Thankfully, we like things that way too, which is why we have a nice history with KB. We sent Senior Writer DeMarco Williams to L.A. for the Nike webcast about Kobe’s new kicks on December 11, and then to Memphis on December 21, where he was on set while the great Atiba Jefferson shot this cover (De’s impressions of his time with Kobe is below).

One thing we didn’t think about (honestly) was that the release date for this issue was the day after Kobe and the Lakers would be in the Garden, which was almost guaranteed to be special (not neccesarily this special, but the dude obviously knows when to turn it on.)

Kobe SLAM 126

But it was, and we’re grateful. Big Apple residents, start checking for your cover today. National newsstand buyers and subscribers should be getting it next week. As for folks who will be in Phoenix for ASW, just look for members of the SLAM team—we should have lots of copies on us.

Part of the joy I get from being a writer comes when my pre-conceived notions about a celebrity are either confirmed or refuted after meeting them for the first time. Flying across the country, from The A to L.A., to talk with Kobe Bryant about the launch of his latest shoe, the Nike Zoom Kobe IV, I have plenty of time to marinate on the things I’m pretty sure I know about the guy: tall, African-American, kinda quiet, pretty good with a Spalding.

When I’m face-to-face with dude at the Nike press conference at Westchester High School, teammate Trevor Ariza’s old stompin’ grounds, he lives up to the stuff I had gathered over time from TNT memories and magazine articles. Though he appears comfortable up on stage, fielding questions from moderator Kevin Frazier and folks in the audience, you can’t help but sense that Bryant would rather be elsewhere, minding his own…that is, until the conversation moves onto the specifics behind the Kobe IV’s technology. Straight up, Bryant turns downright Steve Urkelish when discussing it.

“It’s flybar technology,” Kobe says with fervor about the low-top sneaker. “That was present in the Hyperdunk. The flybar technology is still present ‘cuz it increases the strength in the shoe and holds it together. But still, the technology is so light it doesn’t increase the weight of the shoe. It holds the heal in. It locks it in. It gives you the ankle stability that you’re looking for. The heal lock prohibits your ankle from sliding around. It locks you in. If somebody crosses you up, that’s on you.”

Mental note: He does comedy, too.

Fast forward about a week and I’m in Memphis, at the photo shoot for this cover y’all see above. (Some would call this second interview stalking; we call it fulfilling our journalistic duties.) Kobe’s cool with seeing me again. He appears even cooler with the Kobe vs. Kobe concept we have for the cover. The whole Nutty Professor, two-Mambas-in-one-shot thing works for him. Guess it all plays wonderfully into his techie vibe.

As a show of his good mood, Bryant poses for every shot photographer Atiba Jefferson asks of him, sometimes twice. He doesn’t complain once. I guess I thought he’d be a tinge moody and standoffish. But just as long as The Game’s “My Life” is blasting and the snaps aren’t looking corny, he’s cool. During one set of shots, he even asks Atiba about the camera’s specifics.

Another mental note: Dude’s really into gadgets.

After the Lakers/Grizzlies game the following night, I get at Kobe again in the locker room for some closing thoughts. (Okay, now it’s becoming a tad obsessive…) He’s still congenial. Though he’s just given his all in the form of 36 points over 38 minutes in a 105-96 L.A. victory, he addresses media questions with full attentiveness:

Random Reporter: So, were you surprised that Memphis played with so much energy tonight?

Kobe: One of the things we have to remember is that when we play young teams, they’re gonna be so psyched. The building’s gonna be sold out and they’re gonna be rockin’ and rollin’ and we’re gonna get their best.

I give a quiet nod. Knew he was gonna say something like that.

But as I’ve come to find out recently, the same basically applies to Kobe Bryant. The dude’s not only tall and talented, but he’s got tact and an even temperament. Of course, that isn’t the kind of thing you gather from interviews with Craig Sager at the end of the first half. Nah, you can only get that from stalking the man for a week.—DeMarco Williams