Manchild in the Promised Land


Originally published in SLAM 24

 by Cheo Hodari Coker / photos by NBAE/Getty

Q: What would you prefer to be, point guard, shooting guard or small forward?

Kobe Bryant: A player.

You have to be very careful what you ask for in life—you just might get it. Just ask Kobe Bryant.

May 12, ’97. The Delta Center, Salt Lake City, UT. Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Utah Jazz. Game 5.

There’s 11.3 seconds left in regulation and the score is tied, 87-87. In the words of De La Soul, stakes is high. Not only because the Jazz are leading the Lakers 3-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals, but because things have gotten personal. It’s the little things: a sneaky elbow here, a trip there, the hard stares, the merciless picks.

But for now, all that is secondary. The Lakers are in big trouble. A minute earlier, the big guy, Shaquille O’Neal, fouled out with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Harsh words were exchanged between him and Karl Malone after a flagrant foul committed by O’Neal early in the third quarter led to Malone receiving a technical. Robert Horry, meanwhile, gave Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek a rough forearm, earning himself an ejection.

But this is nothing compared to the tension between Laker coach Del Harris and his point guard Nick Van Exel. In Game 4, Van Exel had been pulled by Harris for waving off the coach’s instructions, screaming vulgarities as Harris waved an admonishing finger in his face. Tonight, however, Van Exel is having a hell of a game, hitting key jumpers from all over the floor. His hot hand has saved them before, but now the call is about to go to someone else for the game-winning shot.

The 18-year-old rookie, Kobe Bryant. The Golden Child.

A lanky, charismatic, 6-6, 200-pound prodigy, Kobe had led little-known Lower Merion High School to the Pennsylvania state title the year before. This year, he was being asked to carry an NBA team to the Finals. No problem.

“Give me the ball, coach,” Bryant says. “I’ll drain it.”

The clock ticks, and Bryant takes the ball down the court, two players to his left, two on the right. With a scant few seconds left, he stops—14 feet out—and takes what will henceforth be known as The Other Shot.

The ball sails through the air with a high arc and…never makes the rim. Airball.

Utah fans go crazy. Overtime. In OT, Bryant throws up three more long bombs—all airballs. The Lakers lose, 98-93. As the Lakers leave the court, Shaq, who has taken a liking to the rookie, talks to the kid who hates to lose—especially with the eyes of the world on him.

“I don’t want to see you hanging your head—you had a great season,” he says. “Go home, work hard, and we’ll come back next year.”

But as Bryant walks off the court, the thoughts race through his mind, especially as he takes one more look at that elusive rim. “Am I really ready for all of this?”

Q: What’s the most important lesson you learned last year?

Kobe Bryant: Patience.

What a difference half a year makes. Kobe Bryant is growing up before our eyes. It’s more than the full head of hair, the extra inch, the added musculature and the goatee—he’s becoming a man in this game.

He’s lithe and tall, with long, sculpted arms like Michelangelo’s David. His face is aerodynamic, like that of a bird of prey. His crossover dribble is low to the ground and agile—he moves and twists, a challenge to guard. He can score from the perimeter but is becoming strong enough to power himself through the paint.

He’s not forcing shots as much as he used to. He’s learned to draw the double team—and dish the ball off to an open teammate. He won’t automatically drive the lane, falling into traps that contain his game in ways that weren’t possible when he was still a high-school player. You still see that look of giddiness, the gee-whiz flair that has many people comparing him to Magic Johnson, but there’s also cold determination, an undying competitive streak that’s very reminiscent of Michael Jordan. Sure, Kobe Bryant still makes mistakes, but his overwhelming prowess makes them forgivable.

“It’s amazing how smart this kid is—he’s got a great personality and is very intelligent,” says Horry. “He’s got the whole world in his hands with his game, he can do everything—and he’s still learning—which is bad news for his opponents. He’s gonna be one of the greats, probably the [NBA’s] all-time leading scorer.”

Because of his age entering the League?

“Sheeeet!” Horry says with a laugh. “Because of how talented he is.”

The talent was never a question. Kobe broke Wilt Chamberlain’s 40-year-old, Southeastern PA high-school scoring record of 2,359 points (with 2,883), and earned a No. 13 spot in the NBA Draft without ever stepping on a college campus. He was USA Today‘s High School Player of the Year in ’96, and the NBA Slam Dunk Champion and Rookie All-Star MVP in ’97. Orlando Magic general manager John Gabriel called him “borderline sensational,” and a scout suggested that he was “Grant Hill with a jump shot.”

Then again, a lot of people saw his limited playing time as a rookie and his seven points per game, and figured that it was way too early to call this kid the next Jordan or Magic. It seemed easy to dismiss him as shoe company hype—more a clever marketing scheme than an effective player. But you can’t judge a player by numbers alone. Michael Jordan only averaged 13.5 points as a freshman at North Carolina. David Robinson averaged 7.6 his freshman year at Navy. And they didn’t have to play against mature versions of themselves night after night, as Kobe does.

The more minutes he plays, the more Kobe improves. He’s a player who usually equals or surpasses the players who surround him. During the course of 15 games, from October 31st to December 7th of ’97, Bryant doubled his scoring average to 16 points a game—making him the highest-scoring sixth man in the league at press time. More importantly, he changes the flow of games. The Lakers play faster, more fluid basketball when Bryant’s in the mix—he moves up the court with blinding quickness, getting himself open for a fadeaway jumper or a spectacular dunk.

“The hardest thing to adjust to coming to the pros was the size of players,” Bryant says. “When I penetrated, I felt like I was going to the hole against a whole bunch of trees. In high school, I could see the whole court—like I was on top of a building, overlooking a field. Now I’m smarter. I move around things. I spot the holes. I read the defenses. That’s what basketball is all about: having fun, but keeping focused on the game, rising to that other level when the stage rises. Sometimes your shot is gonna fall; sometimes, it might not—you got to keep shooting.”

So what the kid’s 19? He’s young, but Miles Davis was the same age when he left Julliard to play his horn with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The Hughes brothers were already directing music videos and episodes of America’s Most Wanted. It’s all relative.

And the things that you see Kobe do, on instinct alone, prove amazing. There’s the preseason dunk he had against the Washington Wizards, when he came straight down the lane (against 6-9 Ben Wallace), went airborne and slammed the ball down with rim-shattering intensity. There was the no-look pass he made to Corie Blount—in traffic, over the shoulder—for an effortless 360 lay-up in a 119-102 rout of the Clippers.

“That just came natural,” Kobe says, almost blushing. “That was the best way to get the ball to him.” All natural, without preservatives, are the steals, twisting lay-ups and ridiculous dunks that make Bryant the player most worthy of “The Human Highlight Film” moniker since Dominique Wilkins.

“I studied videotapes when I was growing up,” he says. “Magic Johnson’s backdoor moves, Hakeem’s post-up, Michael Jordan’s quickness. I just try to take bits and pieces of everybody and add it to my game.”

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in November, Kobe’s sitting on a trainer’s table at Southwest College, the Lakers’ practice facility, getting his right ankle treated by Gary Vitti, the long-time Lakers’ faith healer and the person—besides God—that AC Green should credit for helping him never miss a game. Kobe twisted the ankle a week before, playing against the Golden State Warriors, notching 24 points before landing hard after a fourth-quarter lay-up. (“If I’m gonna have to get injured, that’s how it’s gonna be. You can’t play being scared. You have to go in there and score.”) As a result, he missed the November road trip where the Lakers twisted through Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, undefeated. Kobe watched the games from his couch—a fate worse than death.

“You missed a good trip, man!” Vitti says, giving Kobe a warm hug.

“I know, I never want to do that again, man,” Kobe says, perturbed. “That Houston game was off the hook. Nick hit those shots in double OT—ridiculous!! That’s Nick, though.”

“Let’s see what you got, kid,” Vitti says, unwrapping the gauze on Kobe’s ankle. “See what I told you? Keep that wrap on the first night, you come back fast.”

“Yeah, I’m ready. We got Vancouver tomorrow.”

“They shouldn’t be tough competition,” I offer.

“Yeah,” Kobe says, “but that’s the type of team that can sneak up on you and bite you on the ass.”

“You heard about the fines that KG and Stephon and the rest of the ‘Wolves got for their shorts being too long, right?” Vitti asks. “$7,500 apiece. You’re next, brother.”

“They ain’t gonna get me, dog. My shorts ain’t nearly that long,” he laughs. “Who else is coming to practice today?”

“Just you. Shea Seals, too. Del gave everybody the day off today. I could be with my kids right now…”

“Hey, Vitti, you telling me like I really give a fuck!” Kobe cackles.

The two exchange pounds. Nothing but love. Vitti is jazz, Kobe is hip-hop. One’s Italian, the other speaks fluent Italian. Somehow it all makes sense. Synergy. An important concept in Kobe Bryant’s psyche.

To hang around Kobe Bryant is to talk about his three greatest passions—basketball, family and hip-hop. That’s it. You’re not gonna get stories about how much expensive stuff he’s bought with the help of his three year $3.5 million contract and his multi-million dollar deals with Sprite and adidas—he just lets the money pile up in the bank. His only visible indulgences are his Lincoln Navigator and the black Range Rover he bought for his older sister, Shaya.

No stories of groupies and older girlfriends on the road—his mother screens his calls. He spends most of his time ordering room service and writing rhymes. He’s one of the rare young brothers who can flash his million-dollar smile at will without ever seeming like an Uncle Tom. Imagine Grant Hill with flavor—the new-style NBA player who can represent for the hardwood, the boardroom and the video game screen. Everyone loves him, and he doesn’t even know why.

“All you do is dribble the ball and put it in the hole. It’s a very simple game. Why is there so much attention, and it’s so loved, cherished and embraced? I don’t know,” he says with a mischievous smile. “If I figured that out, I’d be a billionaire.”

Give him some time. He just got here.

Kobe Bryant was born on August 23, ’78, in Philadelphia, PA, the third child of NBA player Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant and his college sweetheart, the former Pam Cox. Philadelphia natives through-and-through, they moved wherever Joe’s teams took the family—including San Diego with the Clippers and Houston with the Rockets—but vowed to return. Joe retired from the NBA in ’83 and moved the family overseas while he played in Italian pro leagues. Kobe was five years old.

“The first thing I remember was not being able to speak the language, and everywhere I went, I went with my sisters. That’s the whole reason our family is so tight now—we had each other’s back.”

Kobe attended first grade at a local Italian school, learning the language like a native. He played soccer for a while, but it wasn’t long before he discovered the game it seems he was born to play. His grandfather, John Cox, remembers little Kobe bouncing a basketball around as early as 3 years old.