Kobe always had a plan
Kobe Bryant had a stock answer when friends – and teammates and parents – asked why he wanted to get engaged at 21, to a girl he’d met when she was 17 and still in high school:
“I do everything young.”
Fortunately or not for him, it was true, extending to his fall from grace.
He once said he knew what he was going to do in life when he was 6 years old, and when asked if he were serious, insisted it was true. Of course, he was right there too. He was a multimillionaire NBA superstar with three championship rings before he turned 24, but, as he was about to learn, for him, the basketball would always be the easy part.
Nothing in what follows should be read as an attempt to prejudge Bryant’s legal case. This is an attempt to understand how he got to the scandalous place he acknowledged last month, so far off the path he’d chosen so early and traveled so faithfully. Of course, everything came so fast, he thought that was how things worked. How was he supposed to know that life was so much trickier than basketball?
In his case, golden child that he was, if he dreamed of ruling the game, it wasn’t fantasy, merely audacity. His breathtaking talent and advanced skill level were only the start. He had uncommon, grown-up attributes, poise and focus.
People always mistook that part for maturity, but away from the game, he was your basic teen-ager. When he went pro at 17, the Lakers’ Jerry West brought Bryant home after a pre-draft workout. Kobe hung out with West’s teenage son. That’s when it struck West that this was a new era.
Bryant was a young 17, at that. Kevin Garnett, who had preceded him from high school to the pros by a year, was from a broken home, had moved to Chicago for his senior year and was already the head of his household that included a younger sister. Bryant still lived at home with his mom and dad, even if Pam and Joe had to move the household from Philadelphia to accommodate his new career.
The Bryants were a warm, values-preaching family, drawn even closer from their time abroad when Joe played in Italy. Both older sisters went to college and with his 1,100 SAT score, Kobe could have gone just about anywhere. Kobe was their darling, the youngest, cutest and most precocious, emerging with so much self-confidence, he seemed bulletproof. Nothing in the game could scare or discourage him, not even failure (his four airballs in Utah at the end of his rookie season) or Shaquille O’Neal (whom he tried to fight in a 1999 practice before teammates jumped between them).
If Bryant was unstoppable, his parents weren’t about to keep him from following his dream, but they were coming with him. Not that it ever occurred to him that they wouldn’t.
They set strict rules for him too. Kobe would not be seduced by the fast-lane lifestyle, or as Pam had characterized it, back in his prep days when his parents still talked to the press, “drugs, alcohol and fast women.”
Once in L.A., Bryant didn’t hang with the other Lakers, or go to clubs, and all but ran the other way when approached by girls. As he told Rolling Stone, “Basketball is my girlfriend.”
On the road, he’d be in his hotel room, on the phone with high school friends like Anthony Bannister, his partner in a “spiritual rap”group. (Bryant was “Kobe One Kenobe the Eighth.”) Bannister told the magazine that before they hung up, they would pray together.
Bryant overwhelmed older NBA players from the start, but they had something he didn’t too.
“Nobody was going to listen to him when he was 18, 19 years old,”teammate Brian Shaw once told Sports Illustrated. “He didn’t have enough NBA experience or even life experience. We all had wives and kids and he hadn’t even gone to college.”
Bryant had that ahead of him. It all happened on the Lakers’ time and, if not out in the open, close enough that you could track it.
It’s true, hardly anybody knows Bryant very well. But I know him a little, at least.
I came here too from Philadelphia, where I covered Joe in his first three seasons. He was one of the young guys with Darryl Dawkins and Lloyd (soon to become World B.) Free, on a madcap team with Julius Erving and George McGinnis.
As young players, they all wanted to play more, leading Dawkins to tell me he wanted to be traded. Free liked the resulting story so much, he said he wanted one, so I set about doing it. Before I could get it in, the third musketeer, Joe, asked for one too. I told him I’d be happy to oblige, but he’d have to take a number.
In the convivial world of Philly hoops, I knew Joe’s father, Big Joe, from the summer Baker League. I remember the tall, striking Pam Cox in her college days in the Palestra, watching her boyfriend, Jelly Bean, play for LaSalle, and her brother, Chubby, play for Villanova. I was friendly with LaSalle Coach Paul Westhead and Joe’s lawyer, Richie Phillips.
I saw Joe again at the 1995 Adidas camp, where Kobe, a rising junior at Lower Merion High on the suburban Main Line, was dominating everyone. I met Kobe the following spring in a Chicago hotel, where he was attending the NBA’s pre-draft camp, standing by himself on the mezzanine, looking pensively down into the lobby.
I introduced myself. He said he was about to go to Los Angeles to work out for the Lakers and Clippers. He looked like a lonely kid a long way from home.
In later years – it took a couple to get through his reserve – we became friendly enough to talk off the record. From a distance, he looked like a grown-up. Up close, you realized how young he was.
I once told his agent, Arn Tellem, still another Philly guy, “I feel like he’s my kid.”
“Don’t we all,”Tellem said.
Kobe had a special bond with Joe and was drawn to father figures. As distant as he was with other teammates, Bryant was close to Byron Scott as a rookie and Derek Harper after Scott had left. Bryant called Michael Jordan on at least one occasion and on another, telephoned Tex Winter when he was still in Chicago.
Most young players were indifferent to the game’s lore and craft; Bryant was just the opposite, pestering his mentors to tell him about everything.
The Lakers thought if Bryant was stubborn, he was being influenced by his father, a not uncommon problem, although one that was usually worked out by the time players turned pro. In fact, Kobe’s determination was more like Pam’s. Even as a grown-up, the light-hearted Joe was known by his childhood nickname, Jelly Bean.
Kobe had Joe’s grace and his elfin looks, but Kobe was as serious as a heart attack. As a rueful Del Harris, who’d coached the father in Houston in the ’70s and the son in the ’90s, said after he was fired by the Lakers:
“I can’t imagine anyone calling Kobe Jelly Bean.”
His name was actually Kobe Bean Bryant, a wry allusion to the father’s nickname. If their family life was different, it seemed not just privileged but idyllic.
Two years into Bryant’s Laker career, he moved out of the six-bedroom Palisades home he’d shared with his parents, into one a few houses away. He talked of raising his own family exactly as he had grown up, down to taking it to Italy.
In 1999, at 20, he even began to enact his plan, buying 50 percent of Olimpia Milano, one of the teams Joe had played for. Kobe put Joe in charge, noting, “When my NBA career is over, hopefully I’ll be there.”
In the meantime, there was the little matter of getting Bryant integrated into the Laker family, because basketball isn’t a game one can play by himself, even if Kobe often seemed to try.
In the beginning, O’Neal tried to take him under his wing, only to see Bryant firmly remove it. A mildly put-off Shaq nicknamed him Showboat.
Still coming off the bench in his second season, Bryant was voted an All-Star starter. Amid massive league-and-TV-inspired hype – full-page newspaper ads showing him squaring off against Jordan above the Manhattan skyline – Bryant took 10 shots in his first 11 touches.
The backlash, with veterans such as Karl Malone and Charles Barkley voicing their disdain, was nationwide. Bryant returned to the Lakers, emotionally spent, went into a tailspin and was a minor factor the rest of the season.
This was followed by the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 disaster, including the Dennis Rodman experiment, the firing of Harris, the promotion of Kurt Rambis, the demotion of Rambis and the first public signs of O’Neal’s impatience with Bryant.
Nor was Bryant backing off. In a vintage quote, he once said of his teammates, “I trust them. I just trust myself more.”
Phil Jackson’s arrival in the summer of 1999 changed things, if painfully. Bryant, whose fascination with the triangle offense had prompted his call to its developer, Winter, now decided he didn’t like it. Bryant had run-ins with O’Neal. Of course, the Lakers won their first of three titles in a row that season too, amazing even Jackson.
Clueless about something as fundamental as teamwork, Bryant’s total package was nonetheless awesome. He made annual quantum leaps, and now, with a structured system and a coach who could enforce it, he began fitting himself in.
Bingo! They were sitting on top of the world, with nothing left but to do it again, which they did, and again …
Bryant got saturation media coverage from Day 1 and ate it up, thrilling the Lakers, who needed someone to cooperate.
Bryant was gracious, if not colorful, basically pooh-poohing whatever disaster seemed at hand. That wasn’t an act. It was hard for him to imagine things going badly and if they did, he couldn’t imagine it wouldn’t turn out for the best.
Of course, fame should come with a warning label. If Bryant’s ambitions were limitless, he was also obsessed with his privacy, which, of course, diminished as he became more famous.
Even in the beginning when it was all a lark, press people weren’t invited home. Bryant’s decision to jump to the NBA had been debated loudly on Philadelphia talk radio and the family was stung. The personable Joe was reluctant to talk to the press, fearing it would look as if he was attaching himself to his son’s career.
Unfortunately for Kobe, the controversies only seemed to get bigger, even if they now look laughable in retrospect, and he felt the loss of privacy keenly.
Last summer, after the Lakers had won their third consecutive title, he let Rick Bucher of ESPN the Magazine visit the Newport Beach, Calif., home where he and his wife Vanessa, lived. Vanessa stayed upstairs, out of sight.
Kobe and Vanessa had married in the spring of 2001, after a yearlong engagement that reconfigured the bridegroom’s world. (Typically, Bryant made no public announcement of the wedding and was upset when it made the papers, snarling at the Orange County Register beat guy who’d been told to write it.)
Bryant’s parents opposed the marriage but were no longer around. Several months before, Joe and Pam, always visible at home games in their box at the top of the lower bowl behind the Laker bench, suddenly moved back to Philadelphia. They didn’t even go to the Finals games there that spring when the Lakers played the 76ers.
The split was bitter. Kobe’s sister, Shaya, was obliged to leave her job in Tellem’s office and vacate her brother’s Westside condo.
That was the 2000-2001 season, when the Kobe-Shaq feud blazed into the headlines, followed by news of a Kobe-Phil rift. O’Neal dreamed of getting Kobe traded. (One idea, which was actually relayed by a member of Shaq’s retinue to a Phoenix official, was to send Bryant to the Suns for Jason Kidd.)
Laker officials knew there was more going on in Bryant’s personal life but could only ride it out, as if it were a storm. Finally, Tellem took Kobe to see the then-retired West. Bryant chilled, the Lakers ended the regular season on an 8-0 run, then went 15-1 in the playoffs, winning title No. 2.
The family’s reconciliation took years. Pam visited last winter. The first time Joe returned was last April, as spokesman for a new trampoline-basketball league. Obliged to talk to the press, Joe acknowledged the rift with his son for the first time to The Times’ Bill Plaschke.
Breaking his own silence, Kobe acknowledged it too (“It’s right there in the Bible. When you get married, your mother and father and sisters are no longer the priority. Your wife and daughter are the priority,”) adding plaintively:
“I want a father. I want my father.”
Father and son made up – as if prodded by Plaschke’s piece, they got together that weekend – but Kobe was no longer anybody’s little boy.
And the mission that was his life’s work no longer was as uncomplicated as it had been.
It was becoming increasingly harder to keep the disparate elements of his life in harmony. He was on top, which is typically challenging enough, as expectations are dialed up. Bryant’s expectations were a special problem, because he didn’t merely expect to be one of the two or three best players, but to rule absolutely.
He hated the incessant comparisons to Jordan. That wasn’t the way he thought of it. He didn’t want to be the next Mike; he expected to accomplish so much in all things, including commercially, the question would become, “Can you be the next Kobe?”
Once wholly a creature of his family, now he had a new family. He and Vanessa began replacing his older mentors with younger ones as they assumed control of his affairs.
He began working with Tellem’s young associate, Rob Pelinka, who’d played at Michigan at the start of the Fab Five era. With a year left on Bryant’s deal with Adidas, the cornerstone of Tellem’s marketing strategy, Pelinka terminated it, taking Bryant to Nike after a year of what officials at two companies involved said were difficult negotiations.
Nor was that the only sign of strain on the corporate front. According to one source, McDonald’s was considering scaling Bryant back, finding him hard to deal with. After his arrest last month, a company spokesman said they didn’t have to pull any of his spots because none were running.
Once, Bryant never cared what the press said. Now, he was as easily offended as the fabled princess, who felt a pea under the 40 mattresses she slept on. Last spring, for instance, he complained about reports that he would refuse the Lakers’ offer of an extension, which would make him a free agent next summer, accurate though they were. He became incensed at straightforward reporting of his $40-million Nike deal, signed, of course, after young LeBron James had gotten $90 million.
On the floor, however, he continued to progress. He and O’Neal became friends. Bryant could still go off on his own, shooting – or in a new wrinkle, not shooting – according to how he, not Jackson, saw things, but Bryant kept refining his game.
Typically, he went to Colorado on his own in June. The Lakers not only didn’t know he was in Colorado for arthroscopic surgery, they didn’t know his knee bothered him that much.
At his news conference last month, Bryant, no longer the self-assured young man who knew everything was going to be fine, writhed before the cameras, his voice trembling, halting and cracking as he acknowledged a mistake – he called it “adultery,”a word from the Bible – even as he asserted his legal innocence.
Reactions varied, from sympathetic to skeptical. Personally, I hope that was the reemergence of the real Kobe, who, for all his misadventures, wanted to do the right thing and when he didn’t, was a stand-up guy in the end.
This media circus has been booked for a long run, so it’s not only tragic for all involved, but inescapable and feverish. CNN carried his news conference live. News organizations pursue the young woman’s friends, with tabloids like the National Enquirer offering $12,500 for one classmate’s story. The Globe put her picture on its cover. ESPN.com carried a story, asking if this might help Bryant by giving him the missing “street cred.”
Commercial dollars are a modern way of keeping score. In real life, Bryant doesn’t need the money. His much-discussed image flows from appearance, not reality, and is only an idea that people he doesn’t know have about him.
As Bryant noted, “I have a lot at stake and it has nothing to do with the game of basketball and it has nothing to do with endorsements. This is about us. This is about our family.”
This is about finding himself and will be harder than basketball ever was.
Mark Heisler is a sports columnist with the Los Angeles Times.