Kobe's Killer Instinct (cont.)
In Bryant's mind, however, no one is unbeatable. As a rookie with the Lakers, despite his coming straight out of high school, he approached Harris. "He said, 'Coach, if you just give me the ball and clear out, I can beat anybody in this league,' " recalls Harris. When that pitch didn't work, the 6' 6" Bryant returned. "Then he'd say, 'Coach, I can post up anybody who's guarding me. If you just get me in there and clear it out, I can post up anybody.' " Harris chuckles. "I said, 'Kobe, I know you can, but right now you can't do it at a high enough rate for the team we have, and I'm not going to tell Shaquille O'Neal to get out of the way so you can do this.' Kobe didn't like it. He understood it, but in his heart he didn't accept it."
It is 2000, and Bryant is an All-Star and franchise player. Still, after guard Isaiah Rider signs as a free agent, Bryant repeatedly forces him to play one-on-one after practice -- Bryant wins, of course -- to reinforce his alpha alpha male status. When six-time All-Star guard Mitch Richmond arrives the next year, he gets the same. "He was the man, and he wanted us to know it," says Richmond. "He was never mean or personal about it, it's just how he was."
Not that Bryant never loses, but beat him at your own risk. Decline a rematch and . . . well, that's not an option. "If you scored on him in practice or did something to embarrass him, he would just keep on challenging you and challenging you until you stayed after and played him so he could put his will on you and dominate you," says Shaw, Bryant's teammate from 1999 to 2003. This included not allowing players to leave the court. Literally. "He'd stand in our way and say, 'Nah, nah, we're gonna play. I want you to do that [move] again,' " Shaw says. "And you might be tired and say, 'Nah, I did it in practice.' But he was just relentless and persistent until finally you'd go play, and he'd go at you."
And just as he once did with Rob Schwartz, Bryant keeps NBA teammates after practice as guinea pigs. He unveils a spin move or a crossover or something else he has picked up watching tape and does it over and over and over. "The crazy thing about it is, he has the ability to put new elements in his game overnight," says George, a Laker from 1999 to 2006 and a frequent target of Kobe's requests. "He might say, 'Stay after and guard this move. Let me try it on you,' and he'll do it the next day in the game." George pauses to let this sink in. "Most of us, we'll try it alone, then we'll try it in practice, then in a scrimmage, and only then will we bring it out for a game. He'd do it the next day -- and it would work."
It's 2003, and Bryant is getting worked up in an interview while talking about a variation on a move: a jab step-and-pause, where you sink deep, hesitate to let the defender relax and, instead of bringing the jab foot back, push off it. Soon enough, Bryant is out of his chair and using the reporter as a defender on the carpeted floor. Then he has the reporter trying the move. Some people are Star Wars nerds; Bryant is a basketball nerd. "I think Kobe's actually a little bit embarrassed by his love of basketball," says Downer. "People called him a loner, but it's just that basketball is all he wants to focus on. I think he's part of a dying breed that loves the game that way."
That's why Bryant gets so excited to meet kindred souls. Asked last week about Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Bryant's face lit up as he remembered the time he played for Pop. "I was really hoping he'd run us through one of those rigorous practices he does," said Bryant, who got his wish. By the way, Kobe was talking about practice for the '05 All-Star Game.
Now it's 2008, the Western Conference finals. Bryant is finally where he wants to be: an MVP playing on his team, no behemoth Hall of Famer to get in the way of post-ups, within reach of a title. He is also, by almost all accounts, the best player in the league. "It's not even close," says one Western Conference scout. "The difference between him and LeBron [James] is like [the one between] a Maserati and a Volvo."
The scout has other things to say about Bryant. For example, on his weaknesses: "Um, let me think . . . [long pause] . . . No, I don't think he has any." On his athleticism: "There are probably 10 [with more] in the league" -- he names Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and J.R. Smith as examples -- "but no one uses his as well as Kobe. Just watch his footwork sometime." And on his focus: "There's a difference between loving basketball and liking basketball. There are only about 30 guys in the league who love it, who play year-round. Allen Iverson loves to play when the lights come on. Kobe loves doing the s--- before the lights come on."
This thing, this freakish compulsion, may be the hardest element of the game to quantify. There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player's ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he'll need therapy to recover. One thing's for sure: You can't teach it. If so, Eddy Curry would be All-NBA and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass. But people know it when they see it. G.M.'s, coaches and scouts cite only a few others who have a similar drive -- Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginóbili, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- though they make clear that none of those stars are in Kobe's league. (In an SI poll earlier this season Bryant was a runaway winner as the opponent players feared most, at 35%.)
Even some of the great ones lacked it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that when he was young, rather than challenging everyone as Kobe does, he "just wanted peace." "I think it's a quirk of personality," says Abdul-Jabbar. "Some of us are like Napoleon, and some are Walter Mitty."
Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/ confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/ guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.
"If he's a ruthless s.o.b., I kind of respect that," says Ravin. "Why should he be passing up opportunities? Why pass it to a guy who doesn't work as hard, who doesn't want it like you do?"
Even now, every little challenge matters to Bryant. Here he is at the end of a practice last week. Each Laker has to take a free throw. Everybody hits his except Bryant, who rims one out. The only shooter left is Derek Fisher, who shot 88.3% from the line this season. Bryant stands to the side of the basket, fidgeting. As Fisher's shot arcs toward the rim, Bryant suddenly takes two quick steps and leaps to goaltend the attempt. "Of course," forward Lamar Odom says later, "he couldn't be the only one to miss."
So, you see, this is Kobe, all of this. Sometimes childish, sometimes regal, sometimes stubborn, always relentless. This is a guy who, according to Nike spokesperson KeJuan Wilkins, had the company shave a couple of millimeters off the bottom of his signature shoe because "in his mind that gave him a hundredth of a second better reaction time." A guy who has played the last three months with a torn ligament in the pinkie of his shooting hand. A guy who, says teammate Coby Karl, considers himself "an expert at fouling without getting called for it." (Watch how Bryant uses the back of his hand, not the front, to push off on defenders and a closed-fist forearm to exert leverage.) A guy who says of being guarded by the physical Bowen, "It'll be fun" -- and actually means it. A guy who, no matter what he does, will never get the chance to play the one game he'd die for: Bryant versus Jordan, each in his prime. "There'd be blood on the floor by the end," says Winter, who has coached them both.
This is Kobe Bryant, age 29, in pursuit of his fourth NBA title. Even if it's hard for us to understand him, perhaps it's time that we appreciate him.