SI Flashback: Show Time!
Is Kobe Bryant the second coming of Magic or Michael? The playoffs are the place to find out if he's truly a prodigy or merely a creature of hype
By Ian Thomsen, Sports Illustrated
Issue date: April 27, 1998
Last December, before the Los Angeles Lakers' annual pilgrimage to Chicago, the team's director of public relations, John Black, quietly warned 19-year-old Kobe Bryant that the press was about to open public hearings into the matter of whether he was, indeed, the next Michael Jordan. Bryant could have gone into a slump right then.
"It doesn't bother me," he responded. "I expect to be that good."
"I said, 'Cool,' " Bryant says. "It was like they were making it out to be some big one-on-one showdown."
Others were more concerned. "Wasn't Harold Miner supposed to have been the next Michael Jordan?" asked New Jersey Nets assistant coach Don Casey. Miner vanished from the league as if he had been staring at the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Grant Hill, exhibiting the wisdom of a Duke graduate, seemed to turn away from comparisons with Jordan at the last moment, but the unexplainable forces of the universe punished him nonetheless by making him play for Jordan's former coach, Doug Collins, the screaming Hydra.
It is because Bryant is so completely unaffected by fame that the league and its network partner, NBC, felt they could safely extol his virtues. In doing so, they almost turned him into the anti-Jordan. Western Conference coach George Karl benched him in the fourth quarter of the All-Star Game, and several of the older players -- they were all older, weren't they? -- were apparently fed up with everything Bryant stood for. Karl Malone recalled trying to set a pick for him. "The guy told me he's got it," the 34-year-old Malone said. "Like I told Coach Karl, when younger guys tell me to get out of the way, that's a game I don't need to be in. I was ticked."
"I still don't remember that play," Bryant says. "I probably did it -- I'm sure I did it -- but there's nothing wrong with it. I was just being aggressive. When somebody told me what he said, I thought it was funny."
It was not meant to be funny. It was meant to lump Bryant in with the prematurely rewarded nine-figure millionaires of his generation. Malone's complaint is that the league's young stars have walked into a vault of public goodwill and unmarked bills that was unlocked for them by the older players, and they are shortsightedly spending the principal when, really, they should be content just to live off the interest. Their preposterous salaries have given them a sense of power long before many of them have even contended for championships. When Malone, the league's reigning MVP, saw that he had been replaced on the All-Star Game marquee by a 19-year-old who doesn't even start for his club -- well, you can't blame Malone for assuming the worst.
Bryant's second NBA season has been one long, inconclusive argument. His play since All-Star weekend has seemed to confirm suspicions that he is a creature of hype. In the 24 games between Feb. 10 and March 25 he shot an anemic 37% from the floor and averaged just 12.1 points, or 5.8 less than he had during the first half of the season. Not the numbers of the next Michael Jordan. Worse, Bryant admits that some of his teammates have confronted him about being selfish on the court. Lakers coach Del Harris has vowed to teach Bryant a lesson about the "team game." Bryant "didn't learn it in high school, and he didn't go to college, so he has to learn it here," says the 60-year-old Harris. "The only way he can learn it is by reduced playing time until he accepts it." During one 10-game stretch after the All-Star break, Harris cut Bryant's playing time by almost seven minutes a game; by the end of the season the chastened Bryant was back near his prebreak average of 26.7 minutes.
But the playoffs are here. The haggling is finished. Over the last month the Lakers have been reinstalling Bryant into their offense with the understanding that they can't go far in the postseason without him. Harris worries, too, that they can't go far with him. The young man is being asked to fulfill his potential immediately. The Lakers need his creativity in the half-court offense, and yet they haven't married themselves to him for better or for worse, in good times and in bad. Will he be the Bryant of the first half of this season, full of energy and confidence, or the Bryant of the second half, who has been fatigued and criticized? The Lakers are going to find out the hard way, by running their engine at the highest temperatures without the proper testing.
Someday, Magic Johnson firmly believes, Bryant is going to look back on this season and realize that he is the only one who remembers his struggles. "People forget," Johnson says, as if speaking about himself.
The believers -- Johnson, Jordan, Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal -- exhibit the same faith in Bryant that they have in themselves. In him they see a self-made man, a prodigy who taught himself the game by correspondence course. Perhaps no player has ever made more use of his imagination. Compared with the older stars, Bryant seems to have been raised far away in a basketball convent. In truth he was.
Where is the incentive to improve if the money and the praise -- the full-page advertisements -- are lavished on players before they accomplish anything? Johnson looks at many young stars as if they've inherited their wealth; when they actually take over, he worries, the business he helped to build will fall apart. He was especially distressed by the uninspired performances by basketball players at the 1996 Olympics, in which no money changed hands. "A lot of these guys are not worthy and not deserving," he says. "They don't go out and do it for their country. They want the money, but they don't want the responsibility that comes with the money. Kobe is different. He wants all of it."
In Johnson's day TV was just becoming infatuated with the NBA, principally because of him and Larry Bird, and the new exposure made the games seem larger and made the players richer and more famous. That drove the league's profits ever higher, so that a player today can enjoy the life of a champion without winning a title. If Bryant is unique, it might be because he didn't see the game as a way to improve his life. He was connected to the circuit by his father, a former NBA player, and the things Johnson did coursed through the little boy's mind like the blood that pumped through the rest of him. At the same time, Kobe was isolated and sheltered from the excesses of the superstar life. His version of the American Dream differed fundamentally from that of his current NBA peers. They believed in the jackpot. Bryant grew up believing in the mythology.
"My wife and I used to prescreen movies before we'd let the kids see them," says Joe Bryant, Kobe's father. "We used to push the kids under the seat when the actors would start kissing." Joe and his wife, Pam, were still editing Kobe's entertainment a couple of years before he signed his three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Lakers in 1996. He didn't see The Godfather, his favorite movie, until last year. "It reminds me of my family," Kobe says. "Not because of the violence, but because of the way they all pulled for each other no matter what."
The Lakers were skeptical when the 17-year-old Bryant came looking for a job a few weeks before the '96 NBA draft. The league's successful high school prodigies -- Moses Malone (who began his career in the ABA), Darryl Dawkins, Kevin Garnett -- had been big men who were pushed ahead by financial and in some cases academic imperatives. Bryant was different. He was 6'5", which meant that, after playing basketball in the U.S. for less than five years, he was asking teams to wager a first-round pick on his chances of thriving at shooting guard or small forward, arguably the most competitive positions in professional sports. Second, with an SAT score of 1,080, Bryant could have entered most U.S. universities on his academic talents alone, and third, his family didn't need the money; his father had recently completed a 16-year playing career in the NBA and Europe.
When Lakers general manager Jerry West asked Bryant to jump, he might have thought he was watching a coiled spring release: Bryant touched the top of the backboard square. West then put him through a kind of obstacle course, pitting him against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers defensive whiz who used to guard Bird. Cooper bullied and shoved Bryant, trying to use his strength and experience, but the youth moved like a fish under water. West then introduced Bryant to Dontae' Jones, the star of Mississippi State's 1996 Final Four team who was also working out for the Lakers and would be drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks. Both young men were starving for opportunity. A ball was tossed between them, and everyone stood back. Bryant devoured the moment smoothly, like a lion with excellent table manners.
West turned to an aide and said with a buried giggle, "I've seen enough. Let's go." West, who calls Bryant the best prospect he has ever put through a workout, was so impressed that he arranged to send the Lakers' starting center, Vlade Divac, to the Charlotte Hornets for Bryant, whom the Hornets chose with the 13th pick. Freed of Divac's salary, the Lakers then signed O'Neal to a seven-year, $120 million contract, restoring the team to title contention for the first time since Johnson's better days.
The Lakers still aren't sure how Bryant made up so much ground so fast. "Kobe is at least as mature as any player we have now," West says, "and you cannot discount his family's contribution to that."
But how did a teenager learn the fundamentals so thoroughly while spending the better part of eight years in relative basketball isolation in Europe? The smartest general manager in the game has no ready explanation. He finds himself saying, "You watch Stevie Wonder and you marvel at how he and Ray Charles have overcome handicaps, yet they are wonderfully talented and gifted."
When Joe Bryant left La Salle in 1975 after his junior year to turn professional, it was because his family needed the money. "The rule back then was that you had to prove that you were in financial hardship," he says. He was a 6'9" forward with a guard's mentality, and he was chosen in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. He held out for more money. The Philadelphia 76ers traded for him, offering a reported $900,000 over five years, and that, he says, was that. "I was on the East Coast, so they put me under the basket," he says. "That used to be big, that East Coast-West Coast argument: If Magic had been in New York, would he have had the same kind of freedom he had in L.A.?"
Kobe was born a year after the 1977 NBA Finals, the premature peak of his father's eight-year NBA career. (Joe was a defensive specialist on the Sixers' second unit, behind Julius Erving and George McGinnis, as Philadelphia was dissected in six games by Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers.) Kobe, Joe says, "was named after a Kobe steak house in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. But I don't know if I should say that, because they might want the rights to his name."
In 1984, after Joe had finished his NBA career with the Houston Rockets, he and Pam and their three children set off on a family adventure with all kinds of unforeseen benefits. They moved to Rieti, Italy, where Joe began his European playing career. For eight years, during which he played for four teams, he moved his family from one town to the next like an actor in the theater, settling wherever he could find a production that had a role for him. In the meantime his son was developing a romance with basketball that he might never have experienced in America.
Six-year-old Kobe was enrolled in first grade in a school in Rieti where his two sisters -- Shaya, then seven, and Sharia, eight -- were entering the second and third grades, respectively. Because they were just learning to speak Italian, they had to work harder than other students. Perhaps had Kobe been a star soccer player, he would have been treated as someone sacred, but his talent for basketball carried no great weight. "In Italy they told me, 'You're a great player over here, but when you get over to America, it won't be like that,'" he recalls.
Basketball became his private hobby, and he had little choice but to be humble about it. "After school I would be the only guy on the basketball court, working on my moves, and then kids would start showing up with their soccer ball," he says. "I could hold them off if there were two or three of them, but when they got to be 11 or 12, I had to give up the court. It was either go home or be the goalkeeper."
By U.S. standards Kobe and his sisters enjoyed an unusually well-rounded life: The streets were safe at all hours, and children mixed easily with their parents in the bright cafe bars. "In America, families break apart because the son has to take a job in South Dakota," Joe Bryant says. "In Italy you'd see whole families living in one big villa. That's what our kids saw. We would go have a meal and end up sitting at the table, eating and talking, for three or four hours."
The Italians were impassioned believers in their basketball clubs, carrying team flags and scarves and wearing their team colors. Fans would throw coins at visiting players, hop in place together, chant in a single voice or sing in a bellow throughout each game. Whether Joe was playing for Reggio di Calabria near Sicily or Pistoia to the north -- the sorts of small towns where Italian basketball thrives -- he was a cult figure, a 30-points-per-game scorer, the direct opposite of his role in the NBA. "They used to sing songs for my father," Kobe says, and in Italian he sings one: "You know the player who's better than Magic or Jabbar? It's Joseph, Joseph Bryant!"
"If we upset one of the big teams in Italy, I didn't have to pay for a meal for the rest of the week," Joe recalls, laughing. "One year we upset somebody, and the town was like a festival. So much passion."
During the week Joe would practice with his club twice a day, a time-wasting European custom, but for the first time in his working life he took his meals at home. His club would play every Sunday and occasionally in midweek. On Saturday afternoons he would take the family for walks into the mountains. On Monday, his usual day off, Americans who were playing for other Italian clubs would bring their families and meet in the nearest big city -- Florence, Rome, Venice -- at McDonald's. Sharia and Shaya remember making friends with the daughters of ex-Sixer Harvey Catchings, Tauja and Tamika, who are now basketball stars at Illinois and Tennessee, respectively. "I have pictures of them walking through Venice with Kobe," Joe Bryant says.
On weekdays after school Joe would take Kobe to practice with him, something he couldn't have done in the NBA. While the team worked out, Kobe would shoot baskets in a corner, like a shadow thrown by his father. Italian basketball cognoscenti still remember Kobe shooting around during halftime and being shooed off the court as his father's games were resuming. "The crowd would be cheering me," Kobe says. "I loved it."
"Sure, we were in Italy, but he was around basketball all the time, playing against older guys," Joe says. "He was always wanting to play my teammates, and, you know, the older guys, they would pretend that they were falling down."
"I used to set them up," Kobe says. "I'd say, 'Come on, you're playing a little kid.' Then it would come to game point, and they'd start getting serious, and I knew I had them. My father would be on the sideline talking trash: 'You're gonna let a little 10-year-old bust you up?'"
"I've never seen somebody who can see a move that another guy does and learn it as quickly as he can," Robert Horry, a Lakers forward, says of Kobe. "Usually it takes so long to get a move down, to learn the footwork. Sometimes it takes all summer. But he'll work on it, and two days later you'll see it in his game."
The videotapes used to arrive in Italy every couple of days, like letters from home. Kobe's grandparents would tape the biggest NBA games, as well as TV shows and movies, and Joe would receive tapes of other games from a couple of NBA scouting services to which he subscribed. In all he and Kobe watched the Lakers about 40 times a year. Joe loved seeing the work of an NBA guard his own size. "He comes into the league with all that fancy stuff, and they call it Magic," Joe told reporters near the end of his NBA career. "I've been doing it for years, and they call it 'schoolyard.'"
In a closet in the house the Bryants still own near Philadelphia is the little Lakers jacket that Kobe wore as a baby. Later he graduated to a Lakers letter jacket with leather sleeves. In his room in Italy was a life-sized poster of Magic Johnson. The Lakers were based more than 6,000 miles away, but that only deepened Kobe's appreciation of the way they played. Because the games he saw were on videotape, he didn't see them just once. He memorized them. "He would watch those games like they were a movie, and he knew what the actors were going to say next," says Shaya Bryant, now 20.
The play-by-play analyst for these games was Kobe's father. As they watched tape together, Joe would predict where the ball was headed and why, which made him seem like a wizard to his little boy. Kobe would sit in front of the TV and study what a player did with his shoulders, his feet, his head, as if that were the whole point of watching, to decide how the man was balancing his weight without betraying his intentions. "Genius at first is little more than a great capacity for receiving discipline," wrote the English novelist George Eliot more than a century ago. It may seem as if Kobe was analyzing basketball technique. But as far as he knew, he was just getting to know his heroes.
After watching the tapes over and over, Kobe would go outside, alone, and try to beat the world's best players at their own game, more dependent on his imagination than any kid growing up in America. As a result he gives credit for his fallaway jump shot to Hakeem Olajuwon. "My baseline jumper, I got it from Oscar Robertson," he says. "Oscar liked to use his size against smaller players. That's what I try to do." From Earl (the Pearl) Monroe he realized how to "shake one way, then go back the other way." In Europe Kobe taught himself the fundamentals of basketball. Not until he returned to Philadelphia as an eighth-grader did he develop a crossover dribble and other street moves. "I learned all my dribbling moves from God Shammgod [at summer camps]," Bryant admits happily.
All he had needed, in retrospect, was the firsthand experience of his father, access to videotapes and a basketball court free of soccer players where he could do his homework. He could not have developed in this way 20 years ago. There would have been no videos in the mail. For the fundamentals he would have had to go to college. If today he plays with a sense of joy, a sincerity, then he learned it from watching Magic Johnson and from hearing the passion of the Italian crowds who sang for his father. "I was like a computer," Bryant says. "I retrieved information to benefit my game." He could have been raised just as successfully in Australia, Iceland, South Africa--just so long as he remained within reach of his father's occasional loose elbow, which kept him from daydreaming too deeply.
"I didn't beat him one-on-one until I was 16," Kobe says. "He was real physical with me. When I was 14 or 15 he started cheating. He'd elbow me in the mouth, rip my lip open. Then my mother would walk out on the court, and the elbows would stop."
In November 1991, Joe and Pam were awakened by one of those dreadful 2 a.m. phone calls. Pam's parents wanted them to hear the shocking news from somebody they trusted. Magic Johnson had just retired from basketball after learning he was HIV positive. Pam and Joe talked it over, and in the morning, without mentioning Johnson's prognosis, they told their 13-year-old son that his idol had been forced into retirement.
They were living in Mulhouse, France, at the time. The boy was crying, and it took all the father's strength not to cry along with him as they took their 45-minute trip across the Swiss border to the international school the children attended.
"I was sad because Kobe was sad," Sharia says. "I never imagined feeling that way about somebody I'd never met. It hurt him as if it was a family member. For a week he was missing meals. It was really, really hard for him."
The Mulhouse club, for which Joe was playing, was shaky financially, and it was also time for the Bryant children to prepare themselves for college in the U.S., so the family moved back home a few weeks later. Kobe turned out to be a much better player than his Italian friends had thought. He launched himself into the American system without hesitation, joining the famed Sonny Hill summer league in Philadelphia. There a counselor scolded him for listing "NBA" as his future career on his application. "The guy said NBA players are one in a million," Bryant recalls. "I said, 'Man, look, I'm going to be that one in a million.' You see Magic, Michael -- they made it. What's different about them? The whole thing kind of pissed me off."
No doubt Bryant was lured away from Duke, Michigan and North Carolina -- his three college choices -- by the prospect of a millionaire's contract, but the powers of his imagination should not be ignored. Jordan and Johnson were back in the NBA, and in Bryant's mind's eye, they were waving him onto the court. "I wanted to get in the league and play against those guys," he says.
"See, the kids in America, they don't do the work that Kobe did," Johnson says. "That's a problem with the young people now. They don't have the fundamentals."
Johnson, now 38 and a Lakers vice president, says he learned about Bryant's special feeling for him "because of his family telling me some things after he joined the Lakers. I also knew because he was always calling here at the office, telling me, 'Let's work out,' or, 'Where are you working out?'"
A lot is made of Bryant's similarity to Jordan. He jumps like Jordan. ("Like Julius, too," his father adds.) He slashes and creates his own shots, much like Jordan (and Julius), and when he needs the extra moment to aim his jump shot, he can hang there, bent forward slightly, as if his shoulder blades have become little wings.
Every now and then, though less often recently, the Lakers turn the Bryant-Jordan comparison around. "Sometimes you say Michael could do things Kobe does," Lakers guard Jon Barry says, "and sometimes it's unanimous that he couldn't."
Sometimes Bryant even sounds like Jordan, answering an interviewer's question the way Jordan would. "That's a by-product of him studying those tapes," says Joe Carbone, Bryant's personal trainer.
Yes, Bryant has a personal trainer, just like Mike. "I just have so much energy," Bryant says. On a game day, early in the morning, he is usually in the gym with Carbone, lifting weights and stretching before meeting his teammates for the shootaround. Some nights he will call Carbone and arrange to meet him at a gym even though the Lakers practiced that afternoon. This summer, regardless of how far the Lakers go in the playoffs, Bryant plans to work out at least five hours a day, half of the time in the weight room, the other half on the basketball floor. "That's when I'm going to pick up my game another five notches," he says.
"It's going to be hard for him to do, because he's not going to get in a lot of quality games over the summer," warns Harris. "What he has to work on is his team game."
Wasn't this the same thing Jordan heard the first seven years of his career? Until June 1991, when he escorted Magic's Lakers out of the NBA Finals, the mantra Jordan heard was that he would never be considered as great a player as Johnson or Bird until he won a championship and proved he could elevate the play of his teammates.
Jordan was stubborn about it. He was the league's top scorer for four consecutive seasons without taking Chicago to the Finals. During the Bulls' five subsequent NBA title runs, he has continued to lead from the front. Bryant's circumstances in Los Angeles are different. By no means is the team built around him, the sixth man; in fact, he says some of his teammates have complained to him that he should be less aggressive on offense.
"If you watch Jordan, you'll see he's not looking for the spectacular play anymore," Harris says. "His highlight films are of him kissing the trophy."
Jordan, meanwhile, has been giving his protege the opposite advice, as he did after the All-Star Game. "We were talking, waiting to go into the room for interviews," Bryant says. "Michael said, 'It's important for you to stay aggressive. You just have to continue to be aggressive.'"
O'Neal has been offering Bryant similar advice. "When you look at the NBA champions, most of them had a one-two punch," says O'Neal, imagining himself and Bryant as that combination.
This debate -- should Bryant be more aggressive or more of a team player? -- is going to define his career. He is the Lakers' best one-on-one player, and his ability to create his own shot, as well as dish off to his teammates, will be crucial to the team's success in the playoffs. Bryant is under the most intense scrutiny, knowing that he will receive a large part of the blame if the Lakers lose. He will have to trust his instincts if he is to become the great player who leads his teammates to a title.
"I've been fighting the people around me this year, as far as them questioning my shot selection and how I should adjust to them," he says. He has adjusted somewhat. In a recent road game against the Toronto Raptors he could be seen looking first for the open man, receiving the ball in different positions and passing when he could -- things often asked of less gifted players. But he also will have to be stubborn. If he continues to develop his vision, as Johnson believes he will, the Lakers will have to adapt to his strengths, on his terms.
Johnson predicts that Bryant will learn to read the game, to let it flow through him as if he were part of the circuit. "It's going to take him two more years," Johnson says. He has been of this opinion since the conference semifinals last May, when he watched the Lakers' postseason end in Game 5 against the Utah Jazz with four Bryant air balls -- one on the final shot of regulation, three more in the disastrous overtime. It was as if Johnson were looking at himself on the TV screen. Twice in his first five years he was blamed for playoff elimination: in the first round against Houston and in the Finals against the Celtics. Each time Johnson recovered to win a championship the following year.
Last May, on the first morning of the Lakers' off-season, a few hours after the team's plane had returned from Utah, Johnson was in the gym at UCLA when who walked in but the 18-year-old himself. "That was just like me," Johnson says. "I loved seeing that from him. That's how I reacted, too. This is where he needs to be."
So it's settled, then. If the rest of us are forever trying to balance our feminine and masculine sides, the great basketball players are trying to bring their Michael side into balance with their Magic side. The Magic side is the one Bryant must develop.
It's certainly there inside him, circulating through him like something passed down by his father. It's the kind of personality trait that can develop only in certain environments. It wouldn't have grown on the East Coast in Joe Bryant's day, it probably wouldn't blossom in Chicago now, and it certainly wasn't going to bloom on the courts of Italy or Lower Merion High, which Bryant led to the Class AAAA Pennsylvania state championship two years ago.
"It could only have happened in L.A. for Magic," Joe Bryant says. "When Kobe was heading out to L.A., I was telling people, 'Look, what Kobe is living is a dream, and hopefully he is going to a place that still believes in dreams.' That's what L.A. is. You go around there, and everyone's searching for that big movie deal or trying to become a star. Then you look at Magic."
"I'm a positive person," Johnson says when you ask him about his health. He has been so aggressive and optimistic in his treatment that doctors can no longer find traces of HIV in his blood (which is not to say that the virus has disappeared). "Kobe's a positive person, too," he continues. "It's like God blessed that trade so that Kobe could come out here and be around a guy who can help him by sitting and watching him every night. I'm going to take care of him, but I'm also going to criticize him when he has to be criticized. Like the other night, when he went out and shot five or six or seven times and wasn't even warmed up. Those are the kinds of things he's going to have to learn if he's going to be what he wants to be, and that's the best ever."
So does a happy ending settle with the evening sun in Los Angeles? In his room overlooking the Pacific, Kobe lies on his bed and watches a videotape of the Lakers, as he has always done. But now, instead of studying Magic, he watches himself. He imagined his future so deeply that he made it come true. Now he studies how he is doing, asks whether he should have rotated defensively or passed to the open man, and sometimes he looks into the corner of the picture, at the big man sitting courtside in the rich suit, at the amazing sight of Magic Johnson watching him play.
Bryant knows that after this game ended, he returned backstage to the very locker that Magic used to occupy like a king on his throne. The Lakers say locker assignments are made by chance, but perhaps an astrologer would argue differently.
When Kobe comes out of his bedroom, it's as if nothing has changed. His parents are still living with him, by his choice; he is still only 19, after all. In fact, apart from the view of the ocean and the expensive fixtures, this might be any one of the places they rented in Italy. He didn't even have to leave home to make his dream come true.
"And if he keeps on growing?" Magic says, because Kobe is now 6'6", an inch taller than he was a year ago. "If he grows to be as tall as Joe?" That will mean he's as tall as Magic. "Then it's just over," Magic says. "Oh, my goodness."
Issue date: April 27, 1998