Kobe Bryant begins the most important game of his young life with a couple of air balls and then dribbles off his foot, out-of-bounds. He misses a free throw. The Los Angeles Lakers, best team in the NBA, are down by seven after the first quarter, and it's about to get worse. Forced into a Game 7 by the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers are soon down by 16 points toward the end of the third quarter on Sunday, about to be eliminated in their own house.
But Bryant cannot be discouraged, embarrassed or offended. He suffers no loss of self-esteem, no self-doubt. He is young. He doesn't know any better.
In the fourth quarter, L.A. down by 13, Bryant blocks a Bonzi Wells shot with just enough theatrical gusto to start his team on an improbable comeback, during which he scores nine points and feeds Shaquille O'Neal an alley-oop pass for a rim-rattling dunk that more or less ices the game. The Lakers, in as fitful a conference final as has ever been played, pass on to the NBA Finals with an 89-84 victory.
Bryant puts it all in historical perspective: "This is something I've been dreaming about all of my 21 years."
So now you understand how this team, with so much talent, is so frustrating to watch, even as it wins. With the best record during the regular season, with the league's best player in Shaq, the Lakers struggle through the playoffs—entering the Finals, they are 8-1 until they get to games that could clinch a series, 3-5 in those potential closeouts. No wonder coach Phil Jackson allows his team to play uninterrupted through Portland's 20-0 run in Game 2, his eyes fixed at some point just above his long, folded legs. It's not as if he's trying to embarrass them into performance. He simply doesn't know what to do with them.
But he has this kid Bryant out there, not so much unacquainted with defeat as he is unable to recognize it. On the other side is Scottie Pippen, a guy with six championship rings. Experience, however, is as devastating as it is reassuring, and Pippen cannot help but understand a shift in momentum late in Game 7, when his Blazers miss 13 straight shots and let Los Angeles back into the game. ("We wanted to be aggressive, but the momentum shifts," he would say.) Pippen, mindful of the circumstances—he can recognize defeat when it shows up—abruptly disappears, scoring zero points in the tell-tale quarter, and doesn't even attempt a shot during his team's 0-13 cold spell.
Maybe Bryant will never be so educated in the downside of life that he'll play fearfully or even sensibly, or ever recognize shifts in momentum. It might be that he's permanently constituted like a guy selling personal care products door-to-door, so infatuated with his own possibilities that he'll never suffer a moment of self-doubt. Last Friday night, when the Lakers lost another of those potential closeout games to Portland, Bryant keyed a fast break by bounce-passing the ball between a defender's legs. It was, essentially, an insult, saying the opponent was 90% air, completely permeable. Yet don't read arrogance into the pass, only a playful willingness by Bryant to explore his own talents, to embrace the possibilities.
This kind of personality, never mind how brilliant, is going to torture you a little, too, which is why the Lakers haven't swept anybody. Sometimes the ball goes through the defender's legs (how the hell...?), and sometimes it goes off Bryant's foot (the idiot!). The nonchalance of youth, as when Bryant shrugs off a playoff loss with his catchphrase, "No biggie," can be doubly maddening. The kid just doesn't understand that with the conference finals tied 3-3 and his team down by 16, it is very much a biggie. No wonder Jackson spends so much time on the bench staring at his shoes.
Then this same kid sees Shaq angling toward the basket and, unmindful of either gaffes or glory, pitches the perfect lob, ensuring that his team avoids a wipeout. It's quite a sight to see somebody so unshadowed by failure, so oblivious to circumstance (with its debilitating shifts in momentum), so unencumbered by defeat. So damn young.