In the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room last week, a deadpan Shaquille O'Neal handed Kobe Bryant an object concealed by Bubble Wrap, saying it was a piece of memorabilia he wanted Bryant to autograph. Removing the wrapping, Bryant instead found a bobble-head doll in the likeness of Reggie Miller, the Indiana Pacers guard with whom he'd had a celebrated scuffle five days earlier. He immediately burst out laughing. "Hey, his face is scratched up, too," Bryant said. "He's got a couple of bruises."
The way that Bryant, L.A.'s All-Star shooting guard, has been acting lately, it wouldn't have been all that surprising if he had further defaced the doll by landing a right hook to its bouncing little noggin. While he may still have his sense of humor, a newfound belligerence has marked the 23-year-old Bryant's demeanor this season. It's not just that he has jawed at referees with greater frequency, earning more technical fouls (six) in the first month of the season than he did all last year; traded punches with power forward Samaki Walker on the team bus after taking exception to something Walker said; and gone after Miller, earning each of them a two-game suspension. He is edgier off the court as well. His language is more profane, even when talking to the media, through which he had always been careful to project a wholesome image. He spices his conversation with violent references he wouldn't have used before, repeatedly saying, "I want to tear your heart out," when referring to his competitiveness, and declaring that "there's only two real killers in the league." By his reckoning, he's one; the other, presumably, is Michael Jordan.
Friends, fans and foes have all noticed the change and wondered the same thing: What's up with Kobe? "The thing with Reggie, coming on the heels of the incident with a teammate, makes you wonder what's on Kobe's mind," says Lakers forward Rick Fox. Miller added to the intrigue a couple of days after their fight when he released a statement that said Bryant had "other issues he has to deal with." That line irritates Bryant almost as much as whatever Miller said to him on the court that started the brawl, a comment that neither player will reveal. "I don't know what he means by issues," Bryant says. "The only issue I can think of is that I don't like Reggie Miller."
Bryant insists that he's not troubled by any secret problems, and despite his scuffles, his performance seems to bear him out. He was averaging 25.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds at week's end, and he had helped the Lakers to a 43-18 record, third best in the league. Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson has urged the 6'7", 215-pound Bryant to be more of an emotional leader—but not this emotional. "I've asked him to dial it down another degree," Jackson says. "We want aggressive, but not belligerent."
The new, testy Bryant is evident even when he's downplaying his new testiness. "I think everybody is overanalyzing things," he says. "The press keeps talking about this [Miller] incident like it's damn Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. It's ridiculous. We had a little squabble, and that's it. It's not like I bit the guy's ear off."
So what if Bryant does have issues? Is that really so surprising? He has grown into a man during his six-year pro career, and he has been hardened in the process. As an 18-year-old rookie he launched an infamous last-second air ball—followed by two more in overtime—that doomed the Lakers in their playoff series against the Utah Jazz. Three years later he was earning headlines by engaging O'Neal in a struggle for supremacy on the team. By the time he was 22 he had been named to three All-Star teams and won two NBA titles, yet he had failed to develop a close relationship with any other player in the league. At last month's All-Star Game in Philadelphia he received a thorough booing despite a 31-point MVP performance in front of a hometown crowd, rough treatment that teammates say stung Bryant even more than he admitted.
There is also the matter of Bryant's relatively privileged background, which sets him apart from most of the players in the NBA. Spending part of his childhood in Italy, where his father, Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant played professional basketball, and the rest in the comfortable Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion, may have made him sophisticated and well rounded beyond his years, but it's hardly the kind of bio that wins him the respect of players who grew up with fewer advantages. Kobe entered the league with no street cred whatsoever, and his recent dustups—along with his new tendency to bust out rap lyrics as he walks through the locker room—may be heavy-handed attempts to earn it. He knows, for example, that some of his peers find his poetry writing on the road a bit precious, so it's worth noting that one of the songs he wrote a few years ago for his never-released rap album was a self-referential tune entitled Thug Poet.
Bryant's conundrum is that some of the qualities that make him endearing to the public can make him seem vulnerable to his fellow players. It's fine to be the lovable, sensitive, childlike Kobe to companies looking for a product pitchman, but surviving in the NBA requires a hard edge. From the moment he entered the league six years ago, the plan of attack against Bryant has been just that—attack—both physically and mentally. "If you can get under his skin and make him turn the game into something personal, a one-on-one thing, you're better off," says one NBA scout. "Guys used to do it by bodying him up and pushing him around, but he's stronger now and the refs also protect him more. So you try to do it by talking to him, getting into his head."
And what do opponents say when they are trying to shake his concentration? It is well known that Bryant is especially sensitive to comments about his wife of 11 months, Vanessa. The couple was the subject of more than a few jokes on radio and TV—some of them good-natured, some not—when they got engaged, because Vanessa was still a senior at Marina High in Huntington Beach, Calif. Perhaps because of that, they have been intensely private. His wife is seldom seen at games or photographed, and Kobe rarely discusses her in public. It's not hard to imagine him unleashing his wrath on any player who ventured into that off-limits territory. There have also been vague published references to strained relationships between Bryant and other family members, which neither he nor his father have commented on. It does appear that Joe lends advice to his son neither as often nor as freely as he once did, but that may be as much a function of Kobe's maturation as it is a sign of family squabbles.
"It wouldn't make sense for him to be the same person at 23 that he was at 18 or 20, especially when he's spent those years around grown men instead of college kids," says Fox. "If you spend six years in the NBA, you'll either be tougher at the end of it or you won't be around much longer."