In this age of inflated expectations, what if, for once, we did believe the hype? What if the image brokers were right seven years ago when they anointed a skinny high school senior with a shorn head as the next big thing? What if things that seemed absurdly premature at the time—the NBA's full-page All-Star Game ad featuring the teenager opposite Michael Jordan; the grandiose pronouncements from every pundit with a word processor—turn out to have been prophetic?� That's exactly what's happened in the case of Kobe Bryant, which helps explain why Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks could honestly say last Friday that Portland's defense on Bryant "was pretty good overall," even though he'd exploded for 40 points in a 92-84 Lakers victory. It's tough to cover a guy when, as Scottie Pippen says, "he not only takes tough shots but seems to make them all."� Ask Yao Ming about it. At week's end Bryant had scored 40 or more in nine straight games and 35 or more in 13 straight, a run eclipsed only by Wilt Chamberlain. Midway through this surreal scoring streak, Bryant drove baseline during a 106-99 double-overtime win over the Houston Rockets and rose up over seven and a half feet of human scaffolding for a one-handed jam so fierce that Yao would later say, "Please do not ask me about something so humiliating to my face." Not that Bryant is limited to slashing: In a 93-87 win at Utah a day later, he was hindered by a sore right knee but still went for 40 while making only one layup and nary a dunk. It was a resplendent performance so full of crazy fadeaways, pirouettes and double-pump leaners that the Jazz fans, who had booed Bryant throughout the game, were chanting "Ko-BEE! Ko-BEE!" by the end.
The numbers are astounding: During those 13 games Bryant averaged 42.4 points, shooting 48.7% from the field and 45-5% from beyond the arc. He scored more points during the streak than every other Laker except Shaquille O'Neal and guard Derek Fisher had over the course of the entire season. And those points have come when the Lakers needed them most: with O'Neal in and out of the lineup because of toe and knee injuries, and with a playoff berth on the line. After a 106-101 win over the Seattle SuperSonics on Sunday, in which Kobe scored 41, L.A. was 30-25 and in the seventh spot in the Western Conference, having gone 11-2 since coach Phil Jackson asked Bryant to be more aggressive. O'Neal speaks for many in the league when he says, " Kobe Bryant is the MVP." Then, speaking only for himself, Shaq adds, "He's the gunnery sergeant, and I'm the Big Dog."
The story behind the 24-year-old Bryant's ascent from skinny teen to MVP candidate is one that LeBron James and other heavily hyped phenoms would be wise to heed. Talk to Bryant about basketball long enough, and he can sound like a self-help guru, the Deepak Chopra of the drop step, going on about staying focused and maximizing potential. As tempting as it is to dismiss this as new-age hoops hooey, in the case of Kobe, it works. "It was like he was put on earth to be a great basketball player, and everything that he does is dedicated to becoming that," says Lakers guard Brian Shaw, a 14-year veteran who played with Bryant's father, Joe, in Italy and has known Kobe since he was nine. "The only guy I've been around with that kind of work ethic is Larry Bird."
Work ethic? While attending Lower Merion (Pa.) High, Bryant would get up at 5 a.m. to work out. Then he'd stay for two hours after practice, refining his game. He bragged to friends that he'd go straight to the NBA and that he'd be an All-Star within two years. Cocky? Very. Was he right? Yes.
After that second season, a point at which most 20-year-olds might see fit to enjoy their newfound wealth and adoration, Bryant spent a summer reworking his game. Instead of playing pickup ball, he watched boxes of videotape, pored over Dean Smith's Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense and practiced. By himself. In a gym with chairs set up to simulate defenders. He remembers a reporter asking when he was going to flame out and fade away, like another Harold Miner. "People didn't know that I was getting up at six and going to the gym and working for eight hours," Bryant says. "They didn't realize that I wasn't planning on going anywhere. I'd worked too hard."
But as Bryant learned, it takes more than hard work to gain your teammates' trust. Early in his career he was aloof, and he didn't help matters by refusing to concede that he occasionally shot too much. "When I first ran into Kobe, I was amazed at how isolated he was," says Jackson. "That's been the biggest improvement in the last three years: his ability to communicate."
Part of that is simply a matter of age. As Shaw puts it, "Nobody was going to listen to him when he was 18, 19 years old. 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 is still not a vocal leader, but he has made a conscious effort to relate better to teammates. He dispenses pointers and puts his arm around players. Two weeks ago, against the Knicks, he pulled aside reserve center Stanislav Medvedenko. "I scolded him pretty hard because I felt like he wasn't ready to play, but I let him know it wasn't personal," says Bryant. "The difference is, a few years ago I would have said something negative and moved on. I wasn't aware of the human side of a person."
For a man who'd spent his life obsessively focused on his career, it took a while to realize the obvious. The catalyst? "Being married kind of forces you to be a better communicator," says a sheepish Bryant, whose wife of 1� years, Vanessa, had their first child, Natalia, last month. "I'm a better listener now, that's for sure."
Bryant's emotional maturity has been mirrored by advances on the court. Helped in part by the 15 pounds of muscle he added in the off-season, he has become a better rebounder, a better finisher and, most important, a better long-range marksman. A career 31-4% three-point shooter before this season, he was shooting 38.5% at week's end. "It's the most improved part of his game," says Lakers forward Rick Fox. "He has better balance. It's almost as if he's at peace before he shoots."
All this only fuels what is already the 6'7" Bryant's greatest asset: his hypercompetitiveness. Even in practice, if he loses a game of one-on-one or a shooting contest, "he immediately wants to play you again after practice," says Shaw. At times this can backfire on him, though. On Sunday night against Seattle, Bryant had 39 points with four minutes to play. In his quest to reach 40, he forced and missed six shots before sinking two free throws with 23 seconds left. After the game, Bryant apologized to his teammates for taking them out of the offense. It wasn't the streak that drove him, he explained to reporters, but the challenge. "There are these five guys, and they're all trying to stop me from scoring one basket," he said, his eyes opening wide. Walking out to his car a short while later, he saw Sonics guard Brent Barry, who smiled and said, "Ho-hum, just another 40." Bryant returned the smile and said, "Yeah, but you made me work for it, man."