While the rest of his Los Angeles Lakers teammates go through their pregame rituals, Kobe Bryant sits by himself in the training room, dolefully chewing a Snickers bar and staring straight ahead. Sinewy yet muscular, the 6'6" Bryant appears to be a more tightly wound version of an even larger man. His face seldom betrays any emotion; he blinks with a metronomic regularity, his nostrils twitching every 10th blink. He travels with four bodyguards (the Lakers split the cost), consults his own physicians and has a private jet (another bill he splits with the team) to shuttle him to and from courtroom appearances in Eagle, Colo., where he stands charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel concierge last June 30. What do you see when you see Kobe Bryant? The best player in the NBA? An accused rapist? An intelligent, charismatic, 25-year-old athlete? A spoiled superstar? It is now almost impossible to separate any of those strands from the tapestry of Bryant's image. For every fan holding up a KOBE 4 PRESIDENT placard—or even more disturbing, the fans, such as those in Houston recently, shouting "she deserved it"—there is another who feels betrayed by Bryant, as if God had bestowed his greatest gifts on an unworthy soul. Every day Bryant lives with the contradictions that evoke such disparate passions; imagine that O.J., while his trial was in progress, had to put on shoulder pads and cleats and carry the ball 30 times every Sunday. "Kobe is showing amazing mental toughness," says Los Angeles guard Derek Fisher. "I don't know how many guys could do what he's doing."� That he has been able not only to perform at his usual high level but also to grow as a player is a tribute to his peculiar and ruthless ability to focus—the same trait mat has, in unflattering moments, isolated him from teammates and made him seem self-absorbed. "No one can understand what kind of pressure he is under," says Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "He's having unique experiences, these intense experiences that are totally apart from the team and basketball."
Kobe is reluctant to discuss those experiences publicly (he declined to talk to SI for this story), but the incongruities of his life are apparent. Sixteen hours after he handed out 10 assists in a 100-83 win at New Jersey on Feb. 29, he made a court appearance in Eagle; the following night the Lakers suffered a 94-93 loss to the no-name Hawks in Atlanta, the first game Bryant has missed because of his legal problems. He returned the night after that to hit the game-winner against the Rockets at Houston, a 22-foot rainbow over 7'6" Yao Ming, only to sprain his right shoulder two days later against the Seattle SuperSonics while fighting through a Reggie Evans pick. The Lakers announced the next day that Bryant would be out for up to a month; he returned just five days after the injury to score 18 points and anchor the defense in a 117-109 road win over the Boston Celtics. Then, last Saturday, the night after a 96-86 loss at Minnesota in which he shot 6 of 20 from the floor, Bryant buried the Bulls in Chicago with a fourth-quarter barrage—12 of his 35 points came in a five-minute stretch—that brought back memories of the guy whose statue stands in front of the United Center.
And all this amid a cacophony of questions that are distracting by even the Lakers' glitzy standards. Is Phil calling it quits after this season? Will Shaquille O'Neal really follow Jackson if he goes? Is Gary Payton getting enough playing time to keep him happy? Can Karl Malone come back strong from the only serious injury of his 19-year career? And, oh, yeah: Will Kobe really leave L.A. this summer, when he can become a free agent? Then there have been legal issues: Would the defense be allowed to question Kobe's accuser about aspects of her sexual history? (Last Thursday the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the prosecution on Judge W. Terry Ruckriegle's ruling, which permitted such questioning. The alleged victim is scheduled to testify in a closed hearing on March 24.)
"To go from that legal type of setting to the basketball court in one day requires amazing concentration," Lakers forward Rick Fox says. "And Kobe is not only doing it, but he's growing as a player at the same time—if that's possible." At week's end Bryant had averaged 25.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 75 assists since the All-Star break, each number significantly higher than his career marks. He's even added a lefthanded jumper to his arsenal, the result of hours of practice since he first sprained his right shoulder, on Jan. 12.
What we are watching, for better or for worse, is a unique athlete thriving despite remarkable adversity and ceaseless scrutiny. How are these for options: Door No. 1 is a multimillion-dollar contract with the Lakers or with another franchise, and a continuation of one of the finest lives the Sports Industrial Complex has to offer. Door No. 2 is barred, literally, and it opens into a jail cell. "You take a hundred guys and put them through this, and the whole gang of them would bail out," says Malone. "And Kobe could have taken time off, taken the season off. You had people saying that's what he should do."
Almost to a man, Bryant's teammates point out that if any player is particularly suited to coping with these obstacles, it is Kobe. Forget for a moment his astonishing talent. In these circumstances his greatest attribute—an almost sociopathic focus—is the very thing that has at times been a liability, alienating teammates and causing rifts with some of them, especially O'Neal. Thanks to Bryant's ability to function in a self-imposed bubble, he can filter out all the static, be it the locker-room white noise of Payton's badgering teammates for extra game tickets or the louder, more constant buzz of media speculation about his trial. While the rest of the team swaps MP3 files, Bryant keeps his playlists private. ("Kobe probably already has all the music in the world," jokes one teammate.) A few seasons ago much was made of Bryant's joining in on some of the players' marathon card games. That sort of camaraderie has been cut way back. Even during warmups, as his teammates challenge one another or call bank shots, Kobe releases his jumpers in virtual solitude.
The one thing that wasn't supposed to happen through this turmoil, that nobody dared to forecast when he showed up at training camp in Hawaii underweight and still hurting from off-season surgery on his right shoulder and right knee, was that Kobe's game would actually improve. Now, as the NBA season enters its critical stretch and L.A. prepares for another title run, perhaps its last with Kobe and Shaq, the Lakers have noticed a new willingness from Bryant to play within the team. His passing in particular has helped the Lakers go on a 12-4 run since the All-Star Game, and through Sunday they stood fourth in the Western Conference, a half-game behind the San Antonio Spurs.
"Since the break he has been much more into the team flow," says Jackson. "I used to tell him, 'Don't try to take over the game.' He used to take that as a challenge. But I don't have to do that anymore.... This might be the first time in Kobe's life that he is not in control of his own fate. Everything has gone brass ring for Kobe most of his life. He's won titles, All-Star Games—and now here is this situation that he cannot exert his will over. That has got to humble you a little bit."
And a humbled Kobe is, implausibly, a more fearsome Kobe. His fellow Lakers believe that he has discovered the real value of teammates, repeating the word sanctuary when asked about what basketball means to Bryant right now. While he may not connect with his teammates in the locker room, he can at least trust that they won't make his legal issues a topic of conversation. "Sure, he has to appreciate the guys more," says Fox. "When he's with us, he knows it's all basketball, none of that other stuff."
As if in gratitude, Kobe has been consistently delivering the ball to his teammates for dunks and open looks. Early in the first quarter of the Lakers' recent blowout of the Nets, for example, he snatched a defensive rebound 10 feet off the left baseline. Payton had released early and was already approaching the three-point arc downcourt. Bryant hesitated for a moment. His options were to fire the outlet or to dribble through the Nets' scattered defense, either of which would have most likely led to a bucket. For an instant, it looked as if he would put the ball on the floor. Instead, he lofted a pass that hit a streaking GP in stride for a layup.