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The Great Unknown
Jack McCallum and L. Jon Wertheim
April 17, 2006
Ten seasons into a certain Hall of Fame career, Kobe Bryant remains, to teammates and opponents, admirers and haters, as big a mystery as ever
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April 17, 2006

The Great Unknown

Ten seasons into a certain Hall of Fame career, Kobe Bryant remains, to teammates and opponents, admirers and haters, as big a mystery as ever

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I. THE IMAGE

Some people´┐Żare going to like me, some people aren't going to like me," Kobe Bryant is saying after a practice at the Lakers' El Segundo training facility in late March. "The people who don't, just have to understand who I truly am, and that can only happen through time. That's why you don't see me doing talk shows and things like that."

Opponents who marveled at Bryant's ability to compartmentalize his life while facing charges for felony sexual assault of an employee at a luxury hotel in Eagle, Colo., in 2003--he would fly to Eagle in the morning for proceedings in the case, then play an outstanding game in Los Angeles that night--say he has become an even more steely-eyed assassin since his legal difficulties. "It's like he's paying everybody back," says Portland Trail Blazers guard Sebastian Telfair. "It's like he's thinking, The best way for me to get my image back is to go out there and kill everybody. He wants to, like, murder you."

Were you expecting a chastened, contrite post-Eagle Kobe? Bryant is adamant in his assertion that there is not--and never will be--a charm campaign to mend his image. The Lakers didn't do anything official to try to restore Bryant as an icon to the denizens of Staples Center, no meet-and-greets with season-ticket holders, no orchestrated interviews with Oprah or Ed Bradley. "Kobe's approach was: Let's have it be real, professional on and off the court; handle yourself the right way, every day," says John Black, the Lakers' director of public relations. "And, over time, people will respect that."

NBA commissioner David Stern recalls the pleas for Bryant to be suspended even after the sexual-assault charges against him were dropped. "That is not the American way," says Stern, who adds that "it's clear that Kobe hasn't made this into a case of either rehabilitation or image management. It's Kobe being Kobe."

Even before Eagle, Bryant's image was that of a loner, a fierce individualist who didn't connect with his teammates or the public at large. Though several people close to him bemoan his lack of a common touch, Bryant disputes his portrayal. "I never was as lonely and solitary as people thought," he says. "When I first came [into the NBA] I didn't know much about anything. So I kind of sheltered myself off. But I was 17 when I got here. Seventeen! It was hard figuring out who I was."

Bryant's claims to the contrary, there are signs that he cares about refurbishing his image, at least in select forums. Earlier this year he wrote a first person article for Dime, the hoops fanzine, addressing a wide range of issues. Most revealing were his observations about his relationship with the black community. "I never felt like I deserved to be part of our tradition because I grew up overseas, in Italy," he wrote. "... I never truly believed that my own people wanted to identify with me."

As the editors wrote in an explanatory note in the front of the magazine, "This story was important to Kobe; he viewed it as an opportunity to communicate unfiltered and uncensored with the public."

The article, of course, was a no-risk proposition, Bryant calling the shots, leaving little--potentially unpleasant lines of inquiry, follow-up questions, unflattering photos--to the control of others. There was no mention of the Colorado incident nor his role in splintering the Lakers and their run at a dynasty.

II. THE PLAYER

For all the contradictions swirling about him, there is this unassailable truth: Bryant is the game's best all-around player. And according to many, including Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, he's getting better. "If you want to find a player to build around, he's probably it," says McMillan. "He's got great size for a guard, he's pretty impossible to defend, and he is hard to score against when he hunkers down on defense."

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