I. THE IMAGE
people�are 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,
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."
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
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
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."