Bryant had already begun to coax teammates into staying late or coming in at odd hours so he could hone his skills. "We'd play games of one-on-one to 100," says Schwartz. "Sometimes he'd score 80 points before I got one basket. I think the best I ever did was to lose 100--12." Imagine the focus required to score 80 freakin' baskets before your opponent scores one. And Bryant's probably still pissed that Schwartz broke double digits.
It's 1996, and the Lakers call in Bryant, fresh off his senior prom—he took pop singer Brandy, you might recall—for a predraft workout at the Inglewood High gym. In attendance are G.M. Jerry West and two members of L.A.'s media relations staff, John Black and Raymond Ridder. Bryant is to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers guard and one of the premier defenders in NBA history. Cooper is 40 years old but still in great shape, wiry and long and stronger than the teenaged Bryant. The game is not even close. "It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him," says Ridder, now the Golden State Warriors' executive director of media relations. After 10 minutes West stands up. "That's it, I've seen enough," Ridder remembers West saying. "He's better than anyone we've got on the team right now. Let's go."
It would be a pattern: Bryant bearing down on players he once idolized. At Magic Johnson's summer charity game in 1998 he went after Orlando Magic star Penny Hardaway so hard—in a charity game—that Hardaway spent the fall telling people he couldn't wait to play the Lakers so he could go back at Bryant. And, more famously, Kobe attempted to go one-on-one against Jordan in the '98 All-Star Game, waving off a screen from Karl Malone. Take your pick-and-rolling butt out of here; I've got Jordan iso'd! That one didn't go over so well with the Mailman. "When young guys tell me to get out of the way," Malone said at the time, "that's a game I don't need to be in."
In Bryant's mind, however, no one is unbeatable. As a rookie with the Lakers, despite his coming straight out of high school, he approached Harris. "He said, 'Coach, if you just give me the ball and clear out, I can beat anybody in this league,'" recalls Harris. When that pitch didn't work, the 6'6" Bryant returned. "Then he'd say, 'Coach, I can post up anybody who's guarding me. If you just get me in there and clear it out, I can post up anybody.'" Harris chuckles. "I said, 'Kobe, I know you can, but right now you can't do it at a high enough rate for the team we have, and I'm not going to tell Shaquille O'Neal to get out of the way so you can do this.' Kobe didn't like it. He understood it, but in his heart he didn't accept it."
It is 2000, and Bryant is an All-Star and franchise player. Still, after guard Isaiah Rider signs as a free agent, Bryant repeatedly forces him to play one-on-one after practice—Bryant wins, of course—to reinforce his alpha alpha male status. When six-time All-Star guard Mitch Richmond arrives the next year, he gets the same. "He was the man, and he wanted us to know it," says Richmond. "He was never mean or personal about it, it's just how he was."
Not that Bryant never loses, but beat him at your own risk. Decline a rematch and ... well, that's not an option. "If you scored on him in practice or did something to embarrass him, he would just keep on challenging you and challenging you until you stayed after and played him so he could put his will on you and dominate you," says Shaw, Bryant's teammate from 1999 to 2003. This included not allowing players to leave the court. Literally. "He'd stand in our way and say, 'Nah, nah, we're gonna play. I want you to do that [move] again,'" Shaw says. "And you might be tired and say, 'Nah, I did it in practice.' But he was just relentless and persistent until finally you'd go play, and he'd go at you."
And just as he once did with Rob Schwartz, Bryant keeps NBA teammates after practice as guinea pigs. He unveils a spin move or a crossover or something else he has picked up watching tape and does it over and over and over. "The crazy thing about it is, he has the ability to put new elements in his game overnight," says George, a Laker from 1999 to 2006 and a frequent target of Kobe's requests. "He might say, 'Stay after and guard this move. Let me try it on you,' and he'll do it the next day in the game." George pauses to let this sink in. "Most of us, we'll try it alone, then we'll try it in practice, then in a scrimmage, and only then will we bring it out for a game. He'd do it the next day—and it would work."
It's 2003, and Bryant is getting worked up in an interview while talking about a variation on a move: a jab step-and-pause, where you sink deep, hesitate to let the defender relax and, instead of bringing the jab foot back, push off it. Soon enough, Bryant is out of his chair and using the reporter as a defender on the carpeted floor. Then he has the reporter trying the move. Some people are Star Wars nerds; Bryant is a basketball nerd. "I think Kobe's actually a little bit embarrassed by his love of basketball," says Downer. "People called him a loner, but it's just that basketball is all he wants to focus on. I think he's part of a dying breed that loves the game that way."
That's why Bryant gets so excited to meet kindred souls. Asked last week about Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Bryant's face lit up as he remembered the time he played for Pop. "I was really hoping he'd run us through one of those rigorous practices he does," said Bryant, who got his wish. By the way, Kobe was talking about practice for the '05 All-Star Game.
NOW IT'S 2008, the Western Conference finals. Bryant is finally where he wants to be: an MVP playing on his team, no behemoth Hall of Famer to get in the way of post-ups, within reach of a title. He is also, by almost all accounts, the best player in the league. "It's not even close," says one Western Conference scout. "The difference between him and LeBron [James] is like [the one between] a Maserati and a Volvo."