The scout has other things to say about Bryant. For example, on his weaknesses: "Um, let me think ... [long pause] ... No, I don't think he has any." On his athleticism: "There are probably 10 [with more] in the league"—he names Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and J.R. Smith as examples—"but no one uses his as well as Kobe. Just watch his footwork sometime." And on his focus: "There's a difference between loving basketball and liking basketball. There are only about 30 guys in the league who love it, who play year-round. Allen Iverson loves to play when the lights come on. Kobe loves doing the s--- before the lights come on."
This thing, this freakish compulsion, may be the hardest element of the game to quantify. There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player's ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he'll need therapy to recover. One thing's for sure: You can't teach it. If so, Eddy Curry would be All-NBA and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass. But people know it when they see it. G.M.'s, coaches and scouts cite only a few others who have a similar drive—Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginóbili, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Deron Williams—though they make clear that none of those stars are in Kobe's league. (In an SI poll earlier this season Bryant was a runaway winner as the opponent players feared most, at 35%.)
Even some of the great ones lacked it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that when he was young, rather than challenging everyone as Kobe does, he "just wanted peace." "I think it's a quirk of personality," says Abdul-Jabbar. "Some of us are like Napoleon, and some are Walter Mitty."
Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.
"If he's a ruthless s.o.b., I kind of respect that," says Ravin. "Why should he be passing up opportunities? Why pass it to a guy who doesn't work as hard, who doesn't want it like you do?"
Even now, every little challenge matters to Bryant. Here he is at the end of a practice last week. Each Laker has to take a free throw. Everybody hits his except Bryant, who rims one out. The only shooter left is Derek Fisher, who shot 88.3% from the line this season. Bryant stands to the side of the basket, fidgeting. As Fisher's shot arcs toward the rim, Bryant suddenly takes two quick steps and leaps to goaltend the attempt. "Of course," forward Lamar Odom says later, "he couldn't be the only one to miss."
So, you see, this is Kobe, all of this. Sometimes childish, sometimes regal, sometimes stubborn, always relentless. This is a guy who, according to Nike spokesperson KeJuan Wilkins, had the company shave a couple of millimeters off the bottom of his signature shoe because "in his mind that gave him a hundredth of a second better reaction time." A guy who has played the last three months with a torn ligament in the pinkie of his shooting hand. A guy who, says teammate Coby Karl, considers himself "an expert at fouling without getting called for it." (Watch how Bryant uses the back of his hand, not the front, to push off on defenders and a closed-fist forearm to exert leverage.) A guy who says of being guarded by the physical Bowen, "It'll be fun"—and actually means it. A guy who, no matter what he does, will never get the chance to play the one game he'd die for: Bryant versus Jordan, each in his prime. "There'd be blood on the floor by the end," says Winter, who has coached them both.
This is Kobe Bryant, age 29, in pursuit of his fourth NBA title. Even if it's hard for us to understand him, perhaps it's time that we appreciate him.