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A GREAT MOMENT IN HUMILITY it was not. ¶ After scoring 25 of his 27 points in the second half of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals last week against the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant said of his strong finishing kick, "I can get off"—that is, score at will—"at any time. In the second half I did that." ¶ Granted, Bryant was just being honest, but tact would dictate that he let others say such things about him. As you may have noticed, though, Bryant isn't big on tact. Time and again over the last decade he has announced the particulars of his awesomeness. As teammate Luke Walton dryly puts it, "Kobe does not lack for confidence."
Just as Bryant's bravado irks some—O.K., many—it also makes him riveting to watch when he does get off: Like the man himself, the manner in which he bears down is never subtle. Spurs forward Bruce Bowen, Bryant's foil these many years, says there's no indicator of an impending scoring binge, joking that you can't tell "by the way he chews his gum or something." But that's not true at all. Rather, his eruptions are almost comically predictable. Former teammate Devean George, now with the Dallas Mavericks, speaks of "that Kobe face where he starts looking around all pissed off." His coach at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., Gregg Downer, says he can recognize this expression even on TV. In these moments Bryant's youthful impudence, which flummoxed Del Harris when he was L.A.'s coach during Bryant's first two years in the league, resurfaces. "Kobe would put it on the floor and start going between his legs, back and forth, back and forth," says Harris, "and only then would he decide what to do."
So there was Kobe on May 21, with the Lakers down 20 in the third quarter and the L.A. crowd starting to boo, whipping the ball between his legs and shaking his noggin at Bowen like some enormous, ticked-off bobblehead. What followed seemed, in retrospect, inevitable: the deep jumpers, the twisting drives, the scowls and, finally, a cold-blooded Bryant pull-up in the lane with 23.9 seconds left to cap the 89--85 comeback win. Watching him manhandle the game, you could feel the series tilting westward, and indeed the Lakers were up two games to one after a 101--71 blowout last Friday and a 103--84 loss in Game 3 on Sunday.
Call it what you will: killer instinct, competitive fire, hatred of losing or, as Boston Celtics reserve guard Sam Cassell once said, "that Jordan thing." It's what has spurred Bryant all these years, what the Lakers will rely on if they are to win their first post-Shaq championship, what separates Kobe from the rest of the NBA. In 2002 Bryant said, "There's only two real killers in this league," meaning himself and Michael Jordan. Well, now there is only one. And it ain't Fabricio Oberto.
Because Kobe is Kobe, however, he cannot (or will not) soften his edge, the way Jordan did with his buddy-buddy NBA friendships, his who-would-have-thunk smirk or his endorsa-riffic smile. With Bryant, it manifests itself during practice, during games, during summer workouts, during conversation. Even in his dreams he is probably swatting a Connie Hawkins finger roll into the third row. "He can't turn it off, even if he tried," says George, one of a handful of NBA players relatively close to Bryant. And for that Kobe has often been pilloried. But is this really fair? "Kobe wants it so badly that he rubs an awful lot of people the wrong way," says Lakers consultant Tex Winter, the guru of the triangle offense, who has known Bryant since 1999. "But they're not willing to understand what's inside the guy."
O.K., then, let's try to understand. Starting at the beginning, moment by basketball moment.
IT'S 1989, and Bryant is 11 years old and living in Italy, where his father, Joe, is playing professional basketball. One day Kobe bugs Brian Shaw, a Boston Celtics first-round pick playing in Rome because of a contract dispute, to go one-on-one. Eventually Shaw agrees to a game of H-O-R-S-E. "To this day Kobe claims he beat me," says Shaw, now a Lakers assistant. "I'm like, Right, [I'm really trying to beat] an 11-year-old kid. But he's serious." Even back then Shaw noticed something different. "His dad was a good player, but he was the opposite of Kobe, real laid-back," says Shaw. "Kobe was out there challenging grown men to play one-on-one, and he really thought he could win."
It's early 1992, and Bryant is an eighth-grader in the suburbs of Philadelphia, skinny as an unfurled paper clip. He is playing against the Lower Merion varsity in an informal scrimmage. The older teens are taken aback. "Here's this kid, and he has no fear of us at all," says Doug Young, then a sophomore. "He's throwing elbows, setting hard screens." Bryant was not the best player on the floor that day—not yet—but he was close.
It's 1995, and Bryant is the senior leader of the Lower Merion team, obsessed with winning a state championship. He comes to the gym at 5 a.m. to work out before school, stays until 7 p.m. afterward. It's all part of the plan. When the Aces lost in the playoffs the previous spring, Bryant stood in the locker room, interrupting the seniors as they hugged each other, and all but guaranteed a title, adding, "The work starts now." (Bryant remains so amped about his alma mater that when he taped a video message for the team a few years ago, it contained few of the usual platitudes and instead had Bryant reeling off a bunch of expletives and exhorting the boys to "take care of f------ business!")
During the Kobe era at Lower Merion no moment was inconsequential, no drill unworthy of ultimate concentration. In one practice during his senior year, "just a random Tuesday," as coach Downer recalls, Bryant was engaged in a three-on-three drill in a game to 10. One of his teammates was Rob Schwartz, a 5'7" junior benchwarmer. With the game tied at nine, Schwartz had an opening, drove to the basket and missed, allowing the other side to score and win. "Now, most kids go to the water fountain and move on," says Downer. Not Bryant. He chased Schwartz into the hallway and berated him. It didn't stop there, either. "Ever get the feeling someone is staring at you—you don't have to look at them, but you know it?" says Schwartz. "I felt his eyes on me for the next 20 minutes. It was like, by losing that drill, I'd lost us the state championship."