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 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."
It's 1996, and the Lakers call in Bryant 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 teenage 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 public 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. In the 1998 All-Star Game Kobe attempted to go one-on-one against Jordan, waving off a screen from Karl Malone. 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 to Harris. "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 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 through 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."
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 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."
NOW IT'S 2009. BRYANT IS FINALLY WHERE he wants to be: a onetime MVP playing on his team, no behemoth to get in the way of post-ups. He is also, by most accounts, the best player of his era. "Only two guys should be mentioned in the same breath, and those are Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan," says one Western Conference scout. "I know people, like our coach, who think he's better than Jordan."
"Mike couldn't handle the ball like Kobe and had nowhere near his range," says the scout, aware he's trafficking in basketball blasphemy. "Defensively, he's just as good. Not as strong as Michael, but he has faster feet."