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THE FIRE INSIDE
Chris Ballard
June 25, 2009
TO UNDERSTAND KOBE BRYANT, ONE MUST FIRST LEARN THAT NO ONE DESIRES TO WIN AS BADLY AS HE DOES
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June 25, 2009

The Fire Inside

TO UNDERSTAND KOBE BRYANT, ONE MUST FIRST LEARN THAT NO ONE DESIRES TO WIN AS BADLY AS HE DOES

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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." 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. But people know it when they see it. G.M.'s, coaches and scouts cite 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.

Every little challenge matters to Bryant. At the end of a practice in May 2008, each Laker had to take a free throw. Everybody hit his except Bryant, who rimmed one out. The only shooter left was Derek Fisher, who shot 88.3% from the line that season. Bryant stood to the side of the basket, fidgeting. As Fisher's shot arched toward the rim, Bryant suddenly took two quick steps and leaped to goaltend the attempt. "Of course," forward Lamar Odom said later, "he couldn't be the only one to miss."

So, you see, this is Kobe. 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 shoe because "in his mind that gave him a hundredth of a second better reaction time." 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: himself 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 30, now in possession of his fourth NBA title. Even if it's hard for us to understand him, perhaps it's time that we appreciate him.

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