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The boy who once dreamed of becoming his father has moved on to other goals. On a rainy March evening 8,000 miles from Bangkok, Kobe Bryant arrives at Oracle Arena in Oakland at 5:15, more than two hours before the Lakers' tip-off against the Warriors and before all but a couple of teammates.
Now in his 16th NBA season, Bryant has defied all the critics—the ones who said he was merely a Michael Jordan clone, that he couldn't win without Shaquille O'Neal, that he was too selfish to be a leader. At 33 he stands behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain in career NBA points. He is also at the beginning of the end, even if he refuses to admit it. There are too many miles on his body, too few leaps left in those legs, too many talented young players in the league. This season Bryant played heroically for the Lakers, putting together a near-MVP campaign and carrying the team to the third seed in the West. But he also appeared fallible far more often than before. His shooting percentage, 43.0, was the lowest since his second year; his turnovers were up, to 3.52 per game; and, most concerning, he faltered in the clutch. Of the crunch-time shots Bryant took this season, he made only 32.7%, and 21.4% from three-point range.
There is little Kobe could have done, at least physically, to prevent this decline. No player in NBA history has worked harder or longer to maintain his excellence. Kobe has taken a monomaniacal approach to the game, forgoing hobbies, camaraderie and close friendships to focus on his basketball goals. Even now Lakers staffers say they never know when they might find Bryant working out: at 4 a.m., at 11 p.m., before shootarounds. He travels with his own trainer, Tim Grover, and he persuaded the team to hire his longtime physical therapist, Judy Seto, so he could receive treatment at all hours. When the Lakers held a Super Bowl party in February at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, all but one of the players relaxed and watched the game. Bryant sat in a corner with his ankle in a bucket of ice and directed Seto as she worked on his limbs. In Bryant's world the clock is always ticking.
That's why he has arrived early on this night and is methodically practicing jumpers, his businesslike expression never changing. Four hours later, when the Lakers are struggling in the fourth quarter, Bryant will catch the ball at the top of the key with just over a minute left and his team down by two to the lottery-bound Warriors. Dribbling left, Bryant will draw a double team, but instead of passing he will keep going, into the teeth of the defense. Then he will leap off two feet and fade away, launching a low-percentage, high-arcing jumper. It will go in. On the next possession he will do the same thing, from the same spot, with the same result, helping lead L.A. to a 104--101 victory.
And with that he will scowl his Kobe scowl, and the crowd will erupt, for Bryant has reached the stage in which people go to games just to say that they saw him in his prime, the way they did with Michael. They bring their kids and point out the graceful man with the purple armband and the egg-shaped head, and they hope that he will make a signature late-game shot—one that is both irresponsible and iconic—because that is the promise he has made to them, the one his father never could: He will win no matter the cost.
In Bangkok it is nearing tip-off when Cobras starting forward Gentry Lewis is approached by Pam Bryant, Joe's wife. In her sixth decade, Pam remains striking: tall, with long black hair, high cheekbones and a regal bearing. She holds out a cellphone to Lewis. "It's Kobe," she says.
Lewis looks surprised. He puts the phone to his ear, and indeed, it is Kobe on the other end. He's heard that Lewis has been struggling. "Go out there and kick ass tonight," Kobe says. "Do what you do and have a good time, but remember: It's time to step up to the f------ plate."
Four hours later, after the Cobras have squeaked out a 79--74 win, Lewis recounts the phone call while sitting across the bar from Joe and Pam at the Roadhouse Barbecue bar and restaurant, a three-story haven for expats not far from Patpong, Bangkok's famous red-light district. Pam listens and nods, then joins the conversation. "It was 10 p.m. where Kobe was, and guess what he was doing?" she asks, incredulous. "Working out!" She shakes her head, unable to hide her pride.
Joe works on some nachos, pulls on a pint of Chang beer and smiles his gap-toothed smile. He is here because the team is having a postgame meet-and-greet with fans. There is only one problem: Even though the Cobras announced the Roadhouse event during the game, offered free appetizers and printed the info on the back of the (free) tickets, none of the few hundred fans at the game have shown up. In a corner sits the team's part-owner, a nervous Texan named Tom Griffin. Nearby, the president of Thailand's basketball association, Khun Surasak Chinawatana, a revered former Thai player and coach, sits quietly, looking disappointed.
Eventually the players wander over to a pool table. They coerce Jellybean into joining them. "Ain't played in 10 years," he protests. Playing against the Cobras' two guard, Martin Cruz, Bryant falls behind six balls to one. Then he embarks on an epic run. Finally he has only the 8 ball left, lined up for the corner pocket. He pauses, then raises his lanky frame from the table and shakes his head.