LOS ANGELES — What's he really like?
That kind of question is the entire premise of the paparazzi and the springboard for all of reality television.
We live in an era when we demand more inside information than ever about the rich and famous, yet someone who has been one of the world's most prominent figures for nearly two decades amid feuds, scandals, success and championships still seems something of a mystery.
Sometimes the smallest moments in time can be the most revealing.
With Kobe Bryant's 19th Los Angeles Lakers training camp about a month away, here are 19 little-known slices of Bryant's NBA life to convey how the man matches up with the mythical machine—and how he so totally does not...
Gary Vitti, the Los Angeles Lakers' athletic trainer for 30 years, has been with Bryant the whole way. And what Vitti remembers most from the night Bryant tore his Achilles in April of 2013 is something mental, not physical.
After Bryant tries to pull the ruptured tendon back up as if it were just some loose sock, focuses enough to sink the free throws and makes the long walk under his own power offstage to the privacy of the nearly empty locker room, the frustration and confusion need an outlet.
Bryant starts throwing things around the room. Vitti diagnoses something even more shocking.
"I see for the first time an element of doubt in Kobe's eyes," Vitti recalled. "It didn't last long."
That's because Bryant's wife, Vanessa, has brought their daughters into the room. Natalia and Gianna are concerned—and Kobe prides himself on the example he sets for them.
He blitzes through the remaining stages of grief, not wanting them to grieve. He hugs them and comforts them.
And he asks in a tone of business as usual, not fear or despair, for his daughters to hear: "What do I have to do to get back?"
No one has seen Bryant shake off more pain than Vitti, but this was different.
"The soft spot that nobody sees in Kobe Bryant," as Vitti later describes how Bryant melts with kids, especially his own, is what fuels him on the worst night of his career.
Bryant has just won his first Olympic gold medal. He is thrilled. Amid the celebration, Bryant runs into Lisa Leslie, and plans are made for a happy photo—until Bryant notices Leslie doesn't have her gold medal on her.
The U.S. women's basketball team won its gold medal the previous night of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Leslie didn't want to wear it out to the men's final.
In fact, Leslie has won four consecutive gold medals, as Bryant is fully aware. So he says: "There's no way I can stand here with my gold medal if she's not wearing one in the picture."
He takes his gold medal off.
And with that gesture, the photo of Bryant and Leslie becomes a true portrait of him, not just another snapshot of him in a winning moment.
It is July 12, 1996, the day Bryant is officially introduced as a Laker. He has a thin little mustache on his face, a gold bracelet around his right wrist, a suit and matching tie clashing with the purple and white Lakers cap on his head.
He's a kid trying to look like a grown man, except when Jeanie Buss fills in for her vacationing father and has lunch with Bryant at the Forum Club after the press conference, something unexpected happens.
The waiter comes to take their order. Bryant proceeds to mention to him that he wants to learn Spanish. Bryant says that it's a goal he has set for himself now that he's moving to L.A.
(Today, it is common to see Bryant conduct a full interview in Spanish.)
It's an offhand little comment on his first day of work, and Spanish is certainly easier to learn if you already know Italian, but it's something Bryant's future boss will never forget.
"I was so taken by that comment, for a 17-year-old kid to set a goal like that for himself," Buss said. "He just got signed by the Lakers, and he was setting goals for himself that most wouldn't think were important. To me, he has always been about the next challenge. To me, that's why he's so inspiring."
It's April 2001, and Bryant is granting a child's wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. This is hardly the first time. There will be perhaps 200 sick kids he meets overall, but this is Darius' night. Darius is 11, loves basketball, wears huge glasses and is very small for his age.
He asks Bryant all his prepared questions in a small, private room at Staples Center—then pauses and says softly that he has one more question. This is not uncommon in these meetings, shy kids warming up fast when a welcoming Bryant keeps his promise to answer with complete honesty (for example, admitting he's only 6'5" with sneakers on or revealing his post-basketball Kobe Inc., business plans and passions).
"What did you do when you were little and kids would make fun of you?" Darius asks, going off script.
Bryant answers: "I wouldn't listen to them. I would just focus on getting good grades—and show them on the basketball court."
The 2005 season has not gone well. Shaquille O'Neal is gone, the Lakers are struggling, and the criticism of Bryant is mounting.
Bryant sits alone with John Black, who runs the Lakers' public relations department.
Bryant: "What are all these motherf-----s going to say when I lead this team to a championship?"
Black: "They're going to say you're one of the greatest players of all time."
Bryant has won the post-Shaq title he wanted in '09, and now it's a year later and Bryant hopes to redeem the Lakers' '08 loss to Boston in the Finals and beat the Celtics in the '10 championship series.
The teams split the first two games in Los Angeles, and before Game 3 in Boston, Lakers massage therapist Marko Yrjovuori brings his four-year-old daughter into the visiting locker room for a moment.
Bryant spots Emma. He asks her to sit on his lap.
"Gimme some magic," he says, stretching his fingers toward her.
She opens up and touches his hands.
Final score: Lakers 91, Celtics 84.
Bryant: 29 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals.
With a brutal seven-game victory over the Celtics in the bank for Bryant, the 2010 offseason is dominated by LeBron James' decision to leave Cleveland for Miami.
What matters to Bryant is Phil Jackson agreeing to return to coach the Lakers again in pursuit of a third consecutive NBA title. Bryant sends James a text message. It goes like this:
"Go ahead and get another MVP, if you want. And find the city you want to live in. But we're going to win the championship. Don't worry about it."
Bryant has broken his nose and will be diagnosed with a concussion from a blow to the face delivered by Dwyane Wade in the 2012 All-Star Game. (Bryant makes both those free throws, too, by the way.)
He finishes the game, a three-point Western Conference victory, and breaks Michael Jordan's career All-Star scoring record. Bryant feels bad enough, though, that he skips the postgame media session.
Before leaving Orlando's Amway Center, getting more treatment and taking a long flight home, Bryant has one stop to make: seeing Wade, who had hit Bryant from behind upon being blown by on a third-quarter spin move. The moment is recounted in the book Relentless by Tim Grover, trainer to both Bryant and Wade:
"Kobe wanted to see him face-to-face before he'd go to the hospital. It wasn't about vengeance or retaliation or settling the score. It was about the law and order of the jungle, two animals instinctively facing off, the lion king getting up on that rock so the rest of the jungle could see who was in charge. One direct, silent look that says, 'I still own this, motherf----r.'"
Chris Douglas-Roberts of the Charlotte Bobcats has lost a 2014 first-round playoff game to the Miami Heat. Douglas-Roberts has played a lot and played well in the losing effort. It's one of the high points in his individual career.
The guy spent pretty much all of '13 without a job, but he latched on in Charlotte after a series of injuries to others. He seized the opportunity and helped the Bobcats finish the regular season 20-9, becoming one of the team's go-to guys at crunch time.
Less than two years before, Douglas-Roberts was briefly a Laker, trying and failing to make the team at training camp in '12. More than gaining a roster spot, the experience meant mostly bonding with Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
But Douglas-Roberts made an impression on Lakers assistant coach Steve Clifford, who went on to be the head coach in Charlotte. He also caught the attention of his temporary teammate Bryant, who appreciated Douglas-Roberts' tenacity and determination to improve—and openly offered secrets to success.
As he vies against James, Wade and the Heat, Douglas-Roberts has Bryant on his mind…and gratitude in his heart.
Douglas-Roberts sends a text, and the point is simple:
When someone has as much confidence as Bryant and shares some of it, what a boost it is to the other person's confidence.
Bryant is bored in Minnesota in the middle of the day.
He wears a hoodie to keep a low profile and sets out to walk through the Skyway, the system of indoor catwalks connecting the buildings in usually freezing downtown Minneapolis.
Bryant is nearing the team hotel when a woman inside one of the stores spots Bryant from afar. She is probably more than 250 pounds and begins racing out of the store toward Bryant.
"Kobe! Kobe Bryant!" she screams as she sprints.
Except she trips. She goes down.
When she gets up, blood is pouring out of her nose and covering her face. Bryant asks, "Are you OK?"
She is red-faced, but not really.
There can be no pain. There is even less embarrassment.
"Kobe! Kobe Bryant! You're my favorite player! Can I get a picture?!"
It is the second round of the 2009 playoffs. The Lakers have just played a Sunday afternoon game in Houston.
John Ireland, now the team's radio voice but then a TV sideline reporter, does some live postgame shots at Toyota Center. By the time he returns to the team hotel across the street, a lot of the players are hanging out at the hotel lobby bar.
Bryant: "Hey, John. You want a beer?"
Ireland: "Thanks, but you don't have to buy me a beer."
Bryant smirks and points down at 17 beers—all open, all untouched.
People have been buying him beers for the past two hours.
The Lakers have returned from a road trip, and the players, coaches, staffers and broadcast crew fan out from the plane to their cars for separate drives home. Bill Macdonald, the Lakers' TV voice, lives in Newport Coast in South Orange County, like Bryant. On a typical drive home from LAX, Macdonald will see Bryant's car blaze past him—invariably, unapologetically.
On this day in 2012 after an afternoon game at Staples Center, Macdonald is heading home and notices a familiar white Bentley momentarily slowed in a different lane of freeway traffic. Macdonald passes Bryant's car for a change, but before he does, he looks directly over with eyes wide and offers up to Bryant a friendly greeting with a certain part of his hand.
Bryant throws his head back in laughter at the turn of events, gives a nod of recognition…and it is on.
Somewhere around Fountain Valley, the cat leaves the mouse behind, as usual.
The attention has begun in earnest. Sports Illustrated, 60 Minutes, everything under the All-Star 1997 sun. Bryant's fame has erupted in his second NBA season, much to the consternation of Lakers vice president Jerry West and coach Del Harris.
West and Harris want Bryant to turn most of it down and not build additional pressure on him.
In his role as the PR guy, Black asks what Bryant wants to do.
"Bring it on," Bryant says. "I'll do it all. Anything and everything. I can handle it."
It is 2012, and Bryant is the oldest player on a U.S. Olympic basketball team that will repeat and win gold in London.
The young stars have taken to calling Bryant "O.G."
Asked if he has anything to learn from the younger guys, Bryant says nope. Asked if that means he knows everything, Bryant says: "I don't know if I know it all. But I know more than they do."
Bryant has recently completed a 2010-11 season he will call "a wasted year of my life." The Lakers don't three-peat as NBA champions, and much of Bryant's anger is focused on the post-surgery, pre-blood-spinning-procedure right knee that keeps him tied to the training table.
Judy Seto, the physical therapist who has meant so much to Bryant in his career, is over at Bryant's home in the offseason to work on the knee.
Bryant's daughters are not in the mood for such seriousness.
Natalia, 8, and Gianna, 5, are bouncing around their father's workout area, doing gymnastics, climbing on him while he gets treatment, hooting and chirping.
They find a miniature cowboy hat that is so small it might well belong to a Woody doll from Toy Story or serve as a child's costume.
The girls put the tiny cowboy hat on Kobe's head.
Of course, it doesn't fit. Which just makes it more fun for them.
Kobe just sits there, letting them stay in the moment. Bryant looks so silly that the words actually run through Seto's head.
You are Kobe. You're the Black Mamba. You're supposed to be the scary, death stare guy.
The moment sticks with Seto.
"It was him being just like any other parent," Seto recalls. "And it's so great to see how much he loves his family, how engaged he is, how he makes them a priority. I don't think people realize that about him.
"He can switch gears. The side of him that people always see is unapproachable or really, really fierce. There is a time and a place for that part. There's also a time and a place for him to be a parent and to be just as goofy as anybody else."
Although Bryant basically hasn't seen a need to read books anymore after high school, he has surprised a group of fifth-graders by showing up at a 2003 community event that rewarded the kids for reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a private screening of the movie by the same name.
No one asks if he's read it and deserves to stay and watch with them.
As he has always loved the special challenges of superhero stories, Bryant loves the Harry Potter movies—until Seto starts needling him.
Needling him about how far behind he is in the plot because the movies are two volumes behind the book releases. About how much more happens in the books than in the movies. About how she is going to tell him who turns evil and who dies before the movies can come out for him to see.
So Bryant goes from never reading to plowing through these 700-page Harry Potter beasts by J.K. Rowling. (Bryant even chooses an interesting escape from the Lakers' 24-point blown lead in Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals: reading five chapters of Harry Potter to his daughters.)
Bryant's rekindled reading in 2006 means in that sense he stands on Jackson's welcome mat for the first time. Someone who once prided himself on throwing Jackson's books in the trash at the coach's famous team gift-givings without even breaking the spines, Bryant finds he and Jackson are on literally the same page, reading Thomas Friedman's globalization book The World is Flat at the same time.
Jackson jumps at the chance and winds up feeding Bryant book after book on leadership, including Jerry Lynch's The Way of the Champion: Lessons from Sun Tzu's The Art of War and other Tao Wisdom for Sports & Life.
Bryant devours the books and the lessons, and when asked in the '07 playoffs why he no longer spews the same venom toward Phoenix's Raja Bell as just one year prior, Bryant answers:
"I read a book this summer from Mr. Phil Jackson that talked about warriors respecting other warriors. If you have respect for your opponent, the thing that you have to do is play hard every time down. That gave me a new perspective on things."
Bryant is on the trip, though 10 days away from his highly anticipated season debut, and hears nothing is planned for the holiday. Bryant says that's B.S.
Soon enough, every member of the Lakers' traveling party, from D'Antoni down to the broadcast production crew, gets a message to meet in the ballroom. A massive Thanksgiving spread, planned and paid for by Bryant, awaits.
There's a Ping-Pong table in the room, and Bryant passes some time after dinner mocking whoever has the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a certain Spanish octopus-windmill named Pau.
When Bryant has a choice word for Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell while he's playing against Shawne Williams, Trudell tells Bryant he'd be happy to beat him next.
It doesn't take another word. In comes Bryant against Trudell, who is emboldened by having a Ping-Pong table in his house growing up and takes a quick 5-1 lead. Bryant tries to talk his way through it.
After every point Bryant loses, he spits out: "S--t," under his breath. Then, more loudly, "F--k you, Trudell." Then a snicker, the short kind that doesn't resonate, because Bryant is not just blowing this off. He's not going through the motions.
Trudell keeps preying on Bryant's weak backhand, however. Bryant keeps cursing and keeps losing. Someone has called next, but when the game ends, Bryant doesn't budge.
"No," he says. "Let's go again, Trudell. F--k you."
Bryant is better in the second game. He makes adjustments.
Still not good enough.
Despite all that trash talk and throwing the paddle down at game's end, he's not a sore loser, even to the 5'9" guy whose job is to do walk-off interviews celebrating him.
Even as it ends, Trudell isn't sure it's quite over. There's a look in Bryant's eye that says: OK. But whether tomorrow or next year or the day that I die, I am going to beat you.
Within the week, word reaches Trudell.
Bryant has ordered an official Olympic Ping-Pong table to be delivered to his house.
Shaq and D-Wade are about to win the 2006 NBA title together for the Miami Heat. Kobe has some time on his hands.
He is told that there is a "wish kid" who wants to meet him but is too ill to fly from Las Vegas to L.A. Bryant tells the Make-a-Wish Foundation that he will just go to the kid.
Juan Carlos is not really a kid. He has a girlfriend there in his hospital room, along with his parents and siblings. He is 17, the very same age as that beaming, brash Bryant who wore his sunglasses propped up on his head inside the Lower Merion High School gym and announced he was skipping college to "take my talent to the NBA."
Juan Carlos hasn't gotten out of bed for a very long time, much less gone outside for any sun. But when he compliments Bryant on the cool shades he is wearing on this day, Bryant hands his sunglasses over as a gift.
Juan Carlos brightens. In return, and using the burst of energy Bryant has brought him, Juan Carlos surprises the hospital staff:
He shows Bryant he can walk.
Two weeks later, Juan Carlos passes away.
It is January 22, 2006.
Eighty. One. Points.
Afterward, Bryant is asked about perhaps scoring 100 points in a game. He laughs a little, but not a lot.
Quietly and honestly, he answers:
"I guess it's possible for me."
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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