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My 12 years covering Kobe Bryant and moving in and out of his 'circle of trust'

My 12 years covering Kobe Bryant and moving in and out of his 'circle of trust'
Lakers All-Star Kobe Bryant, center, talks to reporters during a news conference leading up to the NBA All-Star game in Toronto. (Larry W. Smith / EPA)

The big delivery of newspapers was stacked neatly outside the hotel door.

It was October 2004, when the paper product was still more important than anything online, the assemblage of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and San Diego Union-Tribune obviously for someone well-read.

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The person in the suite might have skimmed over the Boston Red Sox's miraculous comeback attempt from a 3-0 series deficit to the New York Yankees.

But Kobe Bryant liked keeping an eye on what was being written about him, belying the notion that athletes didn't care what the media said. Bryant had no idea I was his neighbor, very coincidentally, at a resort hotel near the Lakers' training camp in San Diego that year.

We first met that month. He was almost defensive, smoldering from an on-court divorce with Shaquille O'Neal in which Lakers fans and the media mainly blamed him. He was determined to show he didn't need the 7-foot-1 monolith to keep appearing in the NBA Finals.

It was one of our first chats, actually.

The Lakers got off to a wobbly 3-4 start that season, the one in which Coach Rudy Tomjanovich lasted 43 games, and I started including a standard paragraph in practically every game story.

It was a template, really, and it showed the most important stats to Lakers fans after the final score: "Kobe Bryant scored xx points on xx-for-xx shooting."

He had a problem with this, especially with his declining accuracy on what would be a bad team, and asked me about it one day after practice.

"Why do you keep writing how many shots I miss?" he said.

I told him that readers wanted to know how much of a load he was forced to carry without O'Neal — and of equal importance, how successfully he was doing it.

"So make more shots," I added.

He was testing me, the new Lakers beat reporter for The Times, just like he would try to expose a rookie on the court.

Maybe I survived his probe because our working relationship was strong the first few years I covered the Lakers.

We talked a lot, actually, especially during his unhappy days in the spring of 2007.

The Lakers hadn't won a playoff series in three years without O'Neal and were recently eliminated without fanfare by the Phoenix Suns when I called him. He told me he was "waiting for them to make some changes," and by "them" he meant the Lakers' front office.

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The next day, The Times essentially came out with a special section detailing his unhappiness — my story and two others by Times columnists.

Within a few days, his discontent would deepen. On a Wednesday, he demanded to be traded on Stephen A. Smith's radio show, saying he'd rather "go play on Pluto" than return to the Lakers.

A few hours later, he appeared to recant with an apologetic, semi-soothing Vic "The Brick" Jacobs on local radio. Then he got on the phone with me and said that, actually, he still wanted to be traded.

Wild days indeed.

He turned cooler toward the media that fall, perhaps partly blaming The Times for its critical coverage of his trade demand. I found myself "outside the circle of trust," as Bryant liked to call it, a Robert De Niro reference from "Meet the Parents."

I'm pretty sure I never reentered it. It would take a while to count the number of scowls I've received from Bryant over the years, though, interestingly, he glowingly took credit for the Lakers' February 2008 acquisition of Pau Gasol, saying, "It takes pressure sometimes to make a diamond."

Topics that particularly annoyed him included his often unpredictable shot selection, his occasional drifts toward on-court inaccuracy (a lot less back then compared with the career-low he shot this season) and, of course, any Lakers playoff failures.

He could also be incredibly charming, even helpful, if in the right mood for his almost-daily interview session with reporters. He liked it when national reporters, especially those inside the circle of trust, appeared at Lakers games or practices.

It was funny when I broke the story about Bryant winning the 2007-2008 most valuable player award a few days before the official announcement.

When Bryant was emailed the story I posted online, a team dinner at a Melrose Ave. Italian eatery erupted in joy. The next morning, with the news still unconfirmed by the NBA, Bryant said the media usually got things wrong but hopefully got this one right. They did.

It was the only time the eternally gifted player won the MVP award.

During the Gasol era, getting a private interview with Bryant was like sitting down with a U.S. president. It rarely happened.

It didn't help that Bryant at best warily regarded The Times. In his eyes, I was the day-to-day annoyance standing there asking why he kept missing so many shots. Or why the Lakers lost to Charlotte. Or worse, Boston.

Times columnist Bill Plaschke, along with former columnists Mark Heisler and T.J. Simers, also had plenty of stops and starts with Bryant.

He finally started dropping his "Media = Enemy" mind-set last season. My first inkling of it happened at another hotel on the road, when we were both unexpectedly on the same floor in Memphis.

(I rarely stay where the Lakers do because my boss would not be happy with a litany of Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons receipts. Neither hotel is in Memphis and other small NBA towns, increasing the likelihood I'm occasionally at the same hotel as the team.)

Bryant seemed surprised when he and I boarded an elevator together a couple of hours before the Lakers played the Grizzlies. He recovered quickly and started asking about my daily routine — how often I filed stories, tweeted to followers, etc. He was already gathering information for his post-basketball career, which he hoped would include a website launch akin to Derek Jeter's theplayerstribune.com, of which Bryant was an original investor.

Along those lines, imagine my surprise last season when Bryant didn't glare at a reporter who asked whether his career was headed the way of Michael Jordan's — slow in the beginning, plenty of championships in the middle and rough at the end for team and player.

Bryant weighed the question, then said it was fair because it was "reachable content." He almost sounded like an editor.

Last November, I figured he probably wouldn't find a lengthy Times story I co-wrote with Broderick Turner to be under the same "reachable" category.

In more than 1,600 words, we detailed Bryant's sharply declining game since he sustained a torn Achilles' tendon at the end of the 2012-13 season. He was shooting a jarringly low 31.1% one month into this season, putting him dead last among 122 players who qualified for NBA stat-keeping with enough attempts. He was an equally alarming 19.5% from three-point range at the time.

The story included quotes from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, each of whom said it was time to call it a career.

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Two days after it appeared, however, Bryant playfully tapped me on the shoulder before a game in Portland. That night, after one of many Lakers losses, he espoused about the toll of two decades of the NBA on the human body.

He announced his retirement intentions the following day.

Since that Nov. 29 evening, Bryant has changed his attitude with the media. In the same way he routinely hugs opponents after games, he no longer views reporters as adversaries.

Bryant hasn't exactly filled his contractual obligations to meet with reporters before every game but has been humorous and insightful when he does talk.

It led me to think on many occasions, "Where was this side of Bryant all the other years I covered him?"

I'll never know. Only he does.

Follow Mike Bresnahan on Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

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