Life Gets Up Close and Very Personal
This is the central irony of Kobe Bryant that has turned a charmed life into one besieged:
Seldom has someone insisted on privacy more while behaving in ways that guaranteed him less.
There are places we’re not supposed to go, but we’re continually being dragged into Bryant’s personal life, la vida Kobe, and finding out w-a-a-a-y more than we want to know.
This time it’s the split between Bryant and erstwhile friend-teammate Karl Malone -- and Malone’s announcement that he and the Lakers are through -- over what Bryant has said were inappropriate comments made by Malone to Bryant’s wife, Vanessa.
With Kobe and Vanessa, it always spills over into his career and has for five tumultuous years. The Lakers have not only been sucked into the tumult, they were reconfigured -- or put another way, all but destroyed.
Since Kobe met and became engaged to Vanessa Laine in the summer of 2000, he has split from everyone in his original inner circle -- parents, sisters, extended family and agent, not to mention Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson.
In 2000, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers had just won their first title. Bryant and O’Neal had had a confrontation or two but hadn’t begun feuding. Nor had Bryant expressed any dissatisfaction with Jackson.
The next season, 2000-01, however, Bryant came out shooting, saying he wanted to win his own most-valuable-player award. When Jackson tried to calm him down, he found Bryant unreceptive.
Bryant first mentioned leaving in an ESPN the Magazine piece, Jackson first started talking about trading him, and O’Neal started saying the big dog had to be fed ...
That was also the season Kobe’s parents, Joe and Pam, who lived a few doors down in Pacific Palisades and watched all the home games from their box atop the lower bowl behind the Laker bench, suddenly dropped out of sight.
Bryant had split with them in a dispute over marrying Vanessa, going as far as to insisting that his agent, Arn Tellem, fire one of his sisters, who worked in Tellem’s office. Bryant later told The Times’ Bill Plaschke his family had objected to Vanessa, a Latina, on racial grounds.
Bryant’s parents moved back to Philadelphia. He moved to Orange County, where Vanessa lived. They ultimately bought a $6-million house in Newport Beach and moved her mother into a $3-million house a few doors down.
Jackson thought his problems with Bryant were a spillover of Kobe’s problems with his parents. Jackson was frustrated enough to pass on some gossip -- about Kobe’s letting his high school games get close so he could take them over -- to a Chicago writer, who quoted him to that effect.
Bryant was so infuriated that Tellem wrote the Lakers two letters on legal letterhead, demanding an apology. Kobe got over it, but he never forgot.
It was Tellem who had first brought the 17-year-old Bryant to the attention of Laker General Manager Jerry West. West, a friend of Tellem, brought Bryant in for a workout as a favor. However, Tellem would now fall out of the picture too, for joining Bryant’s parents in urging him to get a prenuptial agreement.
Tellem was replaced by his associate, Rob Pelinka, who had seen what could happen and did what Bryant wanted.
Kobe and Vanessa were married in the spring of 2001 in a private ceremony attended by 12 people. None of the groom’s relatives or teammates was there. When the Orange County Register ran a short story reporting it, Bryant cursed at the writer.
Then, though, Kobe’s life seemed to settle down. To everyone’s amazement, he and O’Neal put away their feud during the 2001 playoffs. After the Lakers won Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals in San Antonio, Shaq called Bryant “my idol.”
To everyone’s further amazement, the truce held for the next two seasons, as the Lakers won their third consecutive title in 2002, before their run ended in 2003.
Nevertheless, there was more happening behind the scenes. In the fall of 2002, Pelinka notified Adidas, which had been Bryant’s prime endorser, that they wanted to terminate the contract. Kobe had been brought to Adidas by Sonny Vaccaro, another of his early mentors, the man who brought him to Tellem.
A source says Bryant paid Adidas $40 million to get out. Meanwhile, officials at other big-ticket partners, such as McDonald’s, began complaining that Kobe was becoming difficult.
The negotiations for Bryant’s new sneaker deal lasted through the 2002-03 season and set a new standard for acrimony. He wore several brands coyly and didn’t encourage inquiries.
Reebok officials complained privately that Pelinka was high-handed, and when they pulled out of the bidding, they took the unusual step of announcing it.
With Nike the only bidder left, it still took five months to make a deal, with that company’s officials complaining about Pelinka too.
The deal, announced shortly after the 2002-03 season, was for $40 million, about half of what Nike gave LeBron James. Youth was the prime attribute in the sneaker business and James was coming out of high school. Bryant, by comparison, was no longer a teen idol but a married man of 24, with a family.
Nevertheless, Bryant resented any suggestion that he’d lost cachet. After The Times’ news story about the Nike deal, a Laker official called Sports Editor Bill Dwyre on Bryant’s behalf, announcing Bryant’s displeasure and asking for a meeting.
Bryant, once so winning with the media, had long since withdrawn, dealing primarily with favorites such as ESPN’s Jim Gray. No Laker beat writer got a one-on-one interview after 2001.
Nor did Pelinka ever return calls. Bryant, obsessed with secrecy long before he was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault, wanted it that way. The result was that he was out of touch and his side of any issue didn’t get out.
In the summer of 2003, Bryant was arrested, denting even his ironclad armor. In the ensuing 2003-04 season, he split again with O’Neal and Jackson and made plans to leave.
Bryant might well have been better off going to the Clippers. They had the better supporting cast and leaving would have ended the perception that he’d run off O’Neal and Jackson.
Nevertheless, Jerry Buss turned him around. The extra $30 million the Lakers could offer might have mattered more, with big legal bills coming after buying two houses, a $4-million diamond and paying off Adidas.
Of course, with two players so young and entitled, it might be argued splitting up was the mistake Kobe (and Shaq) had to make, to see for themselves.
The problem for the Lakers is rebuilding around Bryant, with the tumult in his life continuing.
Bryant has begun acknowledging some “immaturity” on his part, but privately, he thinks bad luck or bad will on the part of Malone, O’Neal, Jackson, his accuser and the media, just to name five, brought him to this place. The truth is, he got himself here.
The latest scandal involving Malone, so recently his mentor, is like Bryant’s court case; each side will have its story, and we’ll never know what happened.
However, in the history of the NBA that will never be written, a lot has happened involving teammates and wives, but until last weekend, it never, ever, got on the record.
Bryant’s greatest strength is also his tragic flaw, that incredible confidence that makes him think he can do no wrong and allows him to set out so boldly in any direction.
Only he could compartmentalize so much and perform so well. As former teammate Ron Harper noted last season, anyone else would have been curled up on the couch, but Kobe was out starring in the NBA.
There was a time when O’Neal’s foibles were as much the problem as Bryant’s. Now, however, with everyone else gone, the criminal case over, Bryant being bashed as he never has and holing up as he never did, the craziness continues.
It remains to be seen whether Bryant has lost touch for good. It also remains to be seen whether the Lakers are rebuilding around him, enabling him or just happen to be along for the ride.
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