Where have you gone, Kobe Bryant?
Eight years and so many adventures and misadventures later, it’s hard to remember him as the Golden Child when he was 17 and Laker, Clipper and Phoenix Sun officials all called his workouts the best they’d ever seen.
He was poised and well-mannered. He handled a press schedule as heavy as Magic Johnson’s so gracefully, everyone said the same thing: Don’t ever change.
At 19, Bryant dueled Michael Jordan in the 1998 All-Star game, taking eight shots in his first 11 touches and starting a veterans’ backlash.
The Lakers were aghast, but everyone else thought it was good clean fun. As NBC boss Dick Ebersol noted: “Promoting Kobe is no different than what we were doing promoting Michael in 1990. Business is business.”
Two weeks later, a league official showed up in the Forum and was asked about hyping Bryant.
Sighed the official: “Wasn’t he great?”
No one ever changed more than Bryant, which was inevitable. No NBA star ever took a fall like his, which wasn’t inevitable but is hardly uncommon in the age of the teenage idol.
Sonny Vacarro, the sneaker maven who signed Bryant for Adidas, fell out of orbit along with several other original mentors. Now Vacarro compares him to the Yankees’ Derek Jeter when he thinks what could have been.
“Jeter’s lovable,” Vacarro says. “He comes through in the clutch. Nobody doesn’t like Derek Jeter. Kobe would have had his face on Mt. Rushmore, if he stayed who he was at 17.”
Bryant wasn’t the only Laker diva. Shaquille O’Neal didn’t come here to share the stage and hinted for years about going back to Orlando. Phil Jackson had a love/hate thing with fame and mused annually that his players might no longer want him to coach them, which was another way of saying he might not want to coach them.
Each was OK with leaving the other two. It came down to who was courted, who was told to take a hike, whose feelings were hurt and who was left to face the music.
Nevertheless, if Bryant’s not in a happy place, he’s the one who got himself here, not Jackson, O’Neal or the press.
Once poised and low-key, Bryant is imperious and edgy. He’s still enough of a stand-up guy to talk after every game, but his ease and grace with the media are gone. He bristles at tough questions and sometimes cuts the session short.
In Friday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, he got into an argument with Tim Duncan, with whom he was always friendly. Duncan thought Bryant threw an elbow. Bryant thought Duncan was gloating about beating on them.
Asked about it later, Bryant asked, “That’s your first question?”
Of course, if you don’t want to be asked about arguing with opponents, you shouldn’t be arguing with opponents.
Laker staffers say he’s better with this team. The game and his family remain Bryant’s refuges, but the problem is that he still needs refuges.
In a cautionary tale for the young and gifted, his life has been tumultuous for years.
He was still living at home in his first two seasons, like Ricky Nelson, who may have been a rock star but was still Little Ricky in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
Bryant worried only what his family thought, and they doted on him. If he thought he was destined to rule the world, they couldn’t see what was wrong with having a dream.
His parents made it clear he wouldn’t run the streets with the guys, not that he wanted to. He separated himself without discomfort. He never understood why teammates were offended by his isolation.
It was what made him so powerful and so alone. He wasn’t like them. No one was like him.
He was eager for knowledge, sitting at his mentors’ feet, but the process was selective. He was in charge and, as his fame rocketed, running out of humility. He didn’t fear failure and took responsibility when he was wrong, but it was hard for him to figure out when he was wrong.
Anything he didn’t want to hear, such as, “You’re not ready,” or “We can’t put you in the post because we have Shaq,” he filed, along with all the advice he got to go to college because there was no way a skinny 18-year-old guard could make it in the NBA.
He was so strong, he could even break with his family after he became engaged to Vanessa Laine in 2000, when the real tumult began.
Now out of legal jeopardy, Bryant is trying to put his life back together, but the game is no longer the easy part. Even if better days are coming, it won’t be soon.
In two years, people will be used to the idea O’Neal and Jackson are gone, the Laker rebuilding project might be further along, and Shaq may be back up to 350.
For the moment, Bryant is stuck in the West, where you have to be really good to win 45 games. Meanwhile, O’Neal gets to romp around the East, unless his hamstring goes and it turns out his conditioning program started too late in life.
Bryant once charmed every media person he met. Now he’s down to a handful of us who ever see the old Kobe.
When he re-signed in July, he pulled me aside to ask why people were saying he ran Jackson and O’Neal off. He didn’t think of it that way -- he thought he was going to be the one to go -- and he has little awareness of perspectives other than his own.
He also hears what he wants to hear. I remember telling him something he didn’t want to hear one day. He looked away and didn’t say anything.
“Did I upset you?” I asked.
“I tuned you out,” he said.
In fact, the Clippers’ Mike Dunleavy, among others, warned him if he stayed with the Lakers, he’d hear about Jackson and O’Neal forever. There was a reason Dunleavy said it, but he was right.
Bryant is trying to repair relations with his parents and sisters. It hasn’t happened yet, but they still miss each other, so they have a chance.
He’d like his endorsement cachet back, but he’ll have to understand that’s not a given. At 17, he was a youth icon but seven years later, he was like a middle-aged man to teens, which was why LeBron James, at 19, got a Nike deal twice as big as his.
No one argues with the notion Bryant is one of the all-time greats, but many think he’s selfish. Seattle’s Ray Allen proclaimed that in another controversy, which Bryant really didn’t want to be asked about.
On the other hand, lots of young players are caught up in themselves and grow out of it, as Jordan did and Bryant is trying to do.
Now, on what is thought to be his ego trip, Bryant has taken a total of 22 shots in the first halves of the Lakers’ first three games, although they were getting bombed in two of them. His restraint is exemplary, but losing is hard, which is one reason he was in Duncan’s face.
No matter what Bryant does, the Lakers won’t win as many as they used to, so he’ll have to be able to handle people saying this is what he wanted and this is what he got.
Actually, this isn’t what he wanted, and he knew it might not fly. As he said last summer, “We don’t have the most dominant player in the game, so that’s going to change things drastically.”
He was down to two choices to try to get to what he wanted, a championship team of his own. He could trust the Lakers to rebuild around him or join the Clippers, who had a better team on one hand, and Donald T. Sterling on the other.
The Shaq-Kobe era had limped as far as it could. Kobe was a free agent. Shaq wanted an extension. Something had to give -- and it was the Lakers as we knew them.
That soap opera that got so old looks pretty good now, doesn’t it? Ah, those were the days.
Despite the pressure he was under, Bryant kept his poise last season but was taken by surprise when he came back and had to relive it this season. After getting bashed daily by O’Neal and Jackson, he was going to make this fly if he had to sprout wings.
A destiny still awaits Bryant. It will never be the way he imagined it, but it can be better than the destiny he just realized.
He has to understand that, take a deep breath and relax. Otherwise, the way it is is the way it will be, give or take a few wins.
In any case, the Lakers’ most important rebuilding project is the one in his head.