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Kobe’s Second Act

Elizabeth Kaye is the author of "Ain't No Tomorrow: Kobe, Shaq, and the Making of a Lakers Dynasty" (Contemporary Books), an examination of the Lakers' 2000-2001 season.

Think of Kobe Bryant as we thought of him just a few years ago, when the most egregious thing he’d ever been accused of was not passing the basketball. He was in his early 20s then, a prematurely iconic figure--embodiment of the athlete as aesthete, aesthete as entrepreneurial millionaire, millionaire as romantic.

That was BC, of course--Before Colorado. Later, it would be different. Picture him a year ago, in his first game following the summer of accusations: He’s disoriented, a dozen pounds underweight, unable to bridge the distance between the self-directed life he’s lived for 25 years and the stark powerlessness of facing a life sentence. After the game he meets with the press. When a reporter asks, “Are you happy tonight?” he stares at the man. His expression is stunned, disbelieving.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Nov. 04, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Kobe Bryant -- An article on Kobe Bryant in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine incorrectly stated that as Bryant denied rape allegations against him in 2003, he told reporters at a news conference, “You guys know me.” In fact, Bryant made that comment to a Times reporter in a telephone inter- view days before the news conference.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 21, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 12 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
The article “Kobe’s Second Act” (Oct. 31) incorrectly stated that as Bryant denied rape allegations against him in 2003, he told reporters at a press conference, “You guys know me.” Bryant made that comment to a Times reporter in a telephone interview days before the press conference.

No, he was not happy then, when even the ovation that greets him on the court is tainted by those who view it not as a simple show of support--which he’s convinced it is--but as misguided affection for an accused rapist on the part of clueless fans who could not care less what he does, as long as he plays well.

In any case, that’s all behind him. Now he’s free, unfettered by familiar hindrances: the triangle offense, old legs on the court, Shaquille and his pouting, Phil Jackson and those wry remarks that were supposed to be funny. “Kobe wants to lead this team,” Jackson said a few years ago, “but no one wants to follow him.”

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Now he is the duke of his domain, first option of the Lakers team being built around him. “I just want to play the game,” he says. That should be enough for us, but it may not be, given the exigencies of a relentlessly inquiring press and the revival of old tensions occasioned by Jackson’s just-published diary of last season.

Not all wounds heal easily. The past year’s events--on and off the court--must resonate for Bryant and, perhaps, for you. Something critical was lost: a measure of trust, the ability to assume mutual goodwill. Take those things off the table and you’re back to that game against Sacramento, when Bryant shot the ball only once in the first half, then insisted it wasn’t intentional, which convinced a lot of people that it was.

Not long ago, Kobe Bryant was the city’s favorite fresh-faced kid. That person is gone. He is 26 now, an eight-year survivor of a grueling sport who has avoided an ugly trial--but not its unseemly revelations.

“What happened to Kobe,” says one of the few people with any claim on being close to him, “is exactly what you would hope would never happen. He’s hardened. More closed. Cynical.”

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Knowing what we now know, should we root for him?

Go back to 1996. Bryant joins the Los Angeles Lakers just shy of his 18th birthday. He’s reserved, reticent; there’s no outward sign of his awesomely competitive nature. He is obsessed with basketball, which gives him a world he can both prevail in and retreat from. Since he was 3, the game has been his sole companion. In his early teens he’s made it therapy-substitute. When his temper threatens to derail his ambitions, he doesn’t want to examine it. Instead he channels his temper into basketball, an efficient solution that will give his game the edge it needs and a terse combative subtext: Don’t Mess With Me.

By the time Bryant becomes a Laker, he knows a lot about basketball and little about himself.

Because the game is the one and only thing that compels his interest, he hands everything else to his father. Joe Bryant is an eight-year NBA veteran, once a flashy forward for Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers. Joe Bryant knows the drill, has things figured out. When a reporter asks him how Kobe will deal with his first NBA road trip, he has a ready answer: “These other guys on the team will be going to clubs. Kobe will go back to his hotel and read a book or play Nintendo.”

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“These other guys"--it’s the buzz phrase that turns up in Kobe’s conversation more, perhaps, than is necessary. “I’m not like those other guys,” he will say in his rookie year. It’s not an observation. It’s a moral judgment that equates being different with being better.

Other guys have attitude, Bryant has manners. He’s deferential, addresses his elders as Mister, takes on community work for the Laker organization.

He’s not, like other recent NBA inductees, an unvarnished son of hip-hop culture and the welfare system. He’s a scion of the upper-middle class, bringing intimations of Armani to the more emphatic bling-bling. Nor do the NBA’s familiar spoils and shibboleths interest him: the diamond stud earrings, the tattoos, the white gold pendants and crosses. On the road, while his teammates hit the bars, he’s in his room alone, writing poetry.

Throughout the Laker organization, Bryant becomes known as the ideal rookie, an example of pure, old-fashioned Boy Scout values in a league fixated on the material--with its “mine-is-bigger-than-yours” ethic and cautionary tales of the corrosive effects of the wealth, renown and adoration that young players come seeking. The Lakers’ director of public relations, John Black, knows all too well what happens. Kids come to the league, good kids, and within a few years they are undermined by too much money and too many fawning acolytes. Black worries about Bryant, often thinking, “Don’t let this kid change.”

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But he changes. How could he not? He’s 21 years old when he becomes engaged to Vanessa Laine. She’s 18, lushly beautiful, more attuned to the world than he. Soon she becomes what his father has been: his link to the world. Within a few years, he’s sporting an outsized diamond stud on his left earlobe and showing up at games in a floor-length fur coat. Because of Vanessa, he’s more at ease with himself. More open.

If Bryant’s life were a movie, this is where we’d fade out on the chaste, dreamy boy writing poetry in his hotel room and fade in on him five years later. He’s now a man, a product of the NBA and of his own imperatives. As such, he might use a hotel room for less than a poetic venture.

Every man has three lives: public, private and secret. Public life concerns itself with what you give, private life with what you get. The concern of secret life is what you crave.

When it all comes down in Colorado, Kobe Bryant’s secret life is reconfigured into news bulletins--crawling with the steady deliberation of snakes high above the busiest streets of New York, London and Hong Kong. The damning words are spelled out in giant neon letters, the better to be insinuated into the collective consciousness.

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One man’s juicy gossip is another’s mortification. Bryant, duly mortified, grapples with the unfamiliar, discovers shame and the way it erases a sense of entitlement.

Now, ironically, he’s still different from those other guys. While there’s nothing new about an NBA player fooling around, only Bryant can lay claim to a 30-minute, abortive tryst that mushrooms into a felony charge carrying a mandatory sentence of four years to life.

The first round of inevitable Kobe jokes are still being minted when Bryant appears at a press conference convened by his lawyers. There he affirms the rumors of infidelity, but denies the charges of rape. He tells the reporters: “You guys know me.”

In fact, we don’t. Ask any random sampling of sports reporters how well they know Bryant, and they’ll probably say that nobody knows him at all. You can’t know a person who doesn’t wish to be known. Because he was young and unformed when he became a celebrity, he directed his energies less into becoming a person than into becoming a persona. He would craft this persona so carefully, so expertly, perhaps even he didn’t know his true self. How can you find your place in a world that you navigate only in the presence of bodyguards? Finding that person is nearly impossible because fame blurs vision, limits experience, obliterates hope of equality with erstwhile peers.

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In Bryant’s world, autograph seekers utter breathless thank-yous, strangers look on adoringly, the gratis champagne chilling in his upgraded hotel suite is accompanied by a note thanking him for his patronage. This world, however ersatz, is not without its particular charms. Who would not appreciate a world where everyone is grateful to you all the time, even if it’s not exactly a milieu that contributes mightily to inner growth?

That world is Bryant’s misfortune, but it’s our fault. We’re the ones who make gods of men, raising them up until some skewed egalitarian impulse insists that we tear them down. We’re the ones who yearn for heroes, who elevate mere men into heroes--not, as a rule, because they are especially heroic, but because in the absence of heroes we feel alone in a treacherous world.

Ultimately, what we think about Kobe Bryant is inseparable from our feelings about celebrity, from those confused and contradictory notions we glean in a nation whose citizens worship fame but regard ambition as unseemly, a nation that praises the self-made man first mythologized in the Horatio Alger stories while identifying the relentless work to which their success is owed as a pathology known as workaholism.

Add to this mix the prevailing notion that fans are supposed to love their players and that players are supposed to be lovable. Above all, we want to be thrilled by those whose gifts are so extraordinary that they expand our ideas of what is humanly possible. Bryant is gifted in that sense, but, as Michael Jordan proved before him, to use those talents requires that your own needs are met first. It requires an unshakable belief in one’s abilities that we diminish by labeling it conceit or arrogance. We forget that selfishness and arrogance are job qualifications for an artist. Without arrogance, the canvas never fills with images of the lowly sunflower, the high note is never struck. There is no leaping into the air in defiance of gravity.

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There is majesty in this, but majesty is not quite what we go for; we have another notion of the artist’s psyche. We like our artists to be nice. “Is he a nice guy?” I’ve been asked countless times about Bryant. Well, sure, he’s a nice guy, but a nice guy who possesses what his job requires: reflexive selfishness, an ego as big as the sky, a killer instinct. A love of winning.

So we return to the beginning, to the question in front of us all along: Should we root for Kobe Bryant?

I can tell you only this: After watching him play in the preseason, it’s a moot point. Watch him and you’ll get caught up, even if you don’t especially want to, and his game will overwhelm the question of “should we?” and its cool, detached considerations.

This is visceral, and if you end up rooting for Kobe, it won’t be because you should or shouldn’t. You will root for him because you have to, because that imperative goes straight from the gut to the heart, never reaching the rational mind.

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