He tells the story now because he knows how things once were.

Although there is no I in team, he self-imposed an I-in-win theory that in his mind justified everything he did. It’s the story of a prodigy not trying to hear what those around him are saying. A soloist. Prince prior to The Rainbow Children. Where teammates saw “a guy that was very talented, on a different level,” he says, he saw someone who forever had something to prove. “We know what you can do,” he says they would tell him during timeouts, at practice, on the road when he sat alone at the back of the bus. “Come to us,” they’d say. And after four years of refusing to fold, refusing to defer to no-I-in-team, one day Kobe1 Bryant gave in.

This article appears in the April 2002 issue of Inside Stuff Magazine
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With baited breath, he closed his eyes and exhaled into the arms and trust of 11 other men. He fell backwards, expecting them to catch him but still wondering if they would. A baptism. Kobe’s internal paradox: He wanted to be both right and wrong. This is what ate away at him. His success fueled his resistance. Despite his selfishness, his inability to trust the choir and the pastor (Phil Jackson), he had won one ring. Why believe now? Why submit?

Because he ran out of choices. So he dipped his head into the water. Held his breath. NBA Championship No. 2. A changed man.

“MVP?” The question is asked.

“Not thinking about it,” is his earnest and immediate response. He is then challenged, on the firm belief that somewhere inside him the old Kobe Bryant still exists. “Truthfully,” he says, fighting the annoyance. “The rings are all I’m thinking about. I’m hungry, dawg. I’m starving. I’m serious, I am not playing around. We got to get this other ring.”

The I-to-we is proof of the change; Kobe Bryant gave in to the truth that five is greater than one. His transformation is one that some believed would never happen—that he was “too immature” or “too mature for his own good” or simply “too talented” to accede. But last year a revelation struck Kobe in the form of an injury, and for 10 games he was forced to see the game through a different pair of eyes.

“For the first time,” he’ll admit, “I didn’t feel invincible. I realized what it was like to not be able to do certain things and have to rely on others to get things done. I’m not going to lie—it changed me.”

It caused Kobe to grasp something that it took Michael Jordan, the player to whom K8 will be most compared when his career is done, seven years to realize. Kobe Bryant made it in five,2 but in his mind he has accomplished or proven nothing. Yet.

December 5, Los Angeles: “It’s always great to see an athlete, especially of his stature, do something like that.” NBAE photographer Andy Bernstein, the man to whom that statement belongs, witnessed the moment through his lens. He caught the hand movements, he caught the smiles, he caught the eyes during the 10 minutes that Kobe Bryant spent autographing jerseys, posters, programs, game cards, shoes, shirts, arms and legs. All just prior to a crucial game against the nipping-at-their-heels Dallas Mavericks, a game which the Lakers eventually won 98-94.

Kobe continues to dazzle with strong dunks.
Robert C. Mora/NBAE/Getty Images
December 16, Los Angeles: Warriors rookie Jason Richardson learns the truth. “Kobe killed me!” are his postgame words.

Although Richardson held Kobe to an “average” 28 points, it’s the fact that Bryant missed three shots the entire game3 that is so telling. At least Richardson is not alone. Kobe knows that he can look down a list of games-played and see the names of those who have been caught: Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett. And after their game on February 12,4 Jordan was added.

And Kobe does not simply best his challengers—he makes it look easy. He keeps the work hidden. The sweat dry. At no time this season has he given the impression that his opponents are making him work hard to be this good. In a country built on the struggle to earn luxury, Kobe, outwardly, has defied the truth that the only time you find success before work is inside of a dictionary.5

January 14, Los Angeles: The Lakers had lost two games in a row, to the Timberwolves and the Bulls, both on the road. According to sources, Bryant blamed himself for both losses, and his teammates gave him a wide berth during pregame warmups; his look of determination said that he was on something extra. Rumor has it that before the Grizzlies encounter, Kobe Sharpie’d two digits on his shoes: a three and a four. They were in honor of the man with whom he has spent the past five years building the perfect sibling relationship: Shaquille O’Neal, then serving a suspension for an altercation with Bulls center Brad Miller.

After 34 minutes of play, Kobe sat down on the bench, draped a towel over his head and stared at the Memphis court with a grill of ice for the entire fourth quarter. A five and a six are the two digits he scored that night. The highest in the NBA at that point in the season, although Allen Iverson would grab the record the next night with 58 points in 50 minutes. Kobe’s performance was proof that the subjugation of personal goals—he could have gone for 65—was real. It just took 34 minutes. He had to remind us.

January 23, Los Angeles: In a recent battle for L.A. bragging rights, the upstart Clippers beat the Lakers 95-90. Corey Maggette, the man Kobe spent the night chasing, dropped in 28 points, shooting 4-of-6 from downtown. Kobe—with 27, five and five himself—was gracious in defeat, complimenting Corey’s game to anyone with a tape recorder. It was the mark of a champion. Then...

“Two losses in a row, two rings in a row,” Kobe told an AP reporter after the game. “It’s a long season, you take the good with the bad.” Perspective. “Now you feel me,” is all Kobe says when I ask him about this season, this mission. From the outside looking in, once you get past the trees obscuring the forest, it looks like he’s playing past the MVP award that he says he’s not thinking about, the one Shaquille wants for him. Others agree that with Kobe’s all-around game, he is distancing himself from the pack.

“Separating himself? Easily,” says Anthony Carter, a Lakers beat writer for Los Angeles Weekly. “He got that mentality from you-know-who. In order the be considered the best you have to destroy the best. And that’s what he’s doing.” But Kobe demurs. “I found out that it’s not about me crushing you,” Bryant says, “It’s about maturity, it’s about me helping my teammates...and once I learn that, we’re going to crush you anyway.”

“Lemme tell you a story about Kobe.”

When Sonny Vaccaro, basketball president for adidas speaks, you listen.

“The first time I met Kobe, the first thing he told me—and he’s never changed—he said, ‘I’m going to hire a trainer.’ He was 17 years old and he was about to hire a trainer. Now this is a hard thing to think up by yourself when you are a 17-year-old about to go into this new world [the NBA]. This is where his mind was at 17. 6 He hired a trainer, knowing that he had to make himself stronger. Most of the guys, once they get good, hire a personal trainer. But this was done by a 17-year-old when he first signed his contract. And he’s never wavered from that. Still has the same trainer. The one thing I know about Kobe Bryant is that he always knew what he wanted to do. And that’s hard.”

Harder than sneaking into the HealthSouth Training Center, the Lakers practice facility, to watch the lights go down after everyone else leaves and see the mythical work Kobe puts in. Harder than the 500-per-day jump shots he puts down, along with defensive drills that may shock Bill Russell. Harder than knowing that only one month after the Lakers had defeated the Sixers in last year’s Finals, Kobe personally felt that they had not achieved enough. After playing 94 games last year, and winning 71 of them, he was ready to step back on the court for Ring Three. He did not want the vacation, he did not want to stop his progress. “Kobe killed me.” They’ve all thought it. Only the rookie said it out loud. 7

It is quiet inside. No sound. If you read the book of Genesis, you get the feeling that this is what it must have been like in the beginning. Nothing. Oxygen is noise.

Then there is a breath. Life. He begins his routine. Creating different rhythms inside of his head to make the time pass just a little faster. Outkast, Rakim, vintage Lauryn Hill. All internal. Outside of the mind there are other sounds. Grunts, squeaks, screeches, nets poppin’ and ligaments stoppin’ on a dime.

“As far as a dynasty, I don’t know...” He repeats the words in his head. “As far as a dynasty, I don’t know...As far as a dynasty, I don’t know...As far as a dynasty...”

He knows.

1. Kobe's parents named him after a type of Japanese steak (Kobe) seen on a restaurant menu before his birth.
2. Can you believe it's been less than six years since Kobe graduated from Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania?
3. Bryant's stat line that night: 10-12 FGs and 8-9 FTs for 28 points, five boards, three dimes, two steals and a block.
4. Kobe's game high 23 lead the Lakers (without Shaq) over Jordan's (22pts) Wiz.
5. Although as a rookie, he did struggle a bit against Utah in the playoffs. That's when a young and inexperienced Kobe tossed up three airballs in the final moments of the Western Semis to end the Lakers season.
6. Before his jump to the pros, Kobe Bryant was a McDonald's All-American and was the national high-school player of the year averaging 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, four steals, and 3.8 blocks a game.
7. No. 8's numbers this season? Catch them in his player file.