Shaquille O’Neal was buck naked, but nobody was paying much attention. It was the first preseason home game of the 1996-97 season for the Los Angeles Lakers, the first chance for fans to sneak a peek at Shaq and all that his $120 million free-agent contract would entail. There he was, alone and in the raw, staring at the swarm of reporters surrounding eighteen-year-old Lakers rookie Kobe Bryant.
It was the way Bryant had always envisioned things – minus, perhaps, the naked giant above him – and he was enjoying the spectacle. Consider that it had been only a few years since Bryant was a ninth-grader with a notion that he would jump directly from high school to the NBA. Since that time, the kid from Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High School had obliterated (by more than 500 points) all of Wilt Chamberlain’s southeastern Pennsylvania high school scoring records, led his team to the state championship and been named USA Today’s high school player of the year. He also had signed a three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Lakers; filmed a sneaker commercial; appeared on The Tonight Show and the Rosie O’Donnell Show, and the sitcoms Moesha, Arliss and Sister, Sister. All without playing one minute of NBA or college basketball.
Across the room, O’Neal smiled. After a few minutes, he addressed the question of whether Bryant’s teammates resented the amount of attention the rookie was receiving. O’Neal glanced at the kid he’d nicknamed Showboat and smiled again. “This is all about business,” he said. “Attention is like money – there’s enough to go around for everybody.”
And with that, O’Neal pushed through the crowd. Seconds later he began to sing (he is a recording artist, after all) to the tune of “Greatest Love of All”: “I believe that Showboat is the future/Call the play and let that mother-fucker shoot.” O’Neal grinned, turned back toward his locker with a flourish and sang louder: “I believe that Showboat is the future….” As a child, Kobe Bryant did not have the same concerns as other kids. In fact, he had only two: Just how famous would he be, and how soon? So when Bryant says he would like to visit a center for abused children (“Growing up, I’d see a lot of NBA players go to facilities,” he says. “I said then that if I got the opportunity, I’d try to help”), it is obvious that he has always seen himself less as a citizen than as a famous athlete in a United Way commercial.
Fame has been the constant in Bryant’s life equation. From ages six to fourteen, he lived in Italy, where his father, Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant (who had played eight NBA seasons, mostly with the Philadelphia 76ers), was a major star in the Italian Professional Basketball League. “He just played with so much charisma,” says Bryant of his father. “He taught me to enjoy the game.”
But for all of Joe Bryant’s ability, it soon became apparent that Kobe would one day take the family business to a new level. He grew quickly (six feet two by the eighth grade, six feet seven today) and possessed an explosive first step and leaping ability. With his charm and his father’s flashy playing style, Kobe Bryant always knew he had a shot at being a superstar both on and off the court. And so he began to work. At both. “Basketball was it,” says Bryant. “My girlfriend was basketball.”
“In high school we’d just chill, maybe watch a movie, then quit and play one-on-one,” says Matt Matkov, one of Bryant’s best friends. “When I was partying, he was out playing basketball. When I was waking up, Kobe was playing basketball before class.”
For all his skills with the basketball, it was Bryant’s off-court charisma – a swagger that manages to be infectious rather than offensive – that instantly won over the L.A. Forum crowds, even before he began playing more than a handful of minutes per game. He is bright, self-possessed and charming beyond his years. At nineteen, he already slips into the type of false intimacy that celebrities like Michael Jordan or Tom Cruise have developed over many years in the limelight. Bryant can flash a grin that would make a grifter blush. Matkov’s mother used to tease Bryant that he spoke better to reporters than he did to anyone else.
“But that’s just Kobe,” says Matkov. “When he’s talking to the reporters, it’s proper grammar, telling them what they want to hear. Going into that famous mode is something he has to do because it’s going to get him more fans.”
Bryant’s high school celebrity hit its zenith when he startled his unhappy administration by signing autographs at his prom. His date was Brandy, the pop singer and star of Moesha. The pair met when Bryant attended the 1996 Essence Awards, in New York.
“I got my friend to ask her, and then she asked her mother,” explains Bryant. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? I just kept thinking, ‘Damn, that’s Brandy.'”
Prom pictures graced the pages of both People and Jet magazines. At seventeen, Bryant was already as famous as any college basketball player in the country. Having whittled his final choice down to a few universities (most likely Duke) or the NBA, Bryant called a press conference in his high school gym and announced that he planned to turn pro. That’s when the criticism began. Specifically, that Bryant’s parents had groomed their son to live in a fishbowl.
Kobe’s mother, Pam Bryant, offers a story to put things into perspective: Soon after Kobe got his driver’s license, his mother told him that if he was going to drive his father’s BMW, he should make sure he always carried his license and registration because, as a young black man, he was bound to be pulled over for no reason.
“And you know what?” his mother says. “Two weeks later, he was stopped. The cop told him, ‘You look too young to be driving a car like this.’ And then he looked at the license, saw it was Kobe, and, before you know it, he wanted an autograph.” Kobe was respectful. When he came home, he laughed. “So there’s nothing wrong with being prepared for things,” Kobe says.
KOBE BRYANT nails a few free throws, then straggles off the Lakers’ practice court in your direction. It’s early afternoon, midway through the 1997-98 season, almost a year since you last caught up with him. Plenty has changed. He smiles as he approaches, gives you a hug, then rubs his head, which, last season, was shaved.
“Look at me,” says Bryant, laughing. “I have hair now.”
That wasn’t the change you were thinking about. Sure, there are a few other differences: He has grown an inch and put on at least ten pounds of muscle, for instance. But these aren’t the changes you were thinking about, either.
What is different about Bryant is that now he is a first-team NBA All-Star, the youngest ever, and that he has been not so subtly urged by the NBA’s promotional machine to pick up the slack when Michael Jordan steps down. Turn on the TV today and not only will you see Bryant’s face plugging the NBA playoffs, but you’ll also catch him and Rookie of the Year Tim Duncan rapping about Sprite with hip-hop star Missy Elliott.
Never was the Bryant phenomenon more clear than at this year’s All-Star Game. The Lakers were the first team in fifteen years to have four players (Bryant, O’Neal, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel) selected to the team, but Bryant was the main attraction. Not bad, considering that he doesn’t start on his own team. If you watched the TV coverage, you wouldn’t have known there were any players on the court other than Bryant and Jordan. While he was in New York, Bryant even appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press.
And yet, on the court in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Bryant showed why some basketball people can get frustrated with him: He did not pass the ball to other players who have made careers of filling up highlight reels of their own. At one point, Karl Malone tried to set a pick for Bryant. Bryant shooed him away. After the game, Malone seethed. There was a feeling among veterans that Bryant had spent too much time preparing for a one-on-one battle with Jordan and had forgotten that the game was supposed to be a battle of the best of the East vs. the best of the West.
“I felt like the NBA and NBC used him to his detriment,” says Lakers coach Del Harris. “He was a willing participant, but when he came back, he was more one-on-one oriented.”
And less effective. Before the All-Star break, Bryant was shooting forty-five percent and averaging almost eighteen points a game; afterward, he dropped to thirty-four percent and fourteen points. He is not exactly apologetic about his style of play. “It’s important to tone it down somewhat and stay within the team concept,” he says diplomatically. “But I’m aggressive. It’s also important not to lose the aggressiveness.”
Mostly, however, Bryant tries to offer some perspective on his stardom. “I wanted eventually to be one of the best players in the league,” he says. “I just didn’t know that other people would urge me to be that right now. Everybody’s expecting me to be the next Michael. I thought I was going to sneak through the back door. Now I’ll have to go about it a different way.”
What a difference a year makes. The last time you saw Bryant, he was trying to negotiate a season that had seen his emotions set on a roller coaster. On one hand, he had won the league’s slam-dunk contest and set a record for the most points ever (thirty-one) in a Rookie All-Star Game. On the other, he languished on the Lakers bench, not knowing whether he would even get to take off his warm-ups. Now his name is on the marquee. “Everybody is pushing too quickly and too much,” says Harris. “He has so many forces pulling at him. He’s already a conglomerate, practically.”
“KOBE BRYANT, Tiger Woods. … Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant.”
Somehow, it seemed less like the simple meeting of an eighteen-year-old and a twenty-one-year-old than like the convergence of fictional marketing creations. Woods, of course, is practically a branded Nike product; Bryant is Adidas’ “kid with a dream.” It was last year, midseason. The Lakers had just beaten up on the Vancouver Grizzlies, and Woods was stopping by the Lakers locker room to say hello….
“Eighteen,” said Woods as he and Bryant shook hands. “It’s nice to finally meet someone younger than me.”
It is a product of the times that individual athletes are marketed as individual products; that, these days, players come complete with slogans that sell them and, in turn, the accessories that adorn them. Bryant signed his Adidas contract before he had even been drafted by a professional team. “I hadn’t earned it yet,” he said at the time, “so I used it as an incentive to work harder.”
“If Kobe wasn’t a basketball player, he’d still be successful,” says Joe Bryant. “It’s not just about his athleticism. It’s about his personality and how he handles himself. That’s why he’s always going to be successful – because we’re going to try to separate the two. But if his basketball impact and personality come together, you’re talking about a megastar, just out there – Michael Jackson level.”
AFTER PRACTICE, Kobe Bryant yanks on a pair of sweats and heads to his black BMW 740i. He’s on his way to the beach, but if you’re looking to be a hanger-on of an L.A. celebrity, Bryant is the wrong choice. Today, when his performance vehicle reaches the ocean, he will park at Gold’s Gym for another workout. After that, he’ll head home. These are Bryant’s two most frequent – practically his only – destinations.
Home is the six-bedroom, six-bathroom house that Bryant rents in Pacific Palisades (Baywatch is filmed just down the road) and where he lives with his parents and his twenty-year-old sister, Shaya, who goes to Santa Monica City College. His other sister, Sharia, 22, graduated this year from Temple University, in Philadelphia, where she played volleyball and majored in international business.
“My parents were divorced, and I was with [the Bryants] a lot,” says Matkov. “I grew up with Mr. Bryant as a father figure, and it was some of the most loving times I can remember. When I have to compare their family to something – and they hate when I do this – but they’re the Brady Bunch.”
What anyone waiting for the teenager to screw up fails to grasp is that Bryant’s life now is just an extension of what it has always been. He is a product of his environment, and his environment has always been simple. Fame. Hoops. “I feel weird going out, on the road, knowing that you have a game the next night,” says Bryant. “That’s not handling your business.”
When the Lakers are on the road and his teammates head out to restaurants and nightclubs, Bryant stays in his hotel room; when he is at home in L.A., Bryant stays in his room and works the phone. “He calls me at, like, three in the morning, and we do all-nighters, writing rhymes,” says Anthony Bannister, a friend from his high school days.
Bryant joined Bannister’s rap group, the Cheizaw, which concentrates on what Bannister (who prays with Bryant at the end of every phone call) calls “mostly spiritual rap, edifying in the rhymes.” Bryant’s hip-hop name is Kobe One Kenobe the Eighth. “It’s a star war,” says Bannister, “and he’s a star.”
When Bryant thinks the heavens are aligned and it’s time to branch out even further from basketball superstardom, the group plans to release the single it recorded last year in Philadelphia. Bryant’s rhyme: “I blitz through offensive lines/Sack your rhyme/Blindside your mind/Intercepting your dime/I cock with a deep breath/The game ends in sudden death/Hollow tips for field goals to end the context/The context is sharper than the Gillette and complex/I’m rushing the mike’s roulette/What chamber do you select?/I flex my index/Poetry inside my breath/Cheizaw to the death.”
“He’s a madman,” says Bannister. “We pay homage to his lyrics. He’s got skills. You’d think it was Nas.”
IT WAS AT A MALL last season that the kid first showed up, and when he did, you liked him immediately. The Kobe Bryant you had met before was charming but remained at the subtle distance that a layer of polish can create. It was lunch time, so Bryant bolted straight for his favorite spot – the food court, where a young multimillionaire was free to choose from any fast-food chain under the California sun. If you’d forgotten that Kobe Bryant was still a teenager, a trip to the mall helped put your thinking straight. He cataloged his recent reading as autobiographies of Arthur Ashe, Michael Johnson, Evander Holyfield and Jerry Rice; he walked you past the pet store where he had bought his Siberian husky puppy.
“I might get another one,” he said. “But what I really want to get is a tiger.”
Your jaw dropped. A real tiger?
“Yeah,” said Bryant, his eyes growing wide. “Tyson has three.”
At the time, Bryant and Mike Tyson had become close friends. “We just talk about everything,” gushed Bryant. “I tell you, he’d surprise you.” But a year later, Bryant’s enthusiasm has waned. When you ask him whether he and Tyson are still close, Bryant hems and haws, then says, “We don’t really talk that much. I respect what he accomplished and the aggressiveness that he had.”
It’s only a year later, and he is still only nineteen, but Bryant seems much more like his own man than he did at this time last season. It’s clear in the way he carries himself. When Bryant drops the nice-guy routine, he’s actually an extremely nice guy – and he isn’t afraid to seem like a real person.
You remind Bryant of his encounter with the Philadelphia police, and Bryant’s face grows stern. It is a glimpse that Bryant wouldn’t have allowed last season. He tells you that he was actually pulled over a second time for no reason. “I was pissed,” says Bryant of the incident. “I was pissed. But what’s it going to accomplish, arguing? You just kill him with humbleness. That’s all. You kill him with kindness.”
KOBE BRYANT has been talking to friends more and more about the future – maybe playing fifteen years, then moving to Italy. Life would be easier there. “I think people right now just want to be around me,” says Bryant. “But I’m very selective of who I hang out with and who I let in my inner circle.”
“The chicks are all over him because he’s Kobe Bryant,” says Bannister. “He doesn’t let them get close. I screen a lot of his chicks. He calls me ‘the truth.'”
Bryant laughs when you mention this. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “My sisters do it now. They screen calls whether I like it or not.” Bryant laughs again. “You have your fun. I’m human. But I don’t like selling myself short or spreading myself thin. I have too many things I want to accomplish.”
Ah, right, the master plan.
True to the blueprint, Bryant works tirelessly at basketball by day and strives not to be distracted from basketball by night. “Shaq and I talk all the time,” says Bryant. “We say, ‘One day we’re gonna be running things here.'”
There is, however, a glitch. Bryant is the Lakers’ sixth man, in large part because of another telling statistic. Harris keeps track of stats of how often a player shoots the ball per minute played. O’Neal is number one in the league; Michael Jordan is second; Bryant is third. No matter how you do the math, O’Neal and Bryant can’t share many minutes unless Bryant passes the ball.
“It causes a rift between us because I’m trying to get him to give up the ball, and he feels that his game is to take on the world,” admits Harris.
The problem, of course, is that Bryant can take on the world. At times – many times – he is capable of creating with the basketball in ways that have never been seen before. Other times, he seems like a kid who entered the NBA without even one year of that semipro game known as NCAA basketball. “Regardless of what anybody might think, I’m not holding Kobe back,” says Harris. “Right now he is not a legitimate starter on this team. … Kobe still has a way to go before he’s even Kobe Bryant, much less somebody like Michael Jordan.”
But don’t tell that to the fourteen-year-old NBA fans who worship him. Bryant’s Number Eight Lakers jersey outsells any of his teammates’, even O’Neal’s, in sporting-goods stores around L.A. Ready or not, the NBA has decided that Kobe Bryant will lead it into the next century.
It makes you remember back to last season, when Bryant played host to a day at the mall. When it came time to go, Bryant stopped at the cinnamon-pretzel stand, insisted that you try one and then rode the escalator, saying, “Can you believe these? Aren’t these just the best?” Literally a kid in a candy store. A minute later, Bryant spread his arms to offer a large hug goodbye, smiled broadly and ducked into his BMW, the car of a multimillion-dollar professional athlete. You watched as he gunned the engine and pulled away. Just like that, the kid was gone.