- Chris Palmer, ESPN the Magazine
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Kobe Bryant taps me on the shoulder. “We doing this?” he asks. “Let’s go.”
He’s loose and confident, which essentially makes it a normal day in Bryant’s world.
Despite the unexpected wayward direction the Lakers' season has taken, Bryant is ebullient during our exclusive, rare sit-down interview. He’s quick with a smirk or a joke and quite chummy. His exuberance suggests the Lakers are in the thick of a championship hunt. Today, his 17 years of accomplishment and five championship rings weigh more than a flimsy 17-21 record.
In Kobe Bryant’s universe, the sky is not falling. Actually, it’s still very much the limit.
On this recent January morning, he bounces from refreshingly candid to slightly guarded to inquisitive to surprisingly funny. But he quickly settles into a comfort zone, even slipping off his low-cut lavender Kobe 8s while absentmindedly fiddling with the three bracelets around his right ankle as he remembers how bewildered his 19-year-old self could be.
Bryant and I sit for nearly an hour on the purple cushioned scorer’s table used for D-League games at the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo, Calif. Just in front of us, little-used forward Devin Ebanks is on a side basket running baseline to baseline in a shooting drill with Lakers assistant coach Darvin Ham. At one point, as Kobe tells a story about his rookie season, head coach Mike D’Antoni walks by. Bryant looks ups, barely nods, without missing a beat or sacrificing a detail.
His facial features are as sharp as they were 10 years ago, his tongue sharper still. His voice is both familiar and easy. His usual baritone gets an octave deeper when a story moves him. The only difference is that the once reckless swagger is now dispensed with careful precision, making it all the more venomous when needed.
He’s both appreciative of a lengthy career and the finite amount of time left to secure another ring. He’s grown weary of the broken-record responses about his vastly underachieving Lakers. But today he reflects on his early years, contemplates hypothetical situations and offers details of his daily life.
This is Kobe Bryant, pretty much, unchained.
There’s something different about you. You seem so ... calm.
Because I am. That’s just the maturation. That’s 17 years of seeing everything the game can dish out. I’ve seen it all before. There’s no need to get too crazy or bent out of shape. There are still challenges every day. But I’m still having fun. I was born to play this game. I still love it.
So you’re not a ticking time bomb?
[Laughs.] No, not at all. This is all stuff we’re going to work through. I know I don’t have much longer to do this so I’m going to enjoy it. I’m still going to find those challenges.
Are you still adding to your game?
At the end of 2003, my game was complete. Shooting, defense, using the dribble, transition, midrange stuff was all there. Then it was about fine-tuning and trying to improve in each area. People think the footwork stuff is new, but I’ve always had great footwork. If you go back and look at film from 10 years ago, it’s all there: up-and-unders, spin moves, everything. I’ve been interested in footwork and how it benefits you since I was 8 or 9 years old. That’s just the way I was taught the game. The technical parts of the game always interested me.
You think you’ll ever score 50 again?
Yeah, it’ll happen.
Why have you only won one MVP?
Because I played with Shaq. It’s that simple. A lot of the time we cancelled each other out. I sacrificed a lot playing with him. I really did. I did it for the success of the team. If I never played with him, my numbers would have been ridiculous.
Do you ever look back and marvel at some of the things you’ve accomplished like, say, the 81-point game?
To this day I’ve never seen that game. I don’t feel the need to watch it. What am I going to learn? I don’t watch those tapes. If I’m watching film it’s usually for an upcoming opponent.
When was the last time you watched Michael Jordan tapes?
Wow, it’s been a while. Probably not since 1999. I used to watch a bunch, but that was a long time ago.
What was it like dropping 33 on him as a 19-year-old in your second year?
I wasn’t scared or nervous back then when I played Jordan. He looked at me like he was going to f--- me up but I had to let him know that I wasn’t that guy. I let him know that I’m not like all those other guys he played against. That’s not what I was there for. I was there to compete and I did.
Did you let him know that verbally?
More so by the way I played and competed.
Early on you got tired of the MJ comparisons, but a part of you had to be flattered, right?
I appreciated them, but after a while it just got old. They eventually faded away because I was putting together my own identity. But I’ll never forget how much I learned from MJ. I got so much from him. I knew what he did, I knew his moves and I used them. But for me the comparisons didn’t work because our situations were totally different. I came straight out of high school and played with a dominant big in Shaquille. Man, I was so young when I got to the NBA. What was I, like, 17? I mean, 17! The more you think about it, my situation was completely different than MJ’s, so the comparisons were just, you know, I stopped paying attention to them.
Ironically, toward the end of your career those comparisons are starting to return.
I don’t mind that now. It’s different now that I’m at the end of my career and I can look back. Fans will always want to know who’s better and like to compare players, and I love that. That’s what I used to do. That’s why people are into basketball, because it’s fun to debate those kinds of things.
React to this statement: A 17-year-old picked No. 13 in the draft will finish his career as one of the 10 best players ever.
If you would have told me that back then, I’d say you were nuts. Just nuts. It’s hard to believe.
Are you a top-five player all-time?
I don’t know. I hope so. I’ve still got a little time left, but honestly I haven’t thought a whole bunch about legacy and that kind of stuff. I just feel like there will be plenty of time for that.
Have you ever been intimidated on the basketball court?
Never. Not at all. My mind doesn’t work that way. It’s something that’s never even entered my thought process. The last time I was intimidated was when I was 6 years old in karate class. I was an orange belt and the instructor ordered me to fight a black belt who was a couple years older and a lot bigger. I was scared s---less. I mean, I was terrified and he kicked my ass. But then I realized he didn’t kick my ass as bad as I thought he was going to and that there was nothing really to be afraid of. That was around the time I realized that intimidation didn’t really exist if you’re in the right frame of mind.
How did you feel when Magic called you the greatest Laker ever?
Words can’t describe it. He was my favorite player growing up, and coming from him it couldn’t have meant more. At first I was praying I would grow to be 6-9 so I could pattern my game after his, but I didn’t quite make it so I knew I wasn’t going to be like Magic. But he’s someone I’ve always admired and think highly of. That’s the greatest compliment.
Does it feel like the last 17 years have gone by fast?
It feels like the blink of an eye. I just think about how different I was back then. There are so many specific days that I can remember like they happened yesterday. When I was a rookie in my first training camp in Hawaii, I ordered a bowl of cereal from room service. They were Frosted Flakes with a little thing of milk that came to $80! In 1996! I said "hell no" and told them to take it back. I got dressed and walked down to the corner store and bought a jug of milk and a big box of Frosted Flakes for like $10.
You were a young brash rookie that many vets weren’t too fond of. I can’t imagine people didn’t try to test you.
Oh yeah, they tried. During my rookie year we were in Portland and I drove the lane, and Rasheed Wallace knocked me to the ground and stared at me. He tried to f--- me up but I wasn’t going to have it. I got right back up and drove even harder the next time. I really let people know early that I wasn’t the guy you could do that to.
Ever had a run-in with Kevin Garnett?
No, actually me and KG have been cool for a long time, so he never tried anything with me. Being two of the first guys who came straight out of high school, we were kind of in the same boat. When I was a senior in high school I used to seek his counsel and ask him what I should do. He’d tell me what life was like on the road and how to deal with not playing that much. He really helped me quite a bit with my decision.
Is it hard to be your teammate?
No. That’s so overrated. If you come in ready to work, then we’re good. Then we don’t have a problem.
Who is your best friend in the NBA that’s not a former teammate?
[Long pause.] There’s nobody I’m really hanging out with and going out with every night. But I’d probably say Carmelo Anthony. We’re pretty close. A lot of the guys from Team USA I get along with really well. I really respect those guys.
Usually self-appointed nicknames don’t really stick, but Black Mamba has had real staying power.
Well, actually I didn’t come up with it. I think I was playing ball in the park in New York and they just started calling me that, and it just stuck.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
Then I found out what a mamba can do with its quick-strike capability. There’s a really good scene in the movie "Kill Bill" that explains it.
Who would you most like to play one-on-one, either active or retired?
Jordan. No question.
What would happen?
I’m not sure, but he would win some and I would win some in a seven-game series. It would probably come down to the last few shots.
You versus LeBron? Who wins?
Me. No question. As far as one-on-one, I’m the best to ever do it.
Damn. That’s pretty confident.
LeBron is a terrific all-around, five-on-five basketball player who’s an all-time great. But I’d get him.
Who could get you?
Kevin Durant is the guy that would give me the most trouble. With his length and ability to use the dribble, he’d be tough.
I always wanted to see you play Tracy McGrady.
I played T-Mac. I cooked him. Roasted him. Wasn’t even close. Ask him, he’ll tell you. When I was about 20, we were in Germany doing some promotional stuff for that other sneaker company and we played basketball every day. We were in the gym all the time. We played three games of one-on-one to 11. I won all three games. One game I won 11-2. After the third game he said he had back spasms and couldn’t play anymore.
His back bothered him for most of his career.
Well, now you know.
What about Kyrie Irving?
[Huge smile, laugh.] Kyrie’s my boy, but he knows he doesn’t have anything for me. He doesn’t want to see me. But it would be fun. I’ve beaten a lot of guys one-on-one, like Reggie Miller and Grant Hill. I used to play Caron Butler all the time in practice when he was with the Lakers. When I was a rookie I used to get Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. They know. They’ll tell you. They used to come at me hard but I wasn’t having that. I love going one-on-one with someone. That’s what I do. I’ve never lost. It’s a whole different game, just to have them right in front of you and be able to do whatever you want.
When you’ve been playing basketball in the public eye for so long, people can lose sight of the fact that you’re a regular person who just happens to be good at something that interests them.
I’m a normal person, of course. Sure.
When was the last time you pumped your own gas?
Yesterday. I do all of life’s daily tasks. The other day my wife and I stopped at 7-Eleven and I pulled up to the pump and I started to pump some gas. She went inside to buy something and was waiting in line. The guy in front of her sees me outside but doesn’t see her. He says, “Man, there’s Kobe Bryant pumping his own gas.” My wife says to the guy, “He wipes his own ass, too.”
She came back out and we had a big laugh about it. We both have the same sense of humor when it comes to stuff like that. But, yeah, I do the same things as everyone else.
Do you still have an interest in motorcycles? And how did that begin?
Yeah, I still do. I still have my bike. I didn’t grow up riding but I took several courses that included road tests. I also took three safety courses about how to crash and get out of tricky situations. You’ve got to know it because you’re eventually going to drop the bike.
Did you ever drop the bike?
No, but I had some close calls in tight traffic.
Do you have a thrill-seeking personality?
[Smiles big.] Unfortunately, I do. I’d love to go skydiving when I’m done playing. I might jump back on the bike too. It’s about the challenge of overcoming the fear. If I’m afraid of something that only makes me want to do it more.
What do you Google?
Fourth-grade math problems when I’m helping my daughter. And if I can’t figure something else out, then I’ll look it up. But other than that I really don’t Google anything.
Ever Google yourself?
No. Why? I know everything there is to know about me. I know some celebrities are into that, but that’s not me. Some of them even have alerts sent to them.
What do you do when you can’t sleep?
Sometimes I take an Ambien. But if my mind is racing, I may get up and do something. The other night I was in my hotel room and couldn’t sleep, so I got up and went across the street to see "Django [Unchained]."
What did you think?
It was genius. Absolutely incredible. Everything by Quentin Tarantino usually is, but this took it to another level. It’s the way he tells a story and the kind of characters he creates. It was crazy violent, but the story is so strong and that’s what you remember.
I know you’re a big Robert Rodriguez fan. He’s from the same maverick filmmaking school as Tarantino. Would you want to work with Tarantino?
That would be incredible. Can you imagine one of my commercials with him?
What’s your favorite commercial you’ve ever been in?
The Kobe System campaign was great. It was really smart and funny and turned out well. Working with Kanye West and Richard Branson was a lot of fun. Also, definitely the Black Mamba Nike spot that Robert Rodriquez did. I loved seeing how he worked and put things together. "Desperado" is one of my favorite movies.
Who would play you in a movie about your life?
I don’t know. That’s a tough one.
What about Samuel Jackson? You cuss like him.
[Sheepish smile.] That would be something. [Does a brief PG-rated Sam Jackson impression.]
What would happen if you tried to grow your hair out again?
It would be a struggle. It would be awfully thin up front. There would be a two-month period where people would look at me like, what the f--- is going on. It would just be messed up.
You’d be looking like Django.
Exactly! Sometimes in the offseason when I’m laying low and no one sees me, I just let it go. I’ll have this full beard and everything. It’s been a while since the ’fro. Those days are long gone.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
I hate dog s---. I won’t go near it. So pissed when I step in it. I’ve got four dogs and I just don’t do dog doo. I’m a diva when it comes to that. Back in the day when I was in Italy, I used to order shoes from Nike all the time. I had to have all the fresh joints. I ordered the Elephant Print Jordans that were amazing. I went to the park to play and stepped in a huge pile of dog s---. You wouldn’t believe how mad I was. I was breaking off sticks to try to get it out of the crevices. I smacked them together and scraped the soles on the curb but couldn’t get it all out. Ever since that day I just can’t stand dog crap.
You made a glorious arrival to Twitter. Are there any NBA players you might want to follow?
Probably not. I’m not interested in what you had for breakfast. Twitter is great to connect with fans and be transparent. I enjoy that aspect about it. But really, I’m still trying to figure it out.
So what are you going to do with the rest of your day?
I gotta catch a fishing boat. I’m taking my daughters fishing. It’s daddy time.