Sunday, May 26, 2002 Updated: May 4, 5:31 PM ET
Bryant makes transformation from phenom to star
By Kris Schwartz Special to ESPN.com
"[Kobe] is going to have to make a stand, because when you are really good, people don't like you. He just has to draw a line in the sand and say I'm not backing down anymore,"says Charles Barkley on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
As a rookie, Bryant won the Slam Dunk contest, just as Michael Jordan had in his first season.
He parachuted into the NBA directly from high school, an 18-year-old man-child with a self-confidence bordering on arrogance. Kobe Bryant had to grow up in public -- and he has done so, although the evolution has been difficult and fitful.
The 6-foot-7 Los Angeles Lakers guard was prematurely compared to Michael Jordan, but he persevered, working relentlessly, and over time his game has ripened. He relishes the moment that many run from and craves to have the ball -- and the game -- in his hands. When he beat San Antonio with pyrotechnic fourth quarters in back-to-back playoff games in 2002, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich suggested that Bryant had acquired that Jordanesque "uncommon will to win."
Bryant learned to discard flamboyance for flamboyance's sake. He learned to hoard the special moves and save them for the special moments. It's a hard transition from gunner without conscience to the player that others turn to at winning time. Still, he's capable of putting on a show by himself. That was most evident on Jan. 22, 2006 when he scored 81 points, only the second time a player surpassed 80 in NBA history. (Wilt Chamberlain holds the record with 100 points.)
But life away from the court has been more difficult for Bryant. The wonderful world of Kobe took a huge hit in July 2003 when he was charged with one count of sexual assault, a Class 3 felony that is the equivalent of rape, on a 19-year-old woman at a resort hotel where she worked in Edwards, Colo. With his wife at his side, Bryant said he was guilty of adultery, but was innocent of the rape charge. "I didn't force her to do anything against her will," he said.
In September 2004, with jury selection underway, the woman said she wouldn't cooperate with the prosecution and the criminal case was dropped. Six months later, Bryant and his accuser reached a financial settlement, avoiding a potentially messy civil trial. While no figures were announced, it was speculated that the woman received between two and five million dollars.
Before being charged with sexual assault, it seemed that Bryant's entire life revolved around basketball. He was bred to play the game. His father, Joe, was on three NBA teams in eight seasons. While a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Joe's third child was born on Aug. 23, 1978. Kobe was named after a Japanese steakhouse in King of Prussia, Pa.
In 1984, a year after wrapping up his NBA career, the 6-foot-9½ Jellybean took his game to Italy. He became a popular star in the Italian League, averaging 29.7 points over seven seasons for four teams. His enthusiasm and dazzling play also earned him a new nickname: "Magic."
During breaks in the action in his father's games, Kobe entertained the crowd with his fancy dribbling and shooting. He played basketball by himself after school. Besides his father, he also had help in learning the game from overseas.
Kobe's grandparents not only sent tapes of what the Bryants were missing culturally (e.g., "The Cosby Show" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air"), they sent videos of NBA games to Italy. Kobe grew up watching Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. At nine, Kobe was breaking down his first video scouting tape, and he had a fondness for Magic and the "Showtime" Lakers.
With few American families in Italy, the Bryants grew close. They picked up the Italian custom of long dinners, and Kobe sat around with his parents and two older sisters.
In December 1991, the Bryants moved back to the U.S., to the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore. The next year, Kobe entered Lower Merion High School. By the summer of his junior year, he was playing pickup games with members of the 76ers. As a senior, Bryant led the Aces to the 1996 Pennsylvania state championship. He was selected national player of the year by USA Today and Parade magazine. Off the court, Kobe received press when he took singer and actress Brandy to his prom.
But Bryant faced a major decision: What level to play on next? With good grades, he could play for any college. Or he could also make the jump straight to the NBA, as Kevin Garnett had done a year earlier.
On April 29, 1996, Bryant announced he would "take his talent to the NBA." A big reason for his skipping college was so he could play while Jordan was still in the league.
With the 13th pick in the draft, Charlotte selected Bryant. Fifteen days later, he was a Laker when Jerry West traded starting center Vlade Divac for the untested teenager.
As a rookie, Bryant won the Slam Dunk contest, just as Jordan had in his first season. But while Jordan had averaged 28.2 points as a rookie after playing three years at North Carolina, the less experienced Bryant averaged just 7.6 points in 15.5 minutes.
His last game that season defined his young career. With the Lakers facing elimination in Game 5 of the 1997 Western Conference semifinals against Utah, Bryant had the ball with the score tied and just seconds remaining. He threw up an airball and the contest went into overtime. Bryant tried to take charge again, but airballed three more shots. The Lakers lost, ending their season.
Nine months later, he was the youngest player to start an All-Star Game. The buildup was immense. Bryant's full-page photo appeared against a full-page photo of Jordan's. The showdown was on, and Bryant was ready to duel, frequently going one-on-one with MJ. Although the East won and Jordan was named MVP, Bryant led the West with 18 points. Afterwards, Jordan told Bryant he admired his game and to keep being aggressive.
During the regular season, Bryant continued to come off the bench, starting just one game. However, with increased playing time, he more than doubled his scoring average to 15.4.
Bryant's game, smile, and demeanor drew the attention of advertisers. He campaigned for Adidas, Sprite, Spalding and McDonald's. But Bryant wasn't always so easily accepted by everybody.
His must-win attitude didn't get him on the side of his fellow Lakers early in his career. He kept to himself, rarely going out with teammates, sometimes sitting in his hotel room studying videotape. After dunking and soaking up the media attention, Bryant was nicknamed "Showboat" before he even played a game for the Lakers.
In his third season, Bryant became a starter, and he averaged 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists in the lockout-shortened campaign. After the Lakers were again eliminated in the playoffs, former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson was hired.
In his first season utilizing Jackson's triangle offense, Bryant averaged 22.5 points. In Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals against Portland, Bryant shined. With LA down by 15 points in the fourth quarter, he piloted a comeback. He finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks in the Lakers' 89-84 victory.
In Game 4 of the NBA Finals, after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out in overtime, Bryant led the Lakers to a 120-118 victory. Although hobbled by a sprained left ankle, he scored eight of his 28 points in the extra session. Two games later, the Lakers gained their first NBA title in a dozen years. Bryant had truly arrived, and the team chemistry was flowing -- or so it seemed.
In the off-season, Bryant worked harder than ever. He believed that he, not Shaq, should be the focus of the offense. Earlier in their careers, there were hard feelings between two, culminating in O'Neal slapping Bryant during a pickup game.
Bryant's relationship with Shaquille O'Neal has gone from friendly to frosty.
Bryant was shooting more in the 2000-2001 season as he averaged 28.5 points, fourth highest in the league. However, the Lakers didn't dominate as expected. The media had a field day. Quotes were plastered in the headlines about the rift between Bryant and O'Neal. But when the playoffs came, there was no sign of a conflict. In interviews, the two stars went out of their way to praise the other. Los Angeles breezed, setting a record by going 15-1 and beating the Philadelphia 76ers for the 2001 NBA crown.
During that season, on April 18, 2001, Bryant married 19-year-old Vanessa Laine. But life wouldn't be joyful for long.
When Bryant returned to Philadelphia for the 2002 All-Star Game, a harsh hometown crowd awaited him. He was booed almost every time he touched the ball. While Bryant earned the MVP award with 31 points, he admitted that he was hurt by the fans' reaction.
In 2002, Bryant was named first-team all-NBA for the first time after averaging 25.2 points (sixth in the league), 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists. In 2003, when the Lakers' streak of three consecutive titles ended, Bryant was voted first-team all-NBA again as he averaged 30 points (second in the league) and had career-highs in rebounds (6.9 per game) and assists (5.9).
That summer, Bryant was accused of sexual assault. Despite having to appear in court in Eagle, Colo., several times during the 2003-04 season, Bryant averaged 24 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists, helping the Lakers win the Pacific Division. After taking the Western Conference playoffs, LA was upset in the Finals by the Pistons in five games as Bryant shot just 38 percent from the field in averaging 22.6 points.
Bryant's relationship with Shaq and Jackson had deteriorated to the point that after the season Bryant was instrumental in the breakup of the Lakers. Jackson was not retained as coach and Shaq was traded to Miami, leaving Bryant, who signed a $136-million, seven-year contract with the team after becoming a free agent, as the only basketball star in LA.
But Bryant missed Shaq on the court and was not up to the task of carrying a team alone in 2004-05. Although he was second in the league in scoring at 27.6 per game and averaged six assists, the Lakers went 34-48 and missed the playoffs for the first time in Bryant's career.
With Jackson returning as coach the following season, Bryant was outstanding individually, winning scoring titles in 2005-06 (a career-high 35.4 average) and 2006-07 (31.6), when he had 10 50-point games (the most by an NBA player since Chamberlain's 30 in 1962-63). But surrounded by a weak supporting cast, the Lakers were bounced from the playoffs in the first round both years by the Phoenix Suns.