LOS ANGELES — I didn’t set out to major in Kobe Bryant, having long since graduated when he showed up here at 17.
Things just led that way. I covered his father, Joe, whom he called Jellybean, as a 76ers rookie in the 1970s. I knew the family from Baker League games, where I met Joe’s gregarious father, Big Joe. After not having seen Joe for decades, I ran into him at the 1995 Adidas camp at Fairleigh Dickinson where his son, a rising junior who was still 16, won the MVP over Tim Thomas, the supposed star of their class.
A year later I met Kobe Bryant in Chicago – where he was attending the predraft camp – in the downtown Marriott, the NBA writers’ home away from home. He was by himself on the second-floor balcony, looking down at the goings-on in the lobby, like a kid far away from home, I thought.
Of course, that was before I knew Kobe was never alone with Kobe.
I introduced myself, said I knew his dad, etc.. He said he was going out to Los Angeles to work out for the Lakers.
I didn’t think twice about it. Even if Kevin Garnett had just made the jump from high school, everyone thought Kobe – then a spindly 6-5 and 165 pounds – was in over his head. Lakers GM Jerry West invited him as a favor to Arn Tellem, Kobe’s agent, who wanted to know who he had on his hands.
The workout, West would tell Tellem, was the greatest he had ever seen.
Clippers coach Bill Fitch said the same thing when Kobe worked out for them.
John Calipari, the Nets’ new coach, was set to take Kobe with the eighth pick – until Tellem, whose client was head over heels in love with the Lakers, said Kobe didn’t want to stay that close to home.
GM John Nash, who had Philadelphia roots and understood Bryant’s potential, tried to talk Calipari into taking him anyway. Calipari, who had control, took the safe pick, Kerry Kittles.
With the Lakers agreeing on a deal to send Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the 13th pick, Suns coach Danny Ainge, similarly blown away, got owner Jerry Colangelo to try to trade up for Golden State’s 11th pick.
Said Ainge years later, laughing: “And then they turned around and took Todd Fuller.”
Moving Divac’s $4.5 million salary was perfect for the Lakers, who were hotly pursuing Magic free agent Shaquille O’Neal, whom they landed three weeks later.
On draft day, when the Hornets took Bryant for the Lakers, Ainge, sitting in the Phoenix war room, said he exclaimed, “They just got Shaq and Kobe!”
If this was the first time both names were mentioned in the same sentence, it wouldn’t be the last.
Whatever else Bryant has been for 16 years, he always has been the straw that stirred the drink for all that time.
His greatness was never in doubt. His lucidity was, as the most daring – or crazed – shot-maker in the game’s history.
So was his image, which changed every few years, going from All-American Boy, to one of two dueling divas, to Black Mamba, the nickname he embraced when O’Neal left and he became the most shunned superstar the NBA has ever seen.
Even after earning everyone’s respect by winning title Nos. 4-5 without O’Neal, Bryant remained – as he assured the LA media he regarded so attitudinally – the same “edgy guy.”
I was a confidant for the first eight seasons and have had no relationship with him since. This was the new norm for Bryant, who stopped doing one-on-one interviews with anyone but trusted national guys. Even they were rarely allowed to quote him.
Even in Kobe’s memorable 2003 he’s-not-my-quote-big-brother rant at Shaq, Stephen A. Smith had to go on ESPN and paraphrase him. In 2007, Ric Bucher was left dangling with no source he could name after Kobe did a 180, months vowing privately never to put on a Laker uniform again.
So, after all these years, who would imagine this?
Kobe’s not edgy with the press.
Kobe breaks out laughing on the bench in last week’s win over the Mavericks when Pau Gasol and Ramon Sessions broke down on a pick-and-roll, letting Jason Terry walk with such ease to the hoop – where he hit the underside of the rim with the game-winner thanks to Matt Banes swooping in to alter the shot.
Kobe makes jokes at his own expense, as when he told ESPN’S Heather Cox he’s sitting out in an ongoing effort to find “the fountain of youth.”
An all-time great at holding grudges, Bryant had to get over it with Phil Jackson, who called him “uncoachable” after leaving in 2004 and returning in 2005.
Now Kobe forgives people, such as Lakers employees he has shunned for years.
Most important of all, he backs new coach Mike Brown, which is why this aging mid-transition team still resembles the Lakers even as Brown – trying to establish an authority level he did not dare attempt in Cleveland – zings him.
If there are few times that it wouldn’t be fair game to note Bryant’s woolly shot selection – as Brown did after a loss in Washington – Kobe’s six-second pause before commenting was enough to prompt Brown to apologize to the team (Brown’s version), or to Bryant (as reported by the Los Angeles Times).
Then there was the home loss to Memphis, where Brown took Kobe out in the fourth quarter, seeming to go beyond “stepping on Superman’s cape” and heading for “career suicide.”
Kobe punched a chair angrily on the bench, but wouldn’t say a word about it afterward, noting, “I’ve had his back all season.”
And so he has.
Not that this should be a surprise, but there may be generalized dissent bubbling under the surface with Brown trying to walk in Jackson’s giant footsteps, lacking the credibility the Zen Master had the day he arrived in 1999 with the six rings he had won in Chicago.
Metta World Peace noted Brown’s “video guy” background.
Andrew Bynum suggested they re-work the offense to give him some cutters to hit when he’s double-teamed.
Unidentified veterans, reportedly including Bryant and Derek Fisher, suggested re-installing the triangle.
Bynum then staged his own punk revolution, not only chafing at being benched for launching a 3-pointer with 18 seconds on the shot clock, promising to shoot more and finally being fined by the team after skipping a meeting with GM Mitch Kupchak.
This, of course, prompted a local debate along the lines of “Drew: Total idiot, or just clueless?”
Restoring perspective, Bynum – an All-Star whose only real issue has been his health – then started putting up huge numbers, going for 30 points twice and 20 twice in the next eight games, with a 30-rebound game in the win in San Antonio.
So everything is cool in Lakerdom … kind of.
When the Lakers recently won four in a row without Bryant, the local, quote “debate” changed to “Is this team better without Kobe?”
Of course, everyone has just came scurrying back to reality when the Spurs ended the winning streak in a 21-point wipeout at Staples on Tuesday.
“This proves it,” a Times headline declared. “They need Bryant.”
Gosh, who’d have imagined that?
Oh yeah, any eighth grader, assuming he didn’t listen to one of those “debates” on the impact of Our Team’s latest loss on Western Civilization.
In other words, while the world around Bryant gets screwier by the day, Kobe – the lifelong force unto himself – goes the other way, looking happier than he has ever been as an NBA player.
Congratulations. It took you long enough.