AUBURN HILLS — Los Angeles Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant” said “Star Wars” is one of his all-time favorite movies. I think it is appropriate when one considers the NBA and world basketball stratosphere that Bryant has to negotiate.
I know from my humble efforts as an athlete that a truly exceptional one has to have that edge. It is a thin line between arrogance and having that intrinsic belief in oneself.
Bryant is truly in a “Star Wars” battle with himself, the NBA elite and his run at NBA history. He fancies himself as the Black Mamba, one of the world’s most lethal snakes; however, I liken him to the Jedi Warrior in his favorite movie – comparing him to the young warrior who is seeking the Force and finds it.
Bryant has traversed a minefield of obstacles to get to the place he is at in the world’s sporting community; his Lakers’ No. 24 is the top selling jersey in America, Europe and China.
Currently running on our local television sets is the LeBron James and Bryant Nike Muppet show.
“Yes, it is fun seeing the commercials,” Bryant acknowledged. “We had a lot of input in the formation of the spots. They wanted to make sure they knew my personality and LeBron’s. We are polar opposites. He is always talking and I am always listening. But it is interesting to see the creative end of it all. The good thing is that LeBron and I are really good friend, we respect each other.”
When the Lakers came to The Palace Sunday to contest the Pistons, it was further proof that Bryant and the Lakers have become the NBA’s rock star troop as The Palace saw a rare sellout and many in attendance appeared in Lakers’ gold jerseys and signs supporting the defending NBA champions.
Bryant, only 31, is in his 13th season in the NBA and with time come history and reflections.
He is the son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. And like Tiger Woods, and Serena and Venus Williams, he has always known what he wanted to do with his life – play basketball at the highest level.
I was covering the Lakers as a journalist when then GM Jerry West, traded for Bryant in the 1997 NBA draft. Many exclaimed, “Who is this high school player and why was popular center Vlade Divac traded for him?”
It was a lonely time for Bryant as he only played 15 minutes per game in his rookie season and in year two only started one game. Many were questioning whether he had the right stuff to be a great NBA player.
I used to talk to him after every game when no other reporters were interested. I noticed that he was a cerebral athlete as evident by the fact he spoke Italian and Spanish fluently.
Now, 13 years later his resumé has grown to the point of Hall of Fame worthiness. It started in his second season when he was voted a starter for the 1998 All-Star Game, becoming at 19 the youngest All-Star in NBA history.
I remember interviewing Bryant before the game in a Madison Square Garden locker room about his impending match-up with legend Michael Jordan and he was cool as northern Alaskan weather. He went out and posted a team-high 18 points and 6 rebounds. He also became the first Laker to win the Nestle Crunch Slam Dunk contest.
“I was excited to be starting in the NBA All-Star game,” Bryant told me, “especially since I did not even start for my own team. I tried to play down the Jordan match-up, but you guys blew it up and it became a big deal. For me, I wasn’t even starting for my own team and I had not won anything, so I was very humble about it all.”
Since his second year in the league, Bryant has started in every NBA All-Star Game, winning the All-Star MVP award in 2002, 2007, and 2009. He has won a regular season Most Valuable Player Award (MVP) in 2007-08 and has been selected to seven All-NBA Defensive teams.
He is only the second player in NBA history to produce four straight 50-point games, following Wilt Chamberlain, who is the all-time leader with seven consecutive 50-point games twice. Also in the 2006 season, Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second highest number of points scored in a single game in NBA history, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point performance.
“I honestly do not know why I scored that many points,” Bryant said. “I just came out like any other game and tried to do what I could to help my team win. I must admit, once the point total got up, people started telling me about it. But Wilt’s record was never in jeopardy.
“The fact of the matter is I’ve been in the league long enough to understand that the individual things really don’t mean anything. It is how you perform as a team that will be one’s lasting impact.”