Kobe Bryant and the power to control the narrative
He wanted things his way. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes it was blatant.
It was sometime during Kobe Bryant’s second season that he answered my question. Or so I thought.
Standard NBA logic dictated that championship teams required two Hall of Fame-caliber players in their primes, and by 1998 Shaquille O’Neal had already established he was on his way to Springfield, Massachusetts. Would anyone on that talented Los Angeles Lakers roster join him?
I don’t remember the exact moment, or even which game, but at some point that season it became apparent to me that Bryant would be the one. I had seen what Jerry West first noticed in that legendary pre-draft workout two years earlier, that Bryant had what it takes to make the Basketball Hall of Fame.
I never would have imagined – and it didn’t even dawn on me until several hours after he died in a helicopter crash Sunday – that he would be inducted posthumously.
Bryant’s death marks perhaps the one time he could not take control of the narrative, an instance in which he couldn’t defy expectations. In a twisted, tragic way, he did not provide the answer to that question I thought he resolved two decades ago. Technically, he won’t be going into the Hall of Fame. At least not physically. He won’t be there alongside Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett to bask in the accolades and provide a look back at his career.
Amid the harsh reality there’s been a subtle revelation. Thinking back on our interactions in our entwined careers, in which I worked in Los Angeles for 19 of Bryant’s 20 NBA seasons, I realize now that even though Bryant granted me countless one-on-one interviews, he never really answered my questions.
More accurately, he never validated the premise.
As he walked past the Arco Arena vending machines following the Lakers’ dramatic Game 7 overtime victory in the 2002 Western Conference finals, I asked him about the rivalry with the Sacramento Kings. He denied there was one.
“They gotta beat us first,” he said. “You know the rules, baby.”
Many of his memorable words that are popping into my head now came unprompted. Like the time he giddily glided past me as he left the interview room following the Lakers’ 15-point, fourth-quarter comeback in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals. He was on his way to his first NBA Finals and couldn’t resist clapping back at those who doubted the Lakers’ ability to finish off their prey in those playoffs, when they had lost five of their first six chances to end a series early.
“Killer instinct?” he said, mockingly. “No?”
His philosophy of embracing adversity was on display after Game 2 of the 2009 Western Conference finals, when the Lakers lost at home and now had to win a game in Denver, where the Nuggets hadn’t lost during the playoffs. Bryant actually had a question of his own for me, a rhetorical one: “Who the f— said it was going to be easy?”
There was also the time he tried to cut me off before I could even sit down at my laptop to finish off the Lakers when they fell behind 2-0 in a series with the Dallas Mavericks.
“Be careful what you write,” I heard his voice call out to me on the way back to the Chick Hearn Press Room. (I ignored his warnings.)
The most chilling look inside his mind that he ever provided me came when I didn’t ask him a question, but instead offered an observation. It was during the 2001 conference finals. The Lakers had already won the first game in San Antonio and, with a little over a minute left to play in Game 2 and the Lakers up by four points, Bryant lined up a 3-pointer from straight away and drained it. Game, series. (The Lakers won the next two games in L.A. by a combined 68 points.) As we made the long walk from the locker room to the bus in the Alamodome, I said: “I think you cut an artery with that one, Kob.”
“Let ’em bleed,” he replied.
Usually he wasn’t so quick to embrace my concepts. When I tried to regale him with the thought that the 2011 All-Star Game would make him the first player since the NBA-ABA merger to play two All-Star Games in the same hometown arena, he was unimpressed by that distinction. But when I pointed out that he would be one of only seven participants in the 2004 All-Star Game in L.A. to make it back with the same team, he took pride in that and provided some of his greatest insight into his mindset.
The only time he was with me from the start was when I proposed that the passing of Jerry Buss in 2013 left Bryant standing as The last Laker, the only one of the legends of purple and gold who was still formally connected to the franchise.
“I will carry that torch,” Bryant said. “Happily. It’s an honor. A tremendous honor.”
That bit of agreeability was the exception to his standard operating procedure of being a contrarian. It wasn’t just with me. On a Bryant-dedicated episode of Around The Horn this week, Ramona Shelburne said that when Bryant agreed to an exit interview for The Undefeated following his 60-point career finale, he didn’t want to frame it in the same manner she did. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times said that Bryant talked him out of his initial premise of their final interview last week, telling Plaschke that instead of writing about how LeBron James would never surpass Bryant in the hearts of Laker fans, he should instead recommend that they embrace James as the team’s newest avatar.
Bryant wanted things his way. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes it was blatant. The manipulation was masterful, so much so that I have only come to realize the extent of it.
One of the ways it manifested itself was in the discussion, or at times lack thereof, of his 2003 sexual assault charge. It’s perhaps the ultimate testament to Bryant’s narrative-shaping power that he was able to shift such a serious allegation into a secondary or tertiary element of his story arc, to the point that some people felt compelled (even at their own risk) to remind folks that the retelling of his life is incomplete without that chapter.
It could be that this is only possible in sports, where there are clearly defined winners and losers, a place where there is no place to enter character attributes on the list of champions. Bryant won the NBA MVP, two NBA championships and two Olympic gold medals after the charges in Colorado were dropped. It’s not that he went on to such great accomplishments as a means to reduce the prominence of his darkest episode, but they certainly helped provide that end.
There is the ideal that athletic achievements should not provide a counterbalance to real-world behavior, and then there is the reality that they quite often do. There was no starker illustration than the day Bryant made an appearance at a pretrial hearing in Colorado, flew back to Los Angeles, arrived at Staples Center after tipoff and hit the game-winning shot. He had managed to turn a late arrival to work because of a sexual assault case into a highlight clip.
Whether he had the ball in his hands or a microphone in front of his face, Bryant always felt confident in his ability to shape the story line. He might not be the one to initiate the direction of a conversation, but he could determine its outcome. He understood that while he might not have the final say on what people wrote about him, but he could dictate the material on his end and that would go a long way toward determining the coverage.
At the memorial service for football great Walter Payton in 1999, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said tombstones have a date of birth on the left, a date of death on the right and a dash in the middle. You can’t control the numbers on the left or the right, he said, but you can control the dash.
“On that dash is where you make your life statement,” Jackson said.
No one took greater control of the dash than Kobe Bryant.