We know the stats: 21 seasons in the NBA, 5 championships, 18-time NBA All-Star, 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist, 16-times to the ALL-NBA First Team, 12-times to the All-Defensive Team, 4-times All-Star MVP, and the all-time leading scorer in Los Angeles Lakers franchise history. But, do you know KOBE BRYANT?
If stats are where your knowledge of him stops, or your knowledge rests upon the comments of sports journalist and disgruntled teammates, whose commitment to excel is not as high, then you don’t know Kobe Bryant, the man who has used his on the court prominence to provide opportunity for children in the US and China.
Since 2007, Bryant has been the official Ambassador for After-School All Stars (ASAS), an after-school program that services more than 90,000 inner-city children in 13 cities within the US. In China, where his celebrity is also of the highest influence, Bryant partnered with the Chinese government to launch the KOBE BRYANT CHINA FUND, which raises money for education and help programs to those in need. None of things are readily discussed in the media despite their large amount of focus on Bryant. It is with the media, specifically, and its monolithic depiction, that ICON MANN takes issue. It is to the humility and commitment to do the work that Bryant has shown, allowing the metrics to speak for themselves, that ICON MANN salutes.
Now, in preparation for Wednesday, April 13, 2016, as basketball fans around the world put their lighters up to salute one of the greatest players of all time, we have decided to revisit one of the most candid and inspired interviews given by the original NO. 8 and No. 24, KOBE BRYANT, as reported by Chuck Klosterman for GQ magazine, published February 27, 2015.
Kobe Bryant Will Always Be an All-Star
Leaders hold themselves to a higher standard than anyone else ever can, and they don’t suffer fools –so don’t sleep.
The image of Bryant being less than "thrilled" with the not-so-maniacal work ethic of a teammate has become the center of his persona. Though he will never usurp the greatness of Michael Jordan within the public consciousness, he has likely already surpassed MJ in terms of the terror and antipathy he instills in those who play alongside him. His legacy is littered with the corpses of slackers who could not match his commitment, particularly underachievers of unusual size (Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum). It has become popular to suggest that his ego—and his two-year, $48.5 million contract—are now actively hurting the franchise. The perception has become so universal that ESPN The Magazine published a story suggesting the Lakers cannot sign top-flight free agents as long as Bryant controls the system. Most of the story’s sources were anonymous and Bryant claims he didn’t read the article. But he also said he has been asked about it enough to "grasp what it was conceptually," and he certainly doesn’t dispute the takeaway.
"Does my nature make me less enjoyable to play with? Of course," he says. "Of course it does. Is it possible that some top players in the league are intimidated by that? Yes. But do I want to play with those players? Does the Laker organization want those specific players? No. Magic. Jordan. Bird. We all would have been phenomenal teammates. This organization wants players who will carry this franchise to another five or six championships. The player who does that has to be cut from the same cloth. And if they’re not cut from that cloth, they don’t belong here."
This self-perpetuating image of Bryant as an unyielding workaholic has become so integral to his ethos that it reflexively informs every other detail about his life. He has become The Last Hard Man, the realest of the real, the lone remnant from a Precambrian NBA era when players still hated each other and the only people who cared about AAU basketball were actual eighth graders. Yet people forget that this was not always the case. As crazy as it now seems, there was a long stretch in the ’90s when the principle knock on Bryant was his alleged insincerity. He smiled constantly, spoke Italian, and took Brandy to the prom. He adopted a "plain vanilla" persona modeled after Julius Erving, despite a transparent aspiration to embody the most conventional definition of urban cool; it often came across like Grant Hill trying to impersonate Allen Iverson.
"It wasn’t that people thought I was soft," he says, slightly wincing at the implications of the word. "It was more of a street credibility thing: ’He grew up in Italy. He’s not one of us.’ But what I came to understand, coming out of Colorado, is that I had to be me, in the place where I was at that moment."
Which brings us to the hinge-point in the career of Kobe Bryant: the week he checked into a Colorado hotel room, had sex with a woman who worked there, and was subsequently arrested on a sexual-assault charge. A year later, the charges were dropped and Bryant apologized. But the incident will (obviously) never go away. When Bryant dies, the accusation will probably appear in the second paragraph of his obituary. And he knows this.
"I started to consider the mortality of what I was doing," he says. At the time, he was 24. "What’s important? What’s not important? What does it mean when everybody loves you, and then everybody hates your guts for something they think you did? So that’s when I decided that—if people were going to like me or not like me—it was going to be for who I actually was. To hell with all that plain vanilla shit, just to get endorsement deals. Those are superficial, anyway. I don’t enjoy doing them, anyway. I’ll just show people who I actually am.... The [loss of the] endorsements were really the least of my concerns. Was I afraid of going to jail? Yes. It was twenty-five to life, man. I was terrified. The one thing that really helped me during that process—I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—was talking to a priest. It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ’Did you do it?’ And I say, ’Of course not.’ Then he asks, ’Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ’Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ’Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point."
In 2011, Bryant’s wife Vanessa filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Yet those differences were reconciled, thirteen months later. They remain a married couple. "I’m not going to say our marriage is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination," Kobe says. "We still fight, just like every married couple. But you know, my reputation as an athlete is that I’m extremely determined, and that I will work my ass off. How could I do that in my professional life if I wasn’t like that in my personal life, when it affects my kids? It wouldn’t make any sense." The logic is weirdly airtight: If we concede that Kobe would kill himself to beat the Celtics, we must assume he’d be equally insane about keeping his family together. And he knows that we know this about him, so he uses that to his advantage.
Do you ever think that the qualities that make you great are actually problems?
Oh, yeah. But the things that make a person average are also problems. The things that make someone not good at anything at all are a problem. If you want to be the greatest of all-time at something, there’s going to be a negative side to that. If you want to be a high school principal, that’s fine, too—but that will also carry negative baggage.
So how much are you willing to give up? Have you given up the possibility of having friends? Do you have any friends?
I have "like minds." You know, I’ve been fortunate to play in Los Angeles, where there are a lot of people like me. Actors. Musicians. Businessmen. Obsessives. People who feel like God put them on earth to do whatever it is that they do. Now, do we have time to build great relationships? Do we have time to build great friendships? No. Do we have time to socialize and to hangout aimlessly? No. Do we want to do that? No. We want to work. I enjoy working.
So is this a choice? Are you actively choosing not to have friends?
Well, yes and no. I have friends. But being a "great friend" is something I will never be. I can be a good friend. But not a great friend. A great friend will call you every day and remember your birthday. I’ll get so wrapped up in my shit, I’ll never remember that stuff. And the people who are my friends understand this, and they’re usually the same way. You gravitate toward people who are like you. But the kind of relationships you see in movies—that’s impossible for me. I have good relationships with players around the league. LeBron and I will text every now and then. KG and I will text every now and then. But in terms of having one of those great, bonding friendships—that’s something I will probably never have. And it’s not some smug thing. It’s a weakness. It’s a weakness.
Do you miss the idea of having a great friendship?
Of course. It’s not like I’m saying, ’I don’t need friends because I’m so strong.’ It’s a weakness. When I was growing up in Italy, I grew up in isolation. It was not an environment suited to me. I was the only black kid. I didn’t speak the language. I’d be in one city, but then we’d move to a different city and I’d have to do everything again. I’d make friends, but I’d never be part of the group, because the other kids were already growing up together. So this is how I grew up, and these are the weaknesses that I have.
Part of what makes interviewing athletes difficult is the way they purposefully misunderstand questions, and the way they ignore certain questions, and the inflexibly straightforward manner in which they answer the handful of queries they perceive as relevant. This is not the case with Kobe. "Me sitting here, doing this interview—I don’t have to do this," he says. "Ever since Colorado, I control my shit. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t fucking do it. Nobody is going to control my career or my life."
Story photo credits: Mark Seliger for L'uomo Vogue; Peggy Sirota for GQ