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When Kobe Bryant works the ball, he reminds me of something, but I can't figure exactly what. Maybe a large bird, like some kind of young condor ready to take flight. He flexes his body and his focus to the right, the ball moving rhythmically from fingertip to fingertip between his legs, his arms flaring to the sides like wings, while his neck stiffens and his eyes grow still. He seems to be looking nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Then he shifts to the left and assumes the same strange birdlike pose. Maybe it's the way he arches his neck. I almost expect him to cluck.
Here, in his private practice time in the Great Western Forum, this motion from side to side seems a little freaky. Who knows how many hours he's spent working alone perfecting this shifting approach? It's the product of a lifetime. Right. Left. Right. Left. Over and over again.
If you're defending him in a game, there's nothing comical, nothing birdlike, about this posture. In the context of a game, this move is absolutely threatening, reptilian, like a cobra mesmerizing its target before the strike. It's the set-up for his crossover dribble. His neck arches oddly as he prepares to flex his fake. The eyes freeze because he's locking in the peripheral vision, surveying the floor without giving up his intention.
"I can still see the court," he says. "Even if I have my head down sometimes, I can see it."
This is the exact moment when the defender reaches maximum anxiety. Which way will Kobe go?
"It's the rhythm," Kobe explains. "The defender can't do anything about it. He'll either back up, or close the gap even more. As for the eyes, it depends on who's guarding you. Some defenders like to look right here at your belt buckle. Other defenders like to look in your eyes. To see if they can follow the basketball."
So Kobe goes birdlike on them. Flex right. Flex left. Explode. His rear end sags like a dragster grabbing traction, and he's off to the hole. This, of course, is what NBA opponents fear most from Bryant. In the jargon of the business, he's "long" at 6-feet, 7-inches, which means he has the reach and leaping ability and quickness and athleticism to knife his way through a defense and get to the basket for a dunk. If he doesn't dunk, he often draws a foul, and because he shoots hundreds of free throws a day, he's an 84 percent foul shooter. Either way, his penetration adds up to trouble for opponents.
Unless, of course, it adds up to trouble for Kobe himself. He's still learning when to slip into the attack mode, and when not to. The learning process itself has been frustrating for his Los Angeles Lakers teammates and coaches. "You can see when he goes into brain lock," observes one longtime Lakers staff member. "He'll dribble about 15 times between his legs and then he'll try to beat three defenders going to the basket. When he does that, a couple of things usually happen. He either gets in trouble and takes a bad shot, or he makes a bad pass."
Kobe works the ball again. His head bobs ever so slightly on his long neck. If this were a video, I'd maybe use "Surfin' Bird" as a soundtrack.
The bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word&
But it's not a video. It's practice. Kobe Bryant's personal practice. His teammates have long gone, and he's still here in the grand old Forum, where the championship banners and the retired numbers of former great Los Angeles Lakers are hanging about the court, urging him on to glory.
Not that 20-year-old Bryant needs any urging. He is absolutely and completely obsessed with basketball, so locked in the embrace of his ambition that you wonder if maybe you shouldn't be worried about him.
"This kid is really, really driven. I haven't seen it in a player in a long time, not to that extent," Lakers assistant coach Larry Drew confided recently.
"He's nonpareil," Del Harris, Kobe's coach during his first two NBA seasons, says of his work ethic. "He doesn't waste a minute. Before practice, after practice, during the summer, whenever. Kobe doesn't waste any motion."
"I drive myself," Bryant explains, saying that work is far more important than play. "I like to go out and have fun and have a good time. But I just don't feel right. While I'm out having a good time, I could be playing basketball or something, could be lifting weights. I could be working on something."
It's not that Kobe Bryant is headed toward any type of exhaustion. He's too superbly conditioned - physically and emotionally - for that to happen. But there is this balls-out quality to the way he approaches life in the NBA that generates immense pressure, pressure that would quickly consume less talented young players (and there are many of those).
No wonder these young Lakers seemingly drip with pressure. Except they spend much of their time denying to reporters that they feel any at all. The truth is, just about all of the figures associated with the team, especially Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant, have much at risk in terms of their reputations, their futures, their standing in the game. It's a good thing they're all well-paid. Bryant himself has just signed a new $71 million contract. O'Neal's way of deflecting the circumstances is to repeatedly remind reporters that NBA pressure is nothing, that real pressure is faced daily by the homeless scrounging for a meal. It's a valid point. Still, these young Lakers are very much a product of their rare, hyper-competitive environment.
As we talk, Kobe again executes his flex move, his eyes strangely fixed. Then I realize what he reminds me of. One of those raptors in JURASSIC PARK. He shifts again in this predator's pose. Very freaky. But that's the way it is with genius, I think. Very unsettling. Because genius is much more than talent. It's talent that has an uncompromising level of commitment. Genius is talent that's willing to take risks.
And that's Kobe Bryant. He's living on the edge of his testosterone-laced dreams. Totally obsessed. Totally committed. Totally talented. Putting every part of himself into making himself the greatest, into being dominant, what he and other young players call 'The Man.'
Not that Bryant's an egotist, although some critics argue that he is. He's pleasant, unflappable in his diplomacy and good manners, and makes frequent use of his easy smile. But it's not hard to push aside that demeanor and find a sharp, hard edge to his approach. He has a huge need to fill, and he knows what he wants.
In high school, he discovered the elation of athletic dominance. He had a series of games in which he scored 50 points on the way to taking his team to a state championship. It was a masterful control of his environment, and it proved addictive. There would be the five players from the other team, all scrambling to stop him, all absolutely defenseless in the face of his faking, snaking sorties to the basket and his abrupt pull-up jumpers. In the ensuing months, many observers would come to compare him to Michael Jordan. And there were many obvious physical reasons to liken him to Jordan, but the greatest reason was a shark-like hunger they share for dominating.
Phil Jackson, Jordan's coach in Chicago [and now Bryant's coach in L.A.], once explained it like this: "Some nights Michael could take on a whole team. They'd say, 'That son of a gun, he beat us all to the basket.' As a coach, you can run that videotape back over and over. You say, 'Look at this guy go around that guy and that guy. He beat four guys going to the basket that time.' That's destructive. That's something that Michael's been known for, and I know it grates at the heart of the other team. It's an amazing feat this guy has been able to accomplish. But I think his power is very addictive."
Indeed, Bryant has tasted that same power, that addiction. "I feel like I'm conquering somebody," Kobe says of those moments.
Which explains why he longs to unleash it each time he steps on the court, the only problem being that basketball is a five-man game and such displays aren't often considered appropriate in the hierarchy of the talented Lakers. Jordan himself took a half dozen seasons learning when to give in to his cravings, and when not to. Then again, Jordan didn't have to learn to share the offensive spotlight with a massive and effective weapon like O'Neal.
"[Kobe]'s a good guy," said Harris in 1998. "And he's bright. But everybody's trying to rush him into being something that no 19-year-old can ever be, including Michael himself. Michael was Michael Jordan from North Carolina at age 19, and he didn't become Michael until he was about 27. And he didn't become MJ until he was 30. It didn't happen like that. Michael Jordan wasn't a media creation. He wasn't anything that everybody was hoping for at age 19. The guy got cut from his high school team at 15. He made it through immense talent but hard work over a period of time. And that's the way Kobe will have to make it."
Excerpted from MAD GAME by Roland Lazenby. Copyright © 1999 by Roland Lazenby. Excerpted by permission of Masters Press and NTC/Contemporary. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.