Enter the words Kobe Bryant highlights into the search bar of YouTube, and the site will spit out dozens of videos that have been viewed a million times or more. How many? I stopped counting at 29. Some of the videos arent highlight compilations at all. Some of them are eulogies and tributes. Some of them are interviews. Some of them are entire games. But enough of them are highlight compilations that Kobe-philes can spend a day or more losing themselves in his brilliance, one violent dunk, one twisting and twirling layup, one contested 19-foot buzzer-beater at a time.
There is one video that stands out among those dozens. It has been watched 77 million times. It lasts 3 minutes, 8 seconds, and it is required viewing for anyone seeking to understand why Bryants peers regarded him with so great a sense of respect, of competitive reverence, and why that respect is sure to be a theme of his posthumous induction Saturday night into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Lakers are playing the Magic in Orlando in March 2010, and Bryant is jawing, grappling, elbowing, and tussling with the mercurial forward Matt Barnes. The referees assess each of them a technical foul, and with jabs and subtle shoves and trash talk, Barnes keeps trying to antagonize Bryant, to goad him into an overreaction, another tech, and an ejection. Now Barnes is about to inbound the ball, and Bryant stands in front of him, his hands at his sides. From no more than five feet away, Barnes raises the ball and, instead of throwing it to a teammate, snaps a fake chest pass toward Bryant, as if hes going to fire the ball into his face.
READ MORE: How Kobe Bryants death brought Bobby McIlvaine an athlete, a scholar, the friend I shouldve known better back to life | Mike Sielski
Bryant, his eyes locked on Barnes, doesnt so much as blink. Is he in some kind of trance? Has he achieved so deep a detachment that he doesnt throw up his hands to protect himself? No. The opposite. He has long ago steeled himself against the tactics that Barnes is employing. In that setting, in that moment, he is fully engaged, and he considers himself bulletproof. He has spent his whole life training himself to be so.
In the summer of 1993, there was a pickup basketball circuit in and around Philadelphia for pros and college players, which meant Tim Legler a La Salle alumnus, having just finished his third season in the NBA could find a good game just about anywhere, anytime. The sites rotated: Philadelphia Community College, Philadelphia Textile, Hayman Hall at La Salle, McGonigle Hall at Temple, the Sporting Club. The games were so popular and such an essential part of the NBA offseason that the Sixers trainers would set up tables courtside to treat the players. Legler was getting his ankle taped one day when he saw this young dude, he said, long and kind of gangly but just crazy athletic.
Who is that guy? Legler asked.
Oh, someone said, thats Kobe Bryant. Thats Joe Bryants kid. Hes a freshman at Lower Merion.
A freshman? Legler couldnt believe it.
He was absolutely out there holding his own, he said. His confidence level made absolutely no sense for any 15-year-old person doing anything. He wanted to go at guys. He wasnt just surviving, like someone did him a favor by letting him in the game because they knew Joe Bryant. This was a situation where this kid showed up, and he was there to get in games and to hang and hold his own. All of those things were going to be ahead of him, but it was impossible to know that at that age. All I know is, Ive never seen a person in my life that young that confident at anything.
Each weekend that summer, Legler would play pickup down the shore, at the courts at 8th and Dune in Avalon, against Big 5 guys and other college players. And once in a while, a 15-year-old or two would join them, and Legler always noticed the terror in those kids eyes as they went against grown men with game, and he always thought of the gangly freshman who had no fear at all.
During Bryants freshman season, Lower Merion went 4-20.
We would go to the movies, but Kobe would be working out in his driveway, said Guy Stewart, a friend and teammate. So he was constantly, constantly working, and because he was, he made such a leap from his freshman to his sophomore year, it was just insane. You would get these glimpses of him that summer or that next season, Oh, hes different now. Narberth Summer League, Ardmore Summer League. Then you would see him play pickup somewhere, where you could see how hard he had worked to change his game. He was just doing it with ease now, whether it was his jump shot, whether it was his handle, his vertical. Every year, it was an improvement a drastic improvement, too.
Anthony Gilbert was a student at Temple in the mid-1990s when he met Sharia Bryant, who was a standout volleyball player for the Owls, and her younger brother. Gilbert and Kobe became fast friends, but no matter how many times Gilbert prodded him, Hey, man, lets go to South Street, maybe talk to some girls, Kobe told him no. Kobe preferred to work on his game. We would hang out in basketball spaces, said Gilbert, a longtime contributing writer for SLAM Magazine.
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They would go to Tustin Playground, across the street from Overbrook High School. And to the Jewish Community Center in Wynnewood. And to Ardmore Park. And this, to Bryant, was hanging out: He would shoot pull-ups and three-pointers and 38-footers from just inside the half-court stripe hone his footwork, put himself through drill after drill on those courts. Gilbert had a two-pronged responsibility. He would rebound all the shots and, per Bryants instructions, shout challenges and insults at him.
Youre good, but you dont play in the Public League.
You go to a white high school.
Theres no competition in the suburbs.
During Bryants junior and senior seasons, Lower Merions practices started at 5:30 p.m. Because he arrived by 6 each morning a janitor would open the gym for him so he could practice alone or with a teammate Bryant would have spent close to 12 hours at school, then another two hours for practice. Then coach Gregg Downer and one of his assistants, Mike Egan, would play H-O-R-S-E or Around the World with the players for another 45 minutes or so, but not with Bryant.
Kobe always had his laboratory, his basket down there where he was working on his footwork until we said, OK, gotta go, Egan said. No one really bothered him. No one talked to him much. Hed work on the same move for 15, 20 minutes. It was amazing for a kid at that age. Wed yell down, Come on, Kobe. Dont be scared. Hed just laugh and wave us off. Its not by accident he had those moves. It was dedicated, focused repetition. He knew what he was doing.
In December 1995, Lower Merion won two of its three games at the Beach Ball Classic, a prestigious tournament held at the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Convention Center. Sold out, the center held between 7,500 and 8,000 people, a gigantic crowd for a high school basketball game, and there were five future NBA players, including Jermaine ONeal and Mike Bibby, who participated in that tournament. Bryant scored 117 points 43 one night, 31 the next, 43 the next the most productive three-game stretch of his prep career to that point.
We got to see Kobes game accelerate against the top teams in the country, said Omar Hatcher, a forward for Lower Merion then. It showed me a good players game has to travel. It cant be subject to place or atmosphere.
Kobe Bryant had been named the NBAs most valuable player in 2008. He had won his fourth championship with the Lakers in 2009. He would win his fifth in June 2010, which means that the Matt Barnes moment occurred at what can reasonably be called Bryants apex, the period during which he was regarded as the best basketball player in the world.
There are only so many people who can claim or have claimed that title, and what separates Bryant from most of them, if not all of them, is the degree to which he was willing to mold himself into that caliber of player. He did not need a tiger mom to push him. He would not have expressed any incredulity at the idea of talkin bout practice.
As a teenager, he could not palm a basketball his hands would grow to be 9 inches long, neither large nor small by NBA standards so he labored to shave away any imperfections from his fundamentals. So many of those highlight compilations feature Bryant making shots of the highest degree of difficulty, fadeaways and leaners that seem impossible but for his ability, with a drop step or a shoulder dip, to contort his body and free himself and still maintain his flawless shooting form.
Kobe will go down in history as having the greatest footwork of any perimeter player who ever played, Legler said. Thats not innate. It has to become second nature so that you react in the moment. It cant be something you have to think about. It has to be muscle memory, so much repetition that your body just reacts. That is something where you have to go into a gym and be obsessive about practicing it.
READ MORE: A year after Kobe Bryants death, remember that the Lower Merion kid was ours to cherish | Mike Sielski
The tolls and sacrifices of this existence were obvious and severe. His detachment manifested itself off the court, in more personal and intimate matters: in his relationships with his parents and teammates and coaches, with people to whom he had once been close and whom he removed from or allowed to pass out of his life, in his interactions with the opposite sex.
But those costs are not likely to come up much this weekend. The ceremony will be a celebration, though a sad and bittersweet one, of Kobe Bryant the athlete, of Kobe Bryant the competitor, of Kobe Bryant, who could watch Matt Barnes make like he was going to break his nose and not even flinch over the threat. No one has ever been as confident in anything.
Editors Note: Mike Sielskis book The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality will be published in January.
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