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Mamba Out

You'd think after the career Kobe has had, he'd just ride off into the sunset. But really, he's just getting started. Black Mamba may be out of the NBA, but not the spotlight.

Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.

Kobe Bryant wants to talk about what comes after death. It's been 16 hours since he scored 60 points in his final NBA game. His back hurts and his shoulder is sore from 20 years in the league and 50 god damn shots! And he's laughing at me, at anyone, who thought he'd be at peace going out any other way.

"What you saw there was the opening scene of the basketball version of the blood-spattered bride," Bryant says. "The opening scene of 'Kill Bill.'"

He'd been so patient and statesmanlike on his farewell tour all season -- laughing self-deprecatingly at how completely his body had broken at the end -- then repeating it in Spanish or Italian so even more people could try to understand what it felt like to be finished.

But come on, did you really think la Mamba Negra, the Black freaking Mamba was going to fade away?

He's been planning his basketball death for years now. Scripting it down to his final words.

Mamba Out.

Of course T-shirts with that phrase were available to buy on his website within minutes of his final speech to the crowd at Staples Center. He saw all of this coming.

Kobe Bryant has been living as a legend for 20 years now. He sure as hell was going to die as one.

Not that he isn't deep into what comes next. For the past few years, he's been saying he wanted to be a storyteller after he finished with basketball but keeping the details sparse and cryptic. He'd allude to conversations he was having with creative types such as J.K. Rowling or J.J. Abrams but never say how deep they went.

"There's an entire mythological universe I've created," he finally reveals. "There are certain rules that make up this world. Within this world, I've built in a lot of room for really talented writers to come in.

"The bulk of it's coming from me. But the writers being phenomenal at what they do are able to really bring my imagination to life."

There's the obvious swipe at the narcissism that's made him at least as famous as his scoring. Of course Kobe has moved into a world of his own making. The only surprise is that he'd pass the vision to a group of writers and trust that they'd execute it better than he could.

"I think Walt did this with animation, as well," he says. Yes, he's referring to Walt Disney. "He quickly realized that, although he could draw pretty well, there are other animators out there that are just much, much better. He went and found those animators and gave them the vision and allowed them to do what they do best. If you collaborate with great people and each one is enhancing the other, that's when we create things that are timeless."

It's disorienting to hear him talk about other worlds so soon after that game. For months he had everyone convinced that he was OK limping out of the limelight. At peace with his ending. Turns out he was living in his own universe the whole time.

The Black Mamba got us, man.


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Revisiting Kobe's past

As Kobe Bryant prepared for his final game, The Undefeated visited his old barbershop in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, PA, to reminisce on his days playing for Lower Merion High School.AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Farewell Tour

IT IS NEARLY 3 a.m. Kobe is feeling restless. Or relentless. Thoughts of a future after basketball compete with the urge to sleep. There are just over six weeks left in the farewell tour -- Kobe is headed to Memphis for his last game against the Grizzlies. Each last game is basically the same. The Lakers get their ass kicked, then Kobe smiles and waves to the adoring crowd as he leaves the court for the final time. That's what the people paid to see. The pope, not a basketball game. Three straight seasons ended by major injuries -- a ruptured Achilles (April 2013), a broken kneecap (December 2013) and a torn rotator cuff (January 2015) -- seemed to have turned him into a wax statue of Kobe that tourists visit and take selfies with, not the Black Mamba.

One summer about six or seven years ago, former teammate and assistant coach Brian Shaw invited Kobe to go fishing in Santa Barbara. Kobe didn't show up, so Shaw later texted him a picture of the sting ray and leopard sharks he'd caught. Kobe asked whether he had killed them. Shaw said it was catch and release but asked why.

Kobe wrote, "Because they got caught."

That Kobe, the asshole who thought those fish who got caught deserved to die solely because they got caught would've needed a morphine drip and a social media gag order to get through a 17-win season. That guy never wanted a farewell tour.

He traded everything -- his friends, his family, his identity, his body, ultimately his humanity -- in pursuit of basketball immortality. His entire career was built upon accepting nothing. After he ruptured his Achilles, he looked Lakers trainer Gary Vitti in the eye and asked whether he could still play. When he tore his right rotator cuff, he just started shooting left-handed. Vitti and Lakers coach Byron Scott had to yank him out of the game. When questioned why he'd do such a thing, he defiantly responded, "Why? God gave us two hands."

Three seasons ago, that Kobe played much of the fourth quarter of a game in Memphis with what turned out to be a broken kneecap. He was just six games back from the ruptured Achilles tendon. Had just started finding his game again, his timing, his Kobe face. You know the one -- bottom teeth bared, nostrils flaring, eyes piercing through you, looking for signs of weakness to attack. Kobe was backing down Grizzlies guard Tony Allen in the post and spun around and his knee buckled. He got up and played the rest of the game, even hit a late 3-pointer to hold off Memphis for the win.

As the Lakers' plane flies toward Memphis for his last game in town, I send a note asking how long ago that game seems.

The reply comes swiftly.

"It feels like a yesterday from another life."


Consecutive seasons ended by major injuries -- a ruptured Achilles (2012-13), a broken kneecap (2013-14) and a torn rotator cuff (2014-15) -- turned him into the wax statue of Kobe that tourists visit and take selfies with, not the Black Mamba. Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The Silent Theater

THE NEXT AFTERNOON, Kobe walks into the restaurant with tired eyes. It's been raining for about an hour. Just a light shower, not the downpour they were expecting. His dark gray tracksuit is enough. He doesn't bother with an umbrella.

Two bodyguards flank him as he enters the front door of the Majestic Grille, a classic spot in downtown Memphis inside an old theater that still shows silent films. The restaurant is empty this time of day, so he shoos his security guards away, directing them to sit out of earshot.

The production crew that has been documenting his final season is back at the hotel. This is the third consecutive year he's had this crew filming his every move. At first, it was around to film the documentary he produced for Showtime, "Kobe Bryant's Muse," which aired in February 2015. This year, Kobe is paying the crew out of his own pocket to document the final throes of his career.

The Lakers and the NBA have given Kobe's crew unprecedented access. Anywhere Kobe is, his crew can go -- the training room, team charters, the crew members could probably follow him into the showers like Ron Artest did after the Lakers lost the 2008 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics. They film rivals talking at midcourt before games, reporters talking in the hallways afterward. Nothing is sacred. Their boom microphones are omnipresent.

There's an easy joke to be made here. Who else but Kobe would make a sequel to their own documentary?

But he is insistent this is not about narcissism. "I enjoy passing things on. ... If we're not helping the world move forward, what are we doing?"

It's a familiar refrain among dying men. All men, not just the ones who lead extraordinary lives, want to leave a greater mark than a headstone. Ambrose Bierce, that hardest of literary cynics, described this kind of immortality as a "toy that people cry for, and on their knees apply for."

Kobe has been giving advice to everyone during his farewell tour. He'll write messages on shoes to any player with the balls to ask him. After games, he'll invite players to the training room and dole out advice while he's soaking his feet in a bucket of ice water. It took over an hour for him to meet everyone after the Lakers' final game in Phoenix last month. A bunch of baseball players in town for spring training came to see him. Players from the Arizona Cardinals showed up. Then some of the Suns made their way over. In all, Kobe did about 80 meet-and-greets. Guys like Mike Trout and Larry Fitzgerald all waited their turn like little kids in line at the mall to meet Santa Claus.

They want to know how he became the Black Mamba, what sacrifices he made and the toll those take on a man. He writes things like "Be Legendary" on the shoes he passes out and tells young players like Kyrie Irving to create conflict on their team so nobody ever gets comfortable.

"Some people want to take it to the grave with them," Kobe says. "Like Lord of the Rings. The world is filled with a lot of Smeagols [who] can't let go of the damn ring."

I ask whether the attention this year has been validating.

"What is validation, really?" he says. "What does it do for you?"

I say everyone needs validation. It's not weakness, it's human. If I do something I'm proud of and the praise doesn't come, I'm pissed.

"There's a difference between liking it and needing it," he says. "The question is do you need it?"

"I enjoy passing things on. ... If we're not helping the world move forward, what are we doing?" Kobe says. Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

All of his living mentors --Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Bill Russell, Phil Jackson -- have paid homage to him this year. So I change tacks and ask whether it feels good to know they are proud.

He doesn't budge.

"When I get a phone call from Bill Russell and I talk to Jerry West and we're just kind of shooting the shit, that's awesome because that means that these guys, who were my muses growing up, respect the way that I've carried on their legacy," he says.

"But as a person, I do not need that. That does not complete me as a man or make me feel fulfilled, because I have their approval for what I do."

He used to be close to Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. They'd meet for lunches at California Pizza Kitchen or this Italian restaurant in Marina Del Rey. Before Buss passed away in 2013, he told Kobe he hoped he'd be a Laker for life.

I ask what it meant to him that Buss chose him over Shaquille O'Neal in 2004.

"Shaq demanded the trade first," he says.

"Right, but he actually traded him. He wouldn't trade you."

"I look at it from a business perspective," he says. "I would have made the same call. If you're going to bet, you got to bet on the horse that you know is obsessive about what they do, day in and day out, and is going to be hell bent on trying to win a championship. If you're going to bet on a horse, you always bet on the one that eats, sleeps and breathes the craft."

Just a few weeks earlier, Kobe and O'Neal were hugging each other at the All-Star Game in Toronto. They've become friendlier in recent years, but Kobe doesn't shy away from stinging him again.

"Of course he chose me," he adds. "That's the right decision to make."

So why are we here now, without cameras or boom microphones or security guards, reliving his story?

Is he here to explain himself?

"I always thought people were too stupid to really understand," he says.

Is he looking for acceptance into the group of luminary athletes such as Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter who have preceded him in retirement?

"I don't do groups," he writes.

Does he want to be understood?

"I don't do things for people to understand me," he says. "I say things to help them understand themselves."


Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Same Language

IT'S A STORY that's been told and retold a thousand times: Kobe was the black kid who grew up in Italy and then the Italian kid who moved to Wynnewood -- an affluent suburb of Philly. He was a loner who struggled to belong to any community or to have friends. He didn't know how to be black or white.

It's a clean storyline. Way too clean.

"I had all this anger inside of me that I hadn't really let out," he says about it in Muse. "I'm just going to delay the eruption, and then use it to my benefit and do what I loved to do, which is play the game. Once I discovered that, everything about the game changed. No matter what, I understood that I could lose myself in the game."

Kobe has friends. He just always chooses basketball over them.

In January, Kobe Inc. trademarked the phrase "Friends Hang Sometimes, Banners Hang Forever."

He worked on that phrase for a long time. It's his life, his legend, shouldn't he be the one profiting off of it?

"If somebody's not obsessed with what they do," he says. "We don't speak the same language."

His friends are more like kindred spirits, hence the #differentanimalsamebeast he tweets to people he thinks share his ruthless dedication to greatness. Last fall when I was covering Ronda Rousey in Australia, he asked me to get a note of encouragement to her after she lost. They've met once or twice but don't know each other well. His message?

Four Takes On Kobe

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The Hater

"Proud and true Kobe hater" James Holas says nothing brings his day up more than watching Kobe Bryant lowlights and Kobe's relentless fans overrate his greatness.ESPN

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Shop Talk: Kobe Bryant

Tren the Barber shares his favorite Kobe moments and says "some kinds of people don't like winners that win all the time."ESPN

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Lauren Coleman: 'Me and Kobe: We're done'

Costa Mesa High girls' basketball coach Lauren Coleman explains how her fandom of Kobe Bryant underwent a change of heart after the rape allegations.ESPN

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True Gold

Longtime Lakers fan Bryan Robinson says "there was no feeling like rocking the number 8 gold jersey" and explains why he will forever be a Kobe Bryant fan.ESPN

"Get your ass up. Her getting her ass knocked down is going to do more for the culture, more for the human spirit, than her going her entire career undefeated. People need to see how she handles that, how she deals with that."

It's not easy to get past his slogans. "I've studied advertising for years," he says. If he'd gone to college, that's what he would have majored in. Instead, he says, "I wrote 90 percent of my own commercials."

When real life doesn't fit into pithy tag lines or 90-second commercials, Kobe shuts it out. He doesn't believe in cognitive dissonance. It's not productive.

For instance, Kobe hasn't spoken to his parents in nearly three years. Not since 2013, when they tried to auction off his high school memorabilia without his consent.

"Our relationship is shit," he says. "I say [to them], 'I'm going to buy you a very nice home, and the response is 'That's not good enough'?" he says. "Then you're selling my shit?"

His parents issued a statement after lawyers worked out a settlement allowing them to auction six items of memorabilia totaling $500,000, "We regret our actions and statements related to the Kobe Bryant auction memorabilia," the statement from Joe and Pamela Bryant read. "We apologize for any misunderstanding and unintended pain we may have caused our son and appreciate the financial support that he has provided to us over the years."

Kobe says his sisters, Sharia and Shaya, have learned to accept that Kobe has removed money from his relationships with them. "They're very smart, college-educated [women]," Kobe says. "I'm really proud of them. They were able to get their own jobs, get their own lives, take care of themselves. Now they have a better sense of self, of who they are as people, instead of being resentful because they were relying on me.

"It was tough for me to do," he says. There's pain in his voice, not anger. "But it's something you have to do, something you have to be very strong about."

Growing up, Kobe followed his father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, everywhere. He'd sleep with his basketball clothes on so Joe couldn't say no when he'd ask to go to practice with him. But as Kobe grew older, and learned of the disappointments of his father's NBA career, it was harder to relate. Joe was a 6-foot-9 forward with the skill set of a guard. That would be en vogue in today's NBA, but in the Eastern Conference of the late 1970s, he was miscast as a defensive specialist. According to Joe, his whole career would've been different if he'd been in a different system and able to play on the perimeter like Magic Johnson.

"When I hear those things," Kobe says. "I don't really understand them."

Why should the whims of fate -- which system he played in -- determine the success of a man's career? How could his father accept that? There is always a way to bend things the way you want them.

For the first few years of his NBA career, Kobe empowered his parents to make decisions and guide his career. Joe wanted his son to play in Los Angeles because of all the marketing opportunities. Then they moved out to L.A. to live with him. Byron Scott remembers Pam picking Kobe up at the airport after road trips.

In hindsight, the breakup seems inevitable. In Kobe's mind, he would never accept disappointment on the court like his father did. He couldn't. Not if he wanted to be a legend.

Remember those four air balls Kobe shot in a playoff game against the Utah Jazz at the end of his rookie season in 1997?

As soon as the Lakers' plane landed back in Los Angeles, Kobe went to the gym at a high school near his house in Pacific Palisades and shot jump shots through the night and into the next day. He wasn't beating himself up for missing those shots. He was working on getting stronger. He'd missed those shots because his legs were too scrawny, not because he lacked nerve. "I was like, 'Who do you think you're talking about here?'" said Del Harris, who coached the Lakers that season. "Confidence was never a problem for him."

That summer, director Spike Lee offered Kobe the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth in the movie "He Got Game." The role was perfect -- top high school basketball player must choose between getting his estranged father's prison sentence reduced by playing college ball at the governor's alma mater or going to the school of his choice. Just like Shuttlesworth, Kobe made his own decision. He passed on the role so he could spend his summer in the gym. Lee cast Ray Allen instead.

"We were kids," said his high school friend, Kevin Sanchez. "We still listened to our parents back then."

In 2000, Kobe released a corny rap song -- "K.O.B.E.," featuring Tyra Banks -- that absolutely bombed. He was dropped from his record label soon after. Only embarrassing YouTube videos of Kobe performing at All-Star Weekend in a leopard print hat and leather suit remain of his rap career. Kobe rarely speaks of this time in his life anymore. In Muse, he laughed about the awful song. The only reason it was included in the film is because he met his future wife, then 17-year-old Vanessa Laine, on the set of a neighboring music video shoot.

“There's an entire mythological universe I've created.”

- Kobe Bryant

"I was like super shocked when he came out with that K.O.B.E song," Sanchez said. "That really wasn't him."

Sanchez was one of the best rappers in Philadelphia back in the 1990s. He'd hang with Kobe at lunch, after school, working with him on his rhymes. They'd find battles on South Street, in the Gallery (an underground mall), at Temple University or in this barbershop on N. 54th and Wynnefield Avenue. Kobe's rap name was "The Eighth Man."

"I was a battle MC. I hunted every top MC in the city and battled them," Sanchez said. "He'd come with me and watch me just destroy everyone."

After high school, they started a rap group called Cheizaw, signed a record deal with Sony and spoke on the phone almost every day. "We'd freestyle for hours. He could beatbox," Sanchez said. "I remember when he blocked [Michael] Jordan's shot. He was going crazy. He called up and was like, 'I need to be charged up. I need to freestyle for like 45 minutes."

Sanchez never made it to Los Angeles with the rest of Cheizaw, though. He was arrested and convicted of armed robbery. The conviction was later overturned, but then that decision was reversed by a higher court. Sanchez served five years.

Sanchez said he's thankful Kobe supported him by paying for his lawyer and paying for another friend to travel to Philadelphia to testify in court as a character witness. And that he doesn't hold it against him, that Kobe did not testify on Sanchez's behalf.

One, the people managing his career didn't want him besmirching his appeal. This was 1998. Back when athletes didn't make political statements or say anything that might offend the silent majority. They didn't talk about things like race or class or violence or crime. If you wanted to be a crossover star, you needed to leave Philly behind.

And two, the NBA and its corporate sponsors were growing increasingly uncomfortable with anything resembling the inner city, including players. They cringed at Allen Iverson's cornrows and rap sheet. By 2005, the league would enact a dress code that banned clothes associated with hip-hop culture.

So no, it was not a good look for the league's youngest superstar, the heir apparent to Michael Jordan as a player and as a corporate shill, to be showing up in a Philadelphia courthouse to vouch for his high school rapper friend who'd been accused of armed robbery.

A few years ago, Sanchez saw Kobe when Lower Merion renamed its high school gym after him. Sanchez didn't have tickets, so he waited outside. When Kobe walked out of the gym, he caught Sanchez's eye and called out to him, "Hey, Sand."

"I talked to him for a brief second," Sanchez said. "He had his security guard there. Then a bunch of fans came over. ...I didn't get mad. I know how busy he is. Another one of our friends saw him for like 20 minutes at 4 in the morning. That's the only opening he had."

"I think basketball just took over him," Sanchez said. "I don't even think he can be close with people when he's so into basketball."

The more attachments Kobe shed, the more powerful he became. The Lakers won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002. Kobe became their closer -- O'Neal never could shoot free throws -- and together they became one of the greatest one-two punches in the history of the NBA. The championships ahead of them seemed endless -- if they stayed together.


"'You may lose your family, your freedom, but I'll be damned if I lose basketball,'" Kobe says he told himself. "'Because this shit I can control.'" Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

The Bottom of the Ocean

THEN CAME COLORADO.

The case was so atomic that most people who know anything about Kobe Bryant instantly recognize the reference to the 2003 sexual assault allegation made against him by a woman who worked at a hotel in Edwards, Colorado. Bryant was arrested. The case never went to trial as the woman declined to testify, and the charges were later dropped. For many people, Colorado remains a troubling section of his life story that never digests.

Kobe settled a civil suit for an undisclosed sum in which he apologized but did not admit guilt. Neither party may discuss details of the case.

The world shunned him. All but one of Kobe's sponsors dropped him. He'd alienated his teammates when it was revealed that he had told police details of O'Neal's extramarital affairs.

He kept playing basketball, though. The Lakers helped pay for planes for him to fly back and forth from Los Angeles to Colorado for legal proceedings. He'd spend a day in court, fly back to L.A., ride in a van with a recumbent bike in the back of it so he could warm up on the drive to the game, then average 24 points a night on a team that was favored to win another NBA title.

The waitress at the Majestic Grille asks whether he would like more coffee. It's an opening for him to change the subject or get up from the table. Kobe takes the coffee. And begins to talk about Vanessa.

Kobe had already apologized. He cried and begged her to stay with him a thousand times over. But no amount of money, tears or words is enough to erase the pain of publicly humiliating your wife and the mother of your 6-month old child.

He had hurt her, badly, and she was angry. One day before a game against the Orlando Magic in March, they got into another huge fight.

"She'd taken all my clothes and thrown them into the street," Kobe says. He only had a motorcycle at the time, so he just had to leave his stuff in the street.

"I show up to the arena, and I don't really feel like playing," he says. "I'm just fucking out of it."

The Magic were awful that year, but Tracy McGrady was on that team, and every time he and Kobe played, people liked to debate who was better. In another life, that would've got Kobe going. He'd be raging over the chance to assert his superiority. But his marriage was in shambles. And in the first half, he played like it.

Kobe scores one point in the first half. McGrady has 21. The Magic are beating the Lakers. He's finally at the bottom of the ocean.

"I remember sitting in the locker room at halftime and saying to myself, 'You know what, you may lose everything in life because of the situation that you put yourself in,'" Kobe recalls.

"'You may lose your family, your freedom, but I'll be damned if I lose basketball. Because this shit I can control.'

"Sitting in that locker room, that's where I made the decision, fuck it. I can't control any of that other stuff. But I'm going to take these motherfuckers out."

He scored 24 points in the fourth quarter and locked down McGrady, and the Lakers won in overtime.

"After the game, I go back to the house and pick all my shit up," he says. "I take my motorcycle and go to a motel."

He says he was different after that night. In Muse, he describes the transformation as his personality splitting in two: Kobe -- a flawed human with problems who still had to deal with them. And the Black Mamba -- a serpent, conjured at the bottom of the ocean, who channeled his fear and anger into destruction on the basketball court.

Besides basketball, Vanessa and his daughter [he had only one at the time] were all he had left to hold on to. "Life was no different than basketball," he says. "Once I made that connection, I'll fight for my family all the way to the end."

In his book "The Last Season," Phil Jackson wrote of that game against Orlando, "The first game home after a road trip is always an adjustment, with players torn between their personal and professional responsibilities. They must meet the needs of a wife or a child, who have been waiting anxiously for their return."

Read that again.

Now think of what Kobe's family was doing. His wife wasn't waiting anxiously for his return. She was kicking him out and throwing his stuff in the street.

McGrady had been close to Kobe since they first came into the league. He'd even lived with Kobe and his parents for a week before his rookie season.

Did he notice anything different about Kobe that night?

"He wasn't as aggressive in the first half," McGrady says. "That I remember."

I tell him the story of what really happened before the game. McGrady is stunned.

"It was that game?" McGrady says. "Oh, man.

"Listen, I knew this cat was insane. He fucking went through that trial and was coming back and forth and was still fucking going nuts. That right there, I knew he was obsessed with basketball, like this was his fucking life."


The Joker is Laughing

AFTER THE SEASON ENDED, Jackson wrote that Kobe was "un-coachable" and revealed that he'd urged Lakers management to trade him.

But not only did Jackson coach Kobe again but they won two more championships together.

I ask how he got over being called "un-coachable."

"I didn't," Kobe says.

"Wait, you didn't get over it, or you never had a conversation?"

"Why should I have dealt with him?" he says, as if he can't believe I still don't get it.

"I think that's the part that really drove him crazy. I just said, 'Phil, listen. You don't have to play that shit with me. I understand what you're doing. But I don't need that,'" Kobe says.

"He kept pushing buttons. He kept getting frustrated. More and more frustrated."

There's no smirk as he says this. "Do you think he was trying to control you?"

Phil Jackson once wrote that Kobe was "un-coachable" and revealed that he'd urged Lakers management to trade him. After that, the two went on to win two more championships together. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

"Yeah," Kobe says. "Because that's his job as a coach. To try and manage a team."

He's left an opening. "So what you're saying is that nobody can control you."

"Well, no," he says. "Thinking about it now. Yes, I am un-coachable, because you don't have to manage me."

He says he has a "beautiful" relationship with Jackson now. He has learned from the Zen Master's emphasis on staying in the moment. This year, he says, he took Jackson's advice in how to approach his farewell tour. Break it up into sections, Jackson told him. Appreciate each emotion for what it is, without making it bigger than the current moment.

He still doesn't think Jackson ever needed to push his buttons like he did, though.

"I don't play for the fame," Kobe says. "I don't play for the approvals. There is nothing you need to say to me. Just tell me what you need me to do. My love is already here for the game."

He searches for a metaphor to explain it further. There's a scene in "The Dark Knight" when Batman is threatening the Joker, he says. This is the role that Heath Ledger posthumously won an Academy Award for but that many point to as the beginning of his personal descent. A documentary later revealed that the troubled actor spent a month in a hotel room preparing for the role of the madman by staring at the walls and laughing. Ledger was so Method, he created a diary filled with stills from "A Clockwork Orange" and photos of cackling hyenas. He wrote "CHAOS" in capital letters and highlighted in green. Anytime he needed to get into character, he'd flip through the diary.

"The Joker is laughing," Kobe says, "because there's nothing you can threaten him with."

Rick Fox tried to reach Kobe once. It was 2004 still. Once again, Kobe was wantonly playing outside the team's triangle offense and it was affecting the rest of the team.

"I was like, 'How about we just try it a different way? Just try.'" Fox said. Kobe looked at him and asked why he should do anything differently when his way had gotten him to where he was.

"Then I started running his résumé through my head," Fox said. "This was after we'd won a few championships and he'd elevated himself to the top player in the league. And I'm like, 'Who am I to say your way isn't the better way?'

"At a certain point, we just needed to get out of the way."

Fox eventually did. After O'Neal was traded to Miami and Jackson's contract wasn't extended, Fox wasn't sure he could deal with the Black Mamba unchained. He already had a bad foot injury and a neck problem. So he told the Lakers he was going to retire with one year left on his contract. The team tried to change his mind. He wouldn't, and so they traded him to Boston. He never played another game.

"I knew [he] was going to be hard-core all the time," Fox said. "I thought I would reinjure myself and be walking with a cane the rest of my life. ... I just couldn't do it."


Kobe taught himself to play the piano to prove his love to Vanessa and reinforce his own sense of exceptionalism. Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Moonlight Sonata

AT 2:58 A.M. on Jan. 22, 2013, Kobe Bryant tweeted a photo of himself playing piano at the Lakers' team hotel in Chicago. He wore a scarf, a hat and a thick winter coat. The caption reads "Beethovens Moonlight Sonata calms me down when I reach my breaking point #relaxandfocus

The Lakers had just lost to the Bulls and fallen to 17-24 in a season when they'd expected to contend for a championship after trades for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

At 5:27 a.m., he tweeted a photo of himself in a weight room with the caption, "see me in a fight with a bear. Pray for the bear" from The piano to the weight room #determined #psycho

It was a very conscious choice. Someone else had to take those photos of him. Then he had to post them. Then he checked his mentions and responded to them.

And when did he learn to play the piano?

"I wanted to play something nice for Vanessa," he says. They'd been fighting again. Vanessa filed divorce papers in 2011. Kobe was desperate to hold on to her. He wanted a grand gesture.

"Sitting down and taking lessons would be too easy," he says. "So I taught myself by ear."

It was harder than he thought. His fingers have been broken and jammed so many times over the years that they don't really bend anymore.

“If somebody's not obsessed with what they do, we don't speak the same language.”

- Kobe Bryant

But he had to show her. He had to hold on to her. They had a family together, and he would fight for it as hard as he did the last time.

Taking lessons wasn't enough. Anybody can do that. Kobe had to be exceptional. So he'd put headphones on, listen to "Moonlight Sonata" on loop, and try to figure out the music on the keyboard in front of him.

"If you just sit down and say, 'I'm going to learn this thing until I do,'" he says, "there's not really much out there that you can't figure out eventually."

Stories about Kobe's supernatural work ethic and pain tolerance are told like legends. Clippers forward Blake Griffin heard Kobe went on a 40-mile bike ride through the desert on the night before Team USA camp began in 2012. About a year later, Griffin asked if I could find out whether it was true.

Kobe wrote back plainly, "Yea." I ask where they went and he says mysteriously, "the canyons." Why such a long bike ride? Why at night? The story gets better the less he says. "That's why I can run all day."

Griffin eats the story up. He wants to go with him next time. He loves the process, the passion, the mystery.

There are hundreds of these stories, and they are better than any tweet.

Lakers president and co-owner Jeanie Buss tells people how she would show up for work at 8 a.m. and see one car in the parking lot. "It's like, 'Who is here? Oh. I know who is here," she said. Shaw would show up at Staples Center around 3 p.m. on a game day and find Bryant on the court, already in full lather practicing the impossible shots he'd later be hailed for making or criticized for forcing up. He didn't just close his eyes and count on the fates to make him a hero. He practiced exceptional feats. "People don't realize," Shaw said. "He actually practiced those crazy shots."

Taking lessons would be easier, yes. They'd also be a way of learning to read sheet music so he could play other songs besides "Moonlight Sonata." But Kobe had to teach himself how to play to prove his love to Vanessa and reinforce his own sense of exceptionalism.

"That's the song I wanted to learn," he says. "There's so much beauty and agony. If you watch Muse, we use the chords from 'Moonlight Sonata.'"

After about a year's separation, Vanessa took him back again.

"Same chords."


Paul Morse

Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

Paul Morse/Los Angeles Times; Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images (2)

The New Team

IT'S 2013, about three months after he'd ruptured his Achilles. The healing process had been going well. If he'd waited even a day to process the devastation, inflammation would've set in, his recovery would've been nine months instead of seven. Instead, he told the surgeons to cut into him while the tendon was still dangling and raw.

But deep inside he knew this was the injury that signaled the end of his basketball career.

"I'm laying in bed, with my cast on," he says. "And I'm like, 'OK, you got to figure out what you're going to do next because I'll be damned if I retire without a purpose. That's not going to happen to me.'"

For all his unyielding belief in his own exceptionalism, Kobe looked at his broken-down body as if it was time to harvest the organs.

The summer before, he had reached out to a filmmaker named Gotham Chopra and asked whether he'd be interested in working with him on a documentary for Showtime.

"His assistant calls and invites me to breakfast down in Newport Beach on Aug. 22," Chopra said. "And I'm like, 'Shit, that's my wife's birthday. I can't.' She's like, 'No problem. He can meet you tomorrow night for dinner if you're free. And, by the way, it's his birthday.'"

It wasn't ideal for a first meeting to take place at a birthday party. But you don't turn down an opportunity like this. So Chopra shows up to the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood early, hoping to get more than a few minutes with Kobe before the party gets going. But when he gets to the hotel restaurant, there's no party. There's just a small table in the back for the two of them.


Quotes About Kobe

  • LeBron James "It won't really make sense next year when you see the Lakers and you don't see Kobe in a uniform. Twenty years, 13 out of my career. It's almost half of my life."

  • Michael Jordan "I think, when I look back, and the first time we actually played against each other, and the competitive drive that I saw within your eyes ... is very invigorating."

  • Shaquille O'Neal " I do think about how we could have won more championships together-all the time. I think about that one we lost to Detroit [in 2004]. That would have been awesome. "

  • Phil Jackson "He passed Michael [Jordan], which is unbelievable in itself. He's the highest-scoring guard that ever played the game. The greatest-scoring guard. That's his legacy."


"It's just like me and him having dinner on his birthday," Chopra said. "I'm like, 'We didn't have to do this on your birthday.'" Kobe shrugged and said he's just not that into celebrating it.

They ended up talking for hours. First about Michael Jackson, one of Kobe's closest mentors, whom Chopra's father, Deepak, had been a spiritual adviser to. Then about Chopra's love for the Boston Celtics. The connection was instant.

Chopra and his crew set up an office closer to Kobe's house in Newport Beach, California. Kobe invited them to film everything. Family time, doctors' appointments, hours and hours of mind-numbing rehabilitation sessions.

If the cameras weren't following him, he would have been alone as he stared into the abyss of his basketball mortality. Instead, as he says in the trailer for Muse, "it became therapy on film."

He'd show up at the office as early as he used to show up at the gym to get shots up before practice. They'd talk craft well into the night.

"Like someone would say we should do the beginning like the beginning of 'Black Swan,'" Chopra said. "And the next morning, not only would he have watched 'Black Swan' but, like, every Darren Aronofsky movie. He'd be quoting from his student films."

Kobe would get off on beating Chopra to the office in the mornings. He was touched when one of the young editors on the crew volunteered to work through Thanksgiving rather than go home to see his family. Kobe admired the commitment and saluted it with a plate of food from his own table.

"It's hard to even describe what it was like," Chopra said. "He just has this relentlessness that is both exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. But now I look back and ... I miss that to some extent."

It's not hard to see what was happening. The crew became his new team. The movie became his new life. If he couldn't live like a legend anymore, if his body wouldn't allow it, at least he could start memorializing the life he led.

He became obsessed with the legend of Achilles, the warrior from Greek mythology who chose a short life that would be remembered for eternity over a long life of little consequence.

Chopra said he noticed a real change after Kobe's shoulder injury in 2015. It was his third straight season-ending injury.

"We were sitting in that exam room, and I think Kobe probably still thought he could will himself through anything," Chopra said. "But the doctor was like, 'This is about picking up your children and grandchildren for the rest of your life.' I don't know if he'd ever thought in those terms.

"He'd never thought beyond the next game or that the playoffs were coming."

Vanessa and his daughters were too important to him. If basketball was over for him, he had to think of them now.

He takes them to school every morning. Natalia, 13, loves going to movies and reading. Gianna, 9, is more of an athlete. She wants to run with him and shoot hoops in the yard. And Vanessa, well, "We grew up together. ... And we won each other back."

There's talk of a third child.

"Maybe," he says with a smile. "You know, practice makes permanent."

There was a sadness for a while after that doctor's visit. Kobe would go to the basketball court and shoot baskets with the torn rotator cuff. It was as if he just needed to go through the ritual act of shooting baskets through the night to absolve the final failure of his flesh. He knew season-ending surgery was the only option.

Eventually he let basketball go.


The First Funeral

ANDREW BERNSTEIN HAS BEEN photographing Kobe Bryant's career for the NBA since he was a rookie. The first time they met, Kobe told Bernstein he had all his posters growing up.

"What 17-year-old kid looks at the photo credit on his Magic Johnson poster?" Bernstein said. "Kobe totally had an awareness of what my role was, which was to document his career."

This season, Bernstein's assignment was to document Kobe's basketball death. The last visits through each city, the final words to his former rivals. Bernstein saw everything, and sometimes he really wasn't sure what he was looking at.

For two decades, Kobe Bryant had burned angrily in the night sky. He pissed people off and pushed them towards uncomfortable places. He was uncompromising in his demand for excellence and passion.

At All-Star Games, Kobe would get mad at players who didn't go hard. Remember in 2012 when Dwyane Wade broke Kobe's nose at the All Star Game? That's when they became good friends.

This year was different, though. By the time Kobe got to the All-Star Game in Toronto, when the NBA showed not one but two tribute videos to him before the game, he seemed numb to all the adornment.

"I think I told him at one point, 'It seems like you're just floating above all this whole weekend,'" Bernstein said. "He was like in a meditative state. He was just so different from the guy who wanted to win every freaking All-Star Game.

On the Saturday of All-Star Weekend, Clippers guard Chris Paul, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Heat guard Wade organized a private dinner for Kobe that didn't begin until 2 in the morning.

First came the joke gifts. A cane, compression socks, a subscription to Netflix. Then each man told Kobe how he would remember him.

"I can't remember word for word," Bernstein said. "But the theme of each of their speeches was how, when they first came in the league, their No. 1 goal was to earn his respect."

Video of the dinner and speeches was released to various entertainment websites a few days later, presumably by publicists for the restaurant or the men. It felt cheap and staged, even though the actual motives for the dinner were sincere and friends say Kobe seemed genuinely appreciative of the night.

A few weeks later, I ask Kobe what he remembers about that dinner. There are a bunch of details from that night on the internet. It was called the Gentleman's Supper Club. Carmelo got him a magnum of 1996 Gaja Barbaresco.

Did he allow himself to feel any of the reverence that came at him that night? Was he touched?

The Black Mamba nodded his head before answering the question.

"Best Caesar salad I ever ate."


"Some people want to take it to the grave with them," Kobe says. "Like Lord of the Rings. The world is filled with a lot of Smeagols [who] can't let go of the damn ring." Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Last Game

ON THE MORNING AFTER Kobe Bryant died one of the most audacious basketball deaths of all time, he woke up around 7, drank a cup of coffee and went to church.

"It was me, alone," he says. "After 20 years, I think it's important to give thanks."

He had scripted how this morning would go a long time ago. There was no way he was going into whatever comes next without a plan or a purpose.

Church. Workout. Office. Disneyland. In that order. That's what he was going to do.

His wife and two daughters stayed up with him as long as they could, eating pizza and trying to unwind from an epic final night nobody was entirely sure yet was real.

After 20 seasons, he was entitled to sleep in. Instead he set his alarm clock, determined to follow the script he had written.

"I'm kind of still in shock," Kobe says from his living room in Newport Beach.

Sixty points?! On 50 shots?!

"It was like I was forced to," Kobe says. "By the crowd and mostly by teammates."

What was more ridiculous? That his 60 points was twice as many as any Hall of Famer has scored in his last regular-season game. That, at age 37, he was five years older than anyone else who has scored 60 points? That no one has taken 50 shots in an NBA game in 49 years?

Or that his teammates didn't want him to pass?

"I challenged him to score 50 points and that motherfucker got 60," O'Neal said as he stood on the court long after Kobe had left it, trying to process his final brazen act.

"It would have taken me four months to get 50 shots on any of the teams I played for," Horace Grant said. "And that motherfucker took 50 in one night."

Kobe had hugged all of them before he walked off the court. All these men he'd won championships with, pissed off, challenged, alienated and dominated in his 20-year NBA career. They all showed up to bear witness to his final game, hoping he'd somehow find a way to die on the court as defiantly as he had lived.

He said he felt emotional as he put his jersey on for the last time. He looked unbalanced by it as he missed his first five shots. He is human, of course. He just doesn't accept it.

All week I'd been asking him whether he was getting nostalgic for his final game. He wouldn't crack.

Before the game, a friend told him he should at least pretend to cry.

But Lamar Odom expected nothing less.

"That motherfucker is cold-blooded."

Ramona ShelburneShelburne is a senior writer for ESPN. She spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News.

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