It's 49 miles from Kobe Bryant's house in Orange County to Staples Center and yet, even in a Ferrari, it takes him 10 hours and 16 minutes.
What takes him so long? You're about to ride shotgun and find out:
7:15 a.m. Nearly $140 into a cab ride from my place, a security gate opens at the end of a very swank cul de sac to reveal Kobe Bryant, father of two, standing in front of seven vehicles—the Ferrari, the Range Rover, the Escalade, the Bentley Coupe, the two-door plastic Fred Flintstone car, the training-wheels bike and the tricycle smashed into a bush.
"You ready to go?" he asks. "I hate to be late."
I have a bag and nowhere to put it, since the Ferrari is basically a 503-horsepower engine with two seats. So he takes two helmets out of the trunk and puts the bag in.
Helmets for a car? Uh-oh.
7:21 a.m. I immediately spill my coffee in the $300,000-plus Ferrari, but how was I supposed to know he'd demonstrate its 0 to 60 mph in 3.1-seconds might at the very moment I was about to sip my delicious venti mochachino?
Trying to wipe up the puddle with my sock without him noticing and trying to be heard over the Ferrari's throaty roar, I nearly yell my interview:
Me: Why are we leaving so early for a 6:30 Clippers game?
Bryant: "Game day. Lots to do."
Me: Why does a Los Angeles Laker live clear down in Weeds suburbia?
Bryant: "It's peaceful. It's a better place to bring up kids. Nice people down here."
Me: What's the fastest you've ever driven this thing?
Bryant: "We're about to find out."
Me (to self): Did I ever complete my will?
Of course, the 11-time All Star doesn't always drive to work. Sometimes he has one of his off-duty, armed, Lakers-provided, police officers take him in a customized van so he can watch scouting DVDs and ice his feet and knees. (He ices them for 20 minutes three times a day. The man spends more time in ice than Ted Williams.) Occasionally, though, he charters a helicopter. "Sometimes, there's just things you cannot miss."
"Like my daughter's soccer game. Because what if I miss her first goal?"
Can't say I ever choppered into one of my daughter's soccer games, but still.
Bryant, 30, has been known to get up earlier than many barn owls to conduct his famously brutal workouts. One time, Larry Drew II—who now plays for the University of North Carolina—asked to shadow him on one.
"OK," Kobe said. "Pick you up at 3:30."
But 3:30 came and went and Kobe never showed. Then, at 3:30 the next morning, he was ringing Drew's doorbell.
"You ready?" Kobe asked.
"I like to just get up and get it done," he explained to me, "then I'm back home and nobody's even up. Haven't missed a thing."
7:30 a.m. Bryant pulls the yellow Ferrari up to a massive OC health club and leaves it. This will happen many times today, leaving the car right in front of buildings. Gods do not park.
Today is a Sunday and it's bothering him that he'll have to miss coloring with his girls—6 and 2—watching Ariel in The Little Mermaid for the 1,003rd time with his girls and going to Disneyland with the girls. But he's obsessed with winning the 2009 NBA title, which means he's committed to his boys. He wants to be as chiseled as possible for the coming playoff pounding. That's why it's no surprise we're met by Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's genius strength and conditioning coach.
Grover puts Bryant through a game-day workout like I've never seen. (Warning: If you don't want to feel like a complete jelly-filled donut, don't read this next part.) Among a dozen other drills, Bryant does suicide push-ups. At the top of the pushup, he launches himself off the mat so hard that both his feet come off the ground and his hands slap his pecs. He does three sets of seven of these. This makes me turn away and whimper softly.
8:35 a.m. Bryant wheels the asphalt-eating Ferrari onto the 405 North and begins answering my questions about this remarkable comeback he's making in America, in basketball and in his life, which would be fascinating, if it weren't for the 70 mph-circus going on all around us.
People are pulling up next to us and waving. And screaming. And taking pictures with their cell phones. And honking. And craning back in their seats to see. And not watching the road. And getting too damn close. And Kobe doesn't seem to see any of it.
"Life is really good now," he's saying.
Kobe! Kill 'em tonight! Yeeeeaaahhh bbbboy!
"And it's funny. A lot of these companies who dumped us during the [sexual assault] trial [in which all charges were dropped] are calling us now asking us to come back. And I just kind of smile and go, 'No. No, thanks, homie. We're good.' But that hurt, dude. To just be dropped like that. It hurt."
The guy in the Toyota Tundra is signaling that he wants an autograph.
"But my wife and I, we toughed it out. She and I, we got through it. We're going to be celebrating our … "
Two morons are motioning to me that they'd like Kobe to get off at the next exit and take a picture with them.
" … eight-year anniversary together. And when I think about how I almost lost it, the family and everything … "
I can read their lips: "Dude! Please?!"
" … I'm just very thankful and blessed. It was really close there for awhile."
Even a Weekly Shopper reporter would follow that answer up with, "What do you mean?" But a knucklehead in a Ford truck is trying to cut in front of us so his buddy can take a picture out of the back window, so I ask, "Do you ever wreck on this commute?"
"No," he says with a grin, "but one time, this one guy was looking back and hit the guy in front of him. Not hard or anything, but he definitely hit the guy. It was kinda funny."
With all that chaos, I can't really vouch for the accuracy of all this, but I'm pretty sure Bryant says:
He's taken up golf. Played Pelican Hill the other day with Maris Valainis, who played Jimmy Chitwood in Hoosiers.
If I weren't in the car, he'd be listening to Lil Wayne, Jay-Z or Biggie Smalls.
He loves marketing and advertising. In fact, he conceived and wrote a Carl's Jr. poster, which featured Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and himself, and the slogan: "They Who Endure, Conquer."
He and his wife, Vanessa, have no nannies.
Most sports talk radio makes him nauseous.
He's addicted to Discovery Channel, loves to spear fish, and reads New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
He has no plans to opt out of his contract at the end of this season, but "you can never absolutely say no, right?"
His daughters speak a mix of English, Spanish and Italian.
He'd like to have a boy.
Forty minutes, 37 missed quotes, and 118 gawkers later, we've gone the 43 miles from the health club in OC to the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo, right near LAX, for shootaround. He pulls up to the spot in front of the door, gets out of the car and doesn't lock it. It's all I can do not to get on my knees and kiss the ground.
12:03 p.m. After his two hours of shooting and stretching, we're off to a downtown hotel, where Kobe will ice, shower, sleep, eat (it's always the same: chicken, rice and broccoli), watch scouting DVDs and make calls until it's time to go. This time we're following one of the off-duty cops, who's driving the gray van.
"Why are we following the cop?" I ask.
"Because I need my jug to ice," he says.
"So why don't we take it ourselves?" I ask.
Do you love it? His ice jug gets a police escort.
"What if you can't sleep at the hotel?" I ask as he leadfoots it up the 110 North. "What do you do? Walk around downtown L.A.?"
He laughs and looks at me like I just landed from the planet Nimrod.
"Uh, no. I can't walk around LA. There are fans and then there are LAKER fans. LAKER fans are, like, 10 times more into it than regular fans."
Example: One time, he met a man who had the exact same tattoos as him. Literally, the exact same tattoos, down to the size, color, font, style, even the names of his daughters, his wife, the Bible verses, the crown, everything. And this was in Ohio.
"I mean, what do you say to something like that?" he says, still amazed. "I'm like, 'Wow.' And then I whispered to my security guy, 'Get his social security, OK?'"
12:14 p.m. Four security guards are waiting for us at the hotel. We leave the Ferrari AND the van out front, go through a side entrance, up a freight elevator, to a suite that's waiting for him. What does he pay for use of the suite for a full season? Zippo! "I just take care of them with playoff tickets."
Does the man ever see the inside of his wallet?
5:03 p.m. I get a call on the phone in my room and it's the cop, sounding urgent. "Mr. Reilly? Kobe is going to need to leave in exactly one minute. He was mistaken as to the start of tonight's game. Can you be expedited down here immediately?"
"Uh, well, yeah, I can expedite."
"Good. Much appreciated. Kobe doesn't like to be late."
So I've heard.
Turns out he thought it was a 7:30 start. "I'm such an idiot," he admits. "I do this all the time."
The drive to Staples is going to be a very expedited three minutes, so I have a lot of ground to make up.
How bad do you want this title?
"Beyond your comprehension," he says. "I'm obsessed. It keeps me awake at night."
Can this team do it?
"Yeah, we can do it. We're better equipped this time. Last time (in the finals) we ran into a buzzsaw. That Celtics team was hungry. And not just hungry, but full of hungry veterans."
How long do you want to play?
"I'd love to play until I'm 40, but I'm not sure anybody would want me then. Put it this way: I'll play as long as they'll let me."
As a couple in a red Hyundai shrieks, "Kobe! Kobe! Take care of us tonight!" he turns into the players' gate, where a guy with a mirror on a pole checks under the Ferrari for bombs. I'm terrified what they'll find.
Excuse me, Mr. Bryant? There seems to be mochachino leaking from your car?
He pulls it right up front, hops out, and immediately there's a still photographer and a mini-cam taking our picture as we walk. I try to get away, but he yanks me back into the shot. "Just mean mug it," he whispers. He wears the expression of a mafia don on the way to a trial. I try it, but I can't pull it off. I look like a man suffering upper gastro-intestinal blockage.
I try to say goodbye and thanks, but he's on the phone to his daughters, going "Ciao, bella!" as he walks into the locker room.
It's 5:31 p.m. The Kobe Kommute is over. He's still got the game to go. (The Lakers will defeat the Clippers, 88-85, with Bryant scoring 18 points on 5-for-15 shooting—proving that, occasionally, Kobe DOES miss things.) As for me, I'm so exhausted, there's only one thing I want to do.
Go somewhere quiet and watch Ariel.
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