Judgment days

Someday soon, Kobe hopes, he'll be left alone to play his game again. Robert Laberge/Getty Images for ESPN The Magazine

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 24, 2003, issue. Subscribe today!

WHEN IT'S TIME to tune it all out, when all the he said, she said and the he said, Shaq said gets too damn depressing, the defendant hops on his motorcycle. It's just him then. No sullen wife, no men-in-black, no psychos in the stands, no Inside Edition. Just him and his favorite tight leather jacket. Just him and an open road and a speedometer pushing 60, 70, 80 ...

Now that's free on bail! Because the rest of it is not about being free. Lighting up the Bucks for 31 is sweet, don't get him wrong, especially when the crowd is booing like he's guilty as charged. But otherwise, it's painful to need security 24/7, it's painful to live in a cocoon of wife, baby, agent, trainer, bodyguards. It's painful to grow back 20 pounds of muscle during the season. It's painful to hold conference calls with lawyers on game days and to go back to that godforsaken Colorado courthouse. It's painful to hear that you're a burden to your team, and to have reporters psychoanalyzing your tattoos, and to have cameramen constantly aiming straight between your eyes.

He's come close to losing it, come damn close. In LA, after a victory over Golden State, his young wife was waiting near the locker room with her bodyguard -- yes, she needs one too -- when a camera crew recognized her and burrowed in. Oh my gawwwd, it's Vanessa! Luckily, he was just leaving the clubhouse. It took every bit of strength he had not to snap. "Hey, buddy!" Kobe Bryant said, fangs bared, to the cameraman. "Go on down from here. I know you're trying to do your job, but not right now."

So that's what it's like to be No.8 for the Los Angeles Lakers, to be 10 days into an NBA season and have nothing to yourself, to be 10 days into an NBA season and be grinning on the outside and absolutely fuming on the inside. The truth is, he almost quit the team in September, and says he "very seriously" considered not playing this season. "Just wasn't really up for it," he says.

Oh, but he knows the world would have judged him even more harshly then, would have presumed him guilty. On his many motorcycle-rides-for-the-soul, he mulled it all over in his head. ("When I get that helmet on, nobody can see me, nobody knows it's me," he says. "I need that.") He didn't show up for the first day of training camp in Hawaii, ignoring every Laker phone call. The excuse he eventually gave was, "I'm under the weather." He'd been under the weather all right -- under cloudless skies, riding, thinking, waffling back and forth. Vanessa told him his talents were a gift from God, not to waste them. What he decided was screw it, I'll play. I'll be stubborn forever.

"Why did I play? I didn't want to feel like I was running and hiding," he says, his tender knee propped up on a couch in his room at a Westin in San Antonio before a Nov.6 game. "I have absolutely nothing to hide. And I didn't want to feel like I did. I didn't want my family to feel that way. So I said, 'I'm gonna go out there and do my job. This is my job. I'm gonna go back to work.'"

So here he is, 10 days into his NBA season, underweight, under the microscope, averaging 26 points and planning his escape. Escape these days can mean different things to Kobe Bean Bryant. It can mean bailing on the Lakers after the season, opting out of his contract, getting as far away as possible from the triangle, Shaq and everything that goes with it. But it can also mean -- gulp -- a late-night drive on his Ducati 999 Superbike, inching up past 80 mph around a turn.

"There's probably a little thrill-seeking in Kobe right now," says Phil Jackson. "Him riding his motorcycle at high speed, and flirting a little bit with speed and death and the tempt of it."

What, the Trial of the Century isn't danger enough?

FOR THE moment, some of the edge is off.

When Judge Frederick Gannett unenthusiastically bound over Bryant's sexual assault case for trial on Oct. 20, he noted for the record that the prosecution had a weak case. If his intent was to send a message, it worked -- Bryant eased up on himself.

Before then, the superstar had been using words like "terrified" to describe his state of mind. But after Oct.20, people in the Lakers organization say Bryant privately started predicting absolute vindication, that the prosecutors would be crushed.

Many fans were on board with it too. At a preseason game in Las Vegas, a man stood in front of the team bus wielding a sign that read, She Lied. And in Anaheim, the one and only Mike Tyson held Free Kobe signs in each fist.

Bryant appreciated the support, but he was still facing four years to life. He had other concerns, too. There are relationships with three future Hall of Famers to work out, plus the media horde that had been told in no uncertain terms by Lakers PR to ask Bryant nothing about the case or about Vanessa, lest they have their credentials revoked. It wasn't just talk, either. A CBS News producer and a Newsweek reporter were shown the door for what were deemed inappropriate lines of questioning.

At a preseason game in Anaheim on Oct.23, you just knew Inside Edition and Access Hollywood weren't there to check out the Lakers' zone trap. When Bryant's wife arrived fashionably late that night to sit along press row, in a stirring outfit that included heels, a white pleated miniskirt and leather wristlet that said "Kobe," Inside Edition barely took its camera off her. A People magazine reporter tried swooping in for an interview, but bodyguards stonewalled him. And when Vanessa went to the ladies' room that night, those bodyguards barred anyone else from entering.

When stories about her and all that attention hit the papers, Kobe was livid. Hound him all you want, but his wife is off-limits. "I do not want her written about, I do not want her judged," he says, forcefully. "She does not need to be in any stories."He was being judged enough for the both of them. As the season approached, the psychoanalysis of Kobe Bryant hit Clintonesque proportions. He'd been overprotected as a child growing up in Italy; he'd been stunted socially; he couldn't identify with black culture; he'd married the first girl he'd fallen for and she'd corrupted him; he wanted to be street now, and was sporting a diamond earring and tattoos after saying he never would; he was using the word motherf -- er and wearing sweatsuits instead of linen suits; he was estranged again from his mother and father; he'd started driving that motorcycle. All of this was going around, all of it.

"I'm more street now? Why, because I got a tattoo?" he says, laughing sardonically. "See, that's the stuff I'm talking about. Because that's really ridiculous. There was a point last season, or maybe the season before, all I wore was sweatsuits to the game. I'm cursing more? I'm not sitting up here saying I've always had a filthy mouth. That's not something to be proud of. But when you're competing or you're at practice, yeah, I might have a filthy mouth here and there. But I've always been that way. So for people to sit back and scrutinize and overanalyze and say that this is new stuff ... they never really knew me from the get-go."

All the Freuds came out of the woodwork to explain away the one ugly night of his life in Eagle County, Colo. Jackson has called Bryant "untrusting" before, so imagine Kobe's reaction to the largest Freud on earth, Shaquille O'Neal.

First, Shaq opened training camp in Hawaii saying "the full team is here" even though Bryant hadn't arrived. "Well," Shaq says, "I saw his people, so I thought he was there." Then, while nursing a foot injury later in preseason, he announced, "I'm trying to get healthy for Derek, Karl and Gary." Reporters left thinking the omission was for effect.

"Well, I didn't say Devean George's name or Rick Fox's name, either," O'Neal explains. "I didn't say Phil's name. I didn't say Jeanie Buss' name. I just said I wanted to be right for Gary and Karl, who had sacrificed to be here. I wanted to be right for the Sacrifice Bunch. But it was taken all wrong."

As tense as Kobe was, these perceived jabs weren't helping. He never liked playing second fiddle to Shaq to begin with, and that's going back seven years. Kobe, even as an 18-year-old rookie, has never been in awe of Shaq. Meanwhile, his aloofness and shot selection turned off O'Neal from the start. Even those three straight titles were only a temporary salve.

"You've just got two aggressive guys that like to have the ball," O'Neal explains. "We're different. He's very to himself. He's very intelligent. He made an 1100 on the SAT, speaks five different languages. I'm the opposite. I'm loud. Barely passed the SAT. For real. I made a 700-something."

When Bryant jacked up 24 shots in his two preseason games -- having hardly practiced -- O'Neal suggested he share the ball until his surgically repaired knee heals. Kobe blew a gasket. He went to Jackson and begged the coach to censor Shaq. "Kobe said he felt Shaq had said some things in the paper that were inappropriate," says Jackson. "I hadn't read the paper. I got the paper, I read the paper, I went back to him, and I said, 'I don't find them offensive.' He said, 'No, he's starting. He shouldn't be telling me how to play ball.'

"I said, 'Kobe, this isn't worth any effort, unless you're looking for something. This isn't enough of an insult to merit any kind of retaliation.'"

It was a retaliation heard 'round the world. First, Bryant told reporters Shaq should worry about the low post. Then, after Shaq said, "If he don't like it, he can opt out," and both players were warned by GM Mitch Kupchak to zip it, Bryant went through ESPN's Jim Gray to call Shaq "fat" and "childlike" and "unprofessional." In the coup de grace, Kobe told Gray that Shaq never called to offer support after the Colorado incident. If he opts out, he told Gray, it'll be because of the big fellow.

For violating the gag order, Kobe got fined $2,500. Shaq, saying "I'm corporate," bit his lip at the time, but claims now that he did call Kobe this summer. "I called him twice ... once or twice," Shaq says. "He was going back and forth to Colorado, so I never knew where he was, but I called him. I just never got in contact with him, never left a message ...

"Really, man, I'm not out here taking shots at him. With all the s -- he's gone through, I wouldn't do that. If I got something to say to you, I'll come to your face. I'm not gonna go through ESPN to piss you off. If I got something to say, I'm gonna punch you right in your face. I've always been like that.

"Man, we're too old to be going through all this little kiddie s -- . I want one year in this city where I can just play ball, where I don't have to talk about nothing and just play ball. One year. Can I just get one year of that?"

Bryant's simple response to all of this is, "No, he didn't call." And if you didn't know better, you'd have thought a fistfight was in their future. It's a road they've been down before. In Bryant's second year, the two had a "slap fight" at a practice at Los Angeles Southwest College, and Bryant doesn't sound like he'd back off from a rematch.

"Oh, he knows I'll fight him," Bryant says. "I'm not scared of him at all. I think, at some level, that's why we have respect for one another. He knows I'm one of the few that won't back down from him."

All this, and they hadn't gotten to Opening Night.

THE LOCAL all-sports radio station has a billboard outside LAX that reads, KOBE. What's next? Just listen. Not to imply that the city's consumed with the case, but ... the city's consumed with the case.

No wonder then, that Bryant went out and hired a rotation of 10 security guards, some of them straight out of the LAPD. Three of them would be assigned to him at all times, all dressed in black suits, all equipped with wireless earpieces. "I think you've got an image of James Bond-type security," says Kupchak. "But sometimes it is important for them to be visible. Quite frankly, he needs them. This is not a localized issue. This is a worldwide event."

And that's why Bryant's season debut, in Phoenix on Nov.1, was met with such trepidation. He hadn't played on the road since the rape charge, and there was anxiety about how badly the Arizona crowd would torch him. The morning of the game, he said he "expected the worst," and, in his mind, that meant fans storming the floor or women's groups demonstrating in the stands.

The team had additional concerns, mainly how he'd fit in on the court. Because of his knee and the court case, he'd had only five full practices with his new teammates, Malone and Payton, and there was a fear he'd stoop to doing what he did in preseason: hog the ball. "That's why I'd said what I said," O'Neal says. "Just to let him know this is how it's gonna be this year. We've got the perfect team, and it don't need to be f'd up. Period."

Malone and Payton are just happy to be Lakers. They aren't as jaded about Kobe as O'Neal is, and it helps that they each have a child at home who idolizes Bryant. "Shoot, my son wants Kobe to come over and play PlayStation with him," Payton says. "I told him, 'Wait for a little while. Give him a month or so.'"

Once the Phoenix game tipped off, the ball pleasantly touched everyone's hands. Whose team is it? It looked like Payton's. Not since Magic Johnson did the Lakers have someone who pushed the ball so incessantly and penetrated like that. Bryant simply waited for Payton's kick-out passes and stuck to the perimeter. "They played so well together, it made me nauseous," said a Suns assistant. Maybe Kobe had heard O'Neal after all.

The Phoenix crowd booed him on every one of his touches, but not too viciously. But afterward, Kobe was asked about the next road trip -- to Milwaukee, San Antonio, New Orleans and Memphis -- and out came the mantra again: expect the worst.

For this trip, he brought along his personal trainer, Joe Carbone, because, truth be known, he was still some 15 to 20 pounds underweight from the summer's inactivity. He looked a lot like the rookie Kobe, not the barrel-chested model of last season, and Carbone came along to monitor his client's three workouts a day. Carbone is also a friend who is part of Kobe's small inner circle. Vanessa, confidant No.1, was back at home, but as Kobe sat alone in his Milwaukee hotel room, she made sure he got to see their 9-month-old daughter, Natalia, walk for the first time, via the Internet. "Basketball gives me peace," he says. "But I get my most peace at home."

The crowd in Milwaukee was more brutal than the one in Phoenix, booing him for most of his 40 minutes on the floor. But at least there weren't any demonstrators. His 31 points shut them up in the end, the Lakers moved to 4-0 and, for the most part, Kobe still wasn't hoarding shots. On the court, he was chest-bumping everyone, Shaq included.

But he was dull-eyed and detached off the floor. O'Neal and Malone have become inseparable, and were already discussing their future hunting trips, while O'Neal and Payton were the motormouths in the locker room. Bryant never joined in, instead spending much of his time sitting in the trainer's room, flanked by the bodyguards, watching TV in silence.

"It's a difficult period," Kobe says. "What bothers me is people who say my situation is hard for my teammates and hard for the organization, and I should be mindful of that. Be mindful of that? Why? Because you have to answer a couple questions here and there? I'm living this. I am living this. Everybody else is watching me live this. What's hard about that?

"I shouldn't be mindful; you should be mindful of what's going on here. This is serious stuff. I don't see it being difficult to go out and play a game of basketball and have to answer some questions about somebody else's situation."

So he isolates himself from them. And maybe it's true, maybe he is done as a Laker after this year (San Antonio, for one, can get about $12million under the cap next season and has a low-ego big man.) "Would it surprise me if he leaves?" Jackson says. "Not at all. Why? Simply the fact that Kobe loves challenge. We've had many discussions. He's felt the restrictions of my direction, the offense that I insist we run, the fact that he's got to play within a boundary. He's required just by prudence and by basketball standards to throw the ball into Shaquille, and while it's made his life a lot easier as a winning basketball player, I wouldn't be surprised if he's done with that.

"I wouldn't be hurt by it. And while I think it may not be the wisest decision on his part, I wouldn't be surprised at all."

Says Kobe: "There's a possibility I could leave. There are a lot of reasons why."

With Kobe, nothing is out of the realm of possibility. During his next game, in front of a raucous but fair San Antonio crowd, he engages his teammates and scores 37 points. His legs are almost back now, along with his strut, his pursed lips. He makes 16 of 29 shots, plays 49 minutes and flushes his first alley-oop dunk of the year. The Lakers stay undefeated in double OT.

Afterward, a man-in-black walks Kobe Bean Bryant, alone again, to the rumbling team bus. There will be another game in 17 hours (a loss in New Orleans), another court appearance in seven days and another motorcycle-ride-for-the-soul the day after that.

For the moment, it's the only way Kobe can free Kobe.

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