The never-ending story: Who is the Authentic Kobe?

Kobe Bryant stands off to the side of the court, while the Golden State Warriors are introduced at Oracle Arena on March 27, 2012. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This story has been corrected. Read below.

STANDING OUTSIDE THE media room of an arena in New Orleans during his last road trip, Kobe Bryant mused about what an old Mamba would tell a young Mamba if he could--what a 37-year-old, suddenly beloved NBA sage would tell a headstrong, can't-wait-to-be-great kid of 17, forever the youngest draft prodigy.

I reminded him of Morgan Freeman's character, Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding, in "The Shawshank Redemption," who wishes he could impart his old-head wisdom to the angry youngster who made the mistake of a lifetime. "But I can't," Red says. "That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I gotta live with that."

Bryant snickered. "I don't think it would matter, because the young version of myself wouldn't listen anyway."

The embers of Mamba mania are just beginning to cool, with that 60-point heirloom ending part of a memorable, if complicated mosaic. Call it the Kobe Era--the 20-year career of the NBA's most scintillating and seminal basketball player after Michael Jordan.

And yet. Two decades later, we know everything about him -- and nothing. From the Kobephiles to the critics, the hagiographers to the haters, they still ask:

"Who is Kobe, really?"

Shaquille O'Neal bellows over his cellphone, hilariously going into Shaq Proclamation mode: "We will always be the most enigmatic, controversial, dominant one-two, little-man, big-man punch in Laker history and NBA history. There, I said it. I said it. You can tweet it. You can Instagram it. You can Snapchat it."

But, really, do you know him?

"Uh, I'm not sure," O'Neal says.

Says Byron Scott, his coach now and his teammate 20 years ago: "I feel I know him as much as he wants me to know him."

In the beginning

IT'S FEBRUARY, 1998, and America's most famous sixth man, just 19 years old, is days away from playing in his first All-Star Game. After practice, he pulls out of the Great Western Forum parking lot in a jet-black BMW 740iL, driving me to my hotel on the way to his agent's office in Santa Monica, Calif.

The explicit lyrics of Jay Z, long before he became the POTUS-approved, hip-hop scion, blare through the speakers. Bryant slows down and lowers the volume.

"This stuff is a little harsh, huh?" he says, swapping out the CD after about the eighth n-bomb. "You like the Spice Girls? A lot of people hate them, but the positive image they project, how they make kids feel, I admire that."

For years I wondered if he was projecting what he wanted people to think he listened to, or whether he had unilaterally decided what the white reporter from the New York Times wanted to hear-the mainstream soundtrack of American tweens.

"I don't know if it was calculating or just being respectful," he says now after being reminded of that day.

Bryant in that moment seemed so ... pure. He had taken Brandy to his senior prom. He smiled from baseline to baseline. A 19-year-old going on 35, he seemed to have a genuine appreciation for his station in life, determined not to be a preps-to-pros cautionary tale.

When I ask now why he wasn't more open with his teammates and coaches (I never believed media and fans should have been as entitled), why so many he worked and played with wished he had let them in, he says, flatly, "I was busy. I was busy studying the game. It wasn't something I consciously did. I was just so busy studying and perfecting my craft, that's what I did most of the time."

The truth is that his maniacal basketball obsession, his perfection of the craft, helped him to emotionally connect with fans in a way Jordan never had to worry about. Each malicious dunk, each defender he made fall down, every dagger at the buzzer, helped the fluent-in-Italian child of the Philadelphia suburbs gain acceptance among African-Americans reluctant to issue him a black card.

And the more Bryant heard he wasn't "black enough," the more he began to hate the compartmentalization of the African-American athlete. He believed that down-with-the-cause groupthink short-circuited civil debate and genuine education about nuanced issues. LeBron James wore a hoodie to support Trayvon Martin; Bryant first wanted more facts.

"If we've progressed as a society, then you don't jump to somebody's defense just because they're African-American," he told The New Yorker two years ago. Which didn't go over well with a certain social-conscience athletic icon.

"He is somewhat confused about culture, because he was brought up in another country," Jim Brown said at the time, that if he were to convene another historic summit of black athletes like he did in 1967 to support Muhammad Ali over his refusal to enter the military, Bryant wouldn't get an invite.

Bryant responded in a tweet: "A 'Global' African American is an inferior shade to 'American' African Americans?? #hmm. that doesn't sound very #Mandela or #DrKing sir."

The criticism dwarfed all the selfish-gunner talk, encompassing racial, cultural and class identity. His protective walls grew higher. And higher.

After the 2003 sexual assault allegation in Colorado, he went into deep bunker mode. As his friend Kevin Frazier, the "Entertainment Tonight" co-host, says, "There was Before Colorado and After Colorado. And after Colorado, Kobe shut it down. I wish everyone could see the guy that went with me to see a Make-A-Wish child in Sacramento, because that's who Kobe is. Colorado obscured that for a while."

The Middle

AFTER ALL THE Court TV drama in 2003, the accuser eventually refused to testify and the sexual-assault case was dropped. (Bryant later settled a civil case out of court.) But in an interview that summer, the Eagle County, Colo., district attorney intimated to me and another reporter that he had planned to show during the trial that Bryant had blocked his hotel-room door at one point, "so as not to let her leave."

I had to recalibrate everything.

Squaring this sinister portrait of the high-on-life kid who gave me a ride in his car five years earlier--who said he really respected a young Martina Hingis for being able to win and have fun at the same time, as Posh Spice and Scary Spice belted out, "Yo, tell me what I want, what I really, really want"--wasn't just head-spinning, it was downright disturbing.

Whatever reservoir of goodwill built up through three championships and multiple otherworldly performances was drained. When a police report showed Bryant had sold out O'Neal, claiming O'Neal had paid off his own paramours, the rapper Nas recorded a harsh track naming Bryant.

"You can't do better than that?/ The hotel clerk who adjusts the bathroom mat?...You beat the rap, ... then you s--- on Shaq."

"Kobe didn't trust anyone for a time," Brian Shaw, the former teammate and former Lakers assistant coach, whom Bryant considers a close friend, recalled. "After that, he went into Mamba mode. He began to realize that people ever looking at him like they looked at Michael [Jordan] was not happening. He started to embrace being a villain."

Bryant mimicked everything Jordan for so long, he had it all down: The rock-and-fade along the baseline; the authoritative I-got-this gait as he loped imperiously up the floor; the multiple NBA titles, five to Jordan's six, a feat only equaled by San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan in the past 20 years; the branding of an aura more than merely an image.

But after Colorado, it was time to give in to the dark side, the serious-as-a-snakebite commitment toward excellence that Bryant once aptly called, "The ugliness of greatness."

It's a rationalization for some of the most hypercompetitive among us, positing they have to be nasty SOBs--or else their gift might vanish. But the price is high: No matter how great the ride, you become a hollower, angrier version of whatever you were before.

"He doesn't shy away from it. He tells you he's an a------," teammate Roy Hibbert said in New Orleans last week.

Bryant didn't merely want to win anymore; he needed to emasculate. He didn't just want to humble; he needed to humiliate. And the more vulnerable you became with him, the more personal he could make it.

When he was traded to Los Angeles, Hibbert repeated what supportive teammates in Indiana used to do for one another during the Pacers' rough patches. He looked teammates in the eye, telling them, with conviction, "I believe in you."

In certain NBA locker rooms, this is known as trust-building, bonding over shared failure. In MambaWorld, it's emotional ammo.

The next time Hibbert didn't live up to Bryant's expectations, Bryant had a longer needle to stick under his teammate's skin. It became a meme earlier this season, in fact, when he mockingly clapped toward Hibbert and yelled at the center, "Come on ... I believe in you!"

He had succeeded in copying yet another part of Jordan's persona: the bully who held underachievers accountable--breaking them down with the goal of building them back up. Or alienating them, in which case, the ugliness-of-greatness doctrine would say they weren't mentally strong enough anyway.

"I still can't stress how much Colorado really changed him," Shaw says. "It made him less forgiving, you know, 'This is who I am. This is me. Take it or leave it.'"

So who is he? What's Kobe really like?

The End

DRONE-FOCUSED, BRYANT finally learned to mimic Jordan's work-the-room charisma, too. He went on a Mamba-Mending-Fences Tour the past few months, until the unseemly parts seemed to wash away during the sentimental sendoffs.

Many of my peers are unconvinced this gracious, soak-it-all-in Kobe is the result of a 20-year maturation process--that a defanged, deeply nostalgic Mamba even exists. They think it's a front he affected so he could go out beloved amid the wreckage of a sorry, 65-loss team.

I don't know.

Five years ago, we were playing on opposite sides in soccer star Mia Hamm's charity soccer game in Washington and Kobe the ambassador emerged-joking, smiling, giving extremely sick children the thrill of meeting and hugging him, camouflaging the uber-competitor as best he could.

I went from being charmed by a seemingly unaffected, young, bilingual, worldly-beyond-19 supernova to ... a jaded skeptic, who felt duped I hadn't seen his dark side. And then ... astonishingly back again, a 360-degree, come-to-Kobe epiphany.

He is flawed, like most of us. Maybe it doesn't matter whether we find out who he authentically is. Maybe the majesty of Mamba is that his religious pursuit of producing a throaty roar from a sold-out NBA arena is all there was, and maybe that should be enough.

The day before his final game, the snarling defiance had long dissipated into the ether. Bryant was playing on a dreadful team that won 17 games in six months, rather than the Phil Jackson-coached champions who could win 17 games in six weeks. This eyesore left no financial option organizationally, or for Bryant, other than a highly marketable retirement.

And it felt worth it that final night, inside that cavernous, cacophonous arena, where the chuck-it-up self-indulgence Bryant once was chastised for became more than universally accepted. It was actually encouraged in a game that meant nothing--and everything.

For an evening, the beautiful people from the world's most glamorous franchise returned. Close your eyes and it could have been '87 or 2010, the year of Bryant's last title.

Jack was there. And Beckham. And Leo. And, in perhaps a nod to the credibility he was finally afforded, Jay Z, Kanye, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube lined sideline seats to witness history: 50 shots, 60 points, the final comeback win authored by a 37-year-old learning to say hello just as he had us at goodbye.

"I felt like I left no stone unturned and I learned as much as I possibly could," he says. Describing his own story, he adds, "It's one of constant evolution and constant growth. Just like every other person out there, it's someone trying to figure out who they are. And through that journey, hopefully you've impacted other people along the way."

So what's Kobe really like?

Maybe, in hindsight, I knew all along.

On that day 18 years ago, as he maneuvered his BMW onto the 405 Freeway north toward Santa Monica, the blinding sun of a smogless city put him in silhouette, so young but already hell-bent on going it alone.

"People always talk about adjusting and who I'm going to let into my inner circle," he said then. "I don't really need an inner circle."

He needed Kobe. That was enough.

An April 19, 2016, story on ESPN.com incorrectly reported that a police report showed Kobe Bryant's former teammate, Shaquille O'neal had paid off Bryant's paramours. Instead, Bryant told police that O'Neal paid off women that O'Neal had sex with.