BY THE TIME he was 14, Kobe Bryant had made up his mind: His quest for basketball greatness would be a solitary journey.
It was easier that way. He approached the game with such ferocity that it alarmed his friends, his teammates, even his family. It prompted others to shrink away, as if his obsession were a disease that might be contagious. He contracted it as boy in Philadelphia, where he exhausted himself to keep up with older sisters, Sharia and Shaya; it spread in Italy, where his father played professionally and an 8-year-old Kobe immersed himself in the game. By the time Bryant was a senior at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia, it had consumed him. He wasn't content with just beating his opponent. He needed to break him.
He inflicted one humiliation after the next, dunking when a layup would do, scoring with such force against overmatched peers that he reduced them to tears. Subjected to admonishments and withering stares, Kobe concluded: I'm alone in this.
In 1996, his rookie year with the Lakers, his teammates scoffed at the aloof teenager who treated every possession like Armageddon. When they said he was too serious about basketball, Kobe wondered how that was even possible. When they dubbed him Showboat, he sought out his general manager, Jerry West, who urged Kobe to resist style over substance. Showboat, West told him, was a moniker for guys who didn't play the right way: "Stop trying to do too much." West says what he did not do was condemn Kobe for being detached from his teammates. He couldn't. "Talk about an isolated teammate," West recalls, "I was much the same way."
Flash forward to the summer following his rookie season, and Bryant is lifting weights at Gold's Gym in Venice, California, desperate to chisel his adolescent frame into a man-sized body. He's balancing a barbell on his shoulders when his Nextel cellphone rings midsquat. He almost lets it go to voicemail, but curiosity wins out.
Pablo Torre, Jackie MacMullan and Baxter Holmes discuss two different sides of the retiring Lakers star: his obsession with great mentors, and how he dealt with a devastating Achilles rupture three years ago.
"Hi, it's Michael," the voice on the line says.
Bryant is incredulous. Kobe has never spoken to Michael Jackson before. It doesn't sound like the King of Pop; the voice is lower, subdued, devoid of the childlike whisper Jackson uses onstage. "He's calling me out of the f------ blue," Bryant remembers now. "I don't think it's a real phone call."
It is. It turns out Jackson has been studying the young Bryant from afar, and he has called to offer advice, one idiosyncratic phenom to another.
"Keep doing what you're doing," Jackson implores him. "Don't come back to the pack and be normal for the sake of blending in with others. Don't dumb it down."
The conversation lasts no more than 15 minutes, but the two men click. Jackson clearly knows the NBA, rattling off a string of Lakers factoids. Kobe, a fan of Michael's music, has questions of his own. They come tumbling out: Who were your early influences? How did you make Thriller? What prompted you to buy the catalog of the Beatles' music? When Jackson invites Bryant to join him at Neverland Ranch so the two can trade notes on how they approach their crafts, the 18-year-old Bryant jumps at the chance.
The Neverland Ranch, outside Los Olivos, California, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bryant's home in Pacific Palisades through rolling hills and canyons. Bryant misjudges the distance, arriving nearly out of gas. Not to worry, Jackson says, you can fill up at my private gas station. A 2,700-acre cornucopia of childlike delights, Neverland also boasts an amusement park with a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, a petting zoo housing a llama, orangutans, an elephant and giraffes, and a steam engine named after Michael Jackson's mother, Katherine.
Inside the French Normandy residence, the two men share a meal of marinated chicken and organic vegetables."He told me, 'This is what you love. This is your obsession,'" Bryant recalls. "He said, 'I know what it's like to be different. Embrace it.'"
After dinner, Jackson presents Bryant with a gift, a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a novella about an outcast bird who's unwilling to conform. Then they drive half a mile to Jackson's private 5,500-square-foot theater, adorned with billboards for old films, a flowing fountain and a concession stand stocked with boxed treats and cotton candy.
The theater has a state-of-the-art sound system, plush velvet seats and trapdoors for magic shows. Bryant has never heard of Grace Kelly, Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, but during a private film showing of their work, Michael explains how they were the inspiration for Jackson's 1988 "Smooth Criminal" music video and describes the lineage of his music, breaking down songs note by note, taking Bryant through the process of recording "Billie Jean." Jackson tells Kobe that he is transfixed by the success of the Beatles, that he initiated friendships with Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono just to learn more. Your curiosity is your greatest gift, Jackson says. Use it to expand your scope. Ordinary people won't understand your insatiable thirst for excellence. They won't bother to keep striving because it's too onerous, too difficult.
"You've got to study all the greats," Jackson tells Kobe. "You've got to learn what made them successful and what made them unsuccessful."
As Bryant drives home through Santa Barbara County -- a full tank of Neverland gas in his car -- his front seat is cluttered with copies of classic movies Jackson has given him: An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, Farewell My Concubine. It's Kobe's homework, along with an additional reading assignment: Napoleon Hill's Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude.
Kobe arrives back in Pacific Palisades well after midnight and stays up much of the night devouring Jackson's offerings. What Jackson has provided Bryant -- in the form of old movies, pop psychology and dated self-help books -- is an invitation to be like him. An invitation that would shape one of the greatest, and most controversial, careers in NBA history.
For all his genius, Kobe Bryant is a thief. He's the first person to say as much. He pilfered Oscar Robertson's pump fake, swiped Jerry West's quick release, copied Elgin Baylor's footwork. But the one big heist he couldn't quite pull off in his early years was Michael Jordan's patented fadeaway.
It is Dec. 17, 1997, Bryant's second NBA season, and the Lakers have just lost 104-83 in their lone trip to Chicago, Kobe bounding off the bench to score 33 points in 29 minutes, matching the output of the entire Lakers starting lineup. After the game, Jordan, a few months shy of 35, approaches Bryant: "If you ever need anything, give me a call." With Jackson's advice still fresh in his mind, the 19-year old Bryant pounces, peppering Jordan right then and there about his fallaway. How do you determine your release point? Is misdirection critical to creating space?
"I think Michael recognized some of him in me," Bryant says. "He understood we were a scary type."
Kobe's game resembles Michael Jordan's for a reason: Kobe has sought Jordan's guidance for the better part of two decades. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Bryant had in fact met Jordan before, when Kobe was a high school senior and attended a Bulls-Sixers game at the Spectrum in March 1996.
After the game, as Bryant and Julius Erving (who played with Kobe's father, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, on the Sixers) chatted in the corridor, Jordan joined the conversation. Bryant told them both he would be turning pro that June, and as he left, Dr. J and Jordan exchanged knowing glances. The kid had an intensity they recognized all too well. Bryant, for his part, left the conversation convinced that he had discovered kindred spirits. "I was a little psychopath," Kobe says. "I was as obsessed as they were."
When the start of the 1998-99 season is delayed by a labor dispute, it allows time for Kobe to reach out to Jordan again, this time through a series of pointed questions on containing bigger players in the post -- the likes of Latrell Sprewell, Mitch Richmond, Jimmy Jackson and Bryon Russell, all stronger and more physical than Kobe is. Jordan tutors Kobe: how to hold players off, how to push them to their weak side, how to fool them into thinking they have a clear lane, how to back off so the bigger player can't feel where the defense is.
"They were fundamental things," Bryant says, "obviously things he had learned at Carolina under the great tutelage of Dean Smith. I never had that. Speaking to MJ was like getting my own college education at the highest level."
"I was a little psychopath. I was as obsessed as they were."
Kobe Bryant, recalling his conversation with Michael Jordan and Dr. J in 1996
For decades, this conversation would continue on topics ranging from the weight of expectation to the protection of privacy -- one famously monomaniacal champion advising the very man who so clearly wanted to be him. Or better him.
"He has that tunnel vision where you only think about winning, not other people's perception of you," Jordan says. "You might not like Kobe, but you know what? He couldn't care less."
A few years later, in the summer of 2000, after Bryant has won his first title and anticipates an extended run with teammate and occasional foil Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe feasts on Bill Russell's book Second Wind, marking pages that touch upon race, teamwork and coaching philosophies. He mentions the book to Michael Jackson, whom he still speaks with at least once a month, and the pop icon urges him to reach out to the Hall of Fame center, winner of 11 championships in 13 seasons with the Celtics.
"People say 'Bill Russell can't score,'" Russell tells Kobe by phone that August. "Well, I could score plenty, but we had other guys who were better at it, so I let them do it. Sometimes you have to step back to allow others to step forward."
A years-long relationship, Kobe learned to appease high-volume scorers from Bill Russell, who once was charged with limiting one of the highest-volume scorers in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Then Russell drops a gem about Wilt Chamberlain, his rival and longtime friend. There were times, Russell says, when he'd let Wilt score. "Bill didn't want to activate Wilt," Kobe says. "He felt if he defended Wilt too well, then Wilt would take that as a challenge. And if he did, Wilt was going to demolish Bill because he was so physically big and strong. So Bill felt if he could appease Wilt, let him score once in a while, then Wilt would remain satisfied and Bill could keep him at bay."
Bryant tucks it into his memory bank. "I'm thinking, 'That's Art of War s---. I'm going to try that.'"
Bryant refuses to name players he used the strategy against. But former teammates and coaches have no such compunction, naming Tracy McGrady and, later, a young LeBron James as players Kobe rope-a-doped. When asked to confirm the names, Kobe laughs. "I will neither confirm or deny," he says.
From 2000 to 2002, the Lakers win three straight titles, and Bryant is on top of the basketball world -- and 23 years old. In 2001, Jackson releases his 10th studio album, Invincible, which sells 10 million copies. It was, unbeknownst to the both of them, the beginning of their mutual end.
The Lakers advance to the Western Conference semis in 2003 but lose to the Spurs in six games. Roughly a month later, Bryant clandestinely books a trip to Eagle, Colorado, to have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee at the Steadman Clinic and is later arrested for sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel worker, who claims the Lakers superstar had raped her while he was there.
Five months later, Jackson is formally charged with seven counts of sexual abuse, the result of allegations made by a young boy who had spent time at Neverland Ranch with Jackson. It is, in fact, the second time Jackson has been accused of illicit acts with underage boys; the first, 10 years prior, never went to trial.
It might seem plausible that these parallel events could draw Jackson and Bryant closer, two disgraced icons united by scandal. In fact, the opposite occurs.
Both men brace themselves for the legal troubles and PR nightmares to follow. The charges against both are horrific. It isn't just a matter of sullied reputations; if convicted, both face lengthy prison sentences. Bryant and Jackson reach the same unspoken conclusion: Their continued friendship could only fuel the ongoing firestorm.
"It was crazy," Bryant says. "We kinda lost touch ... because we both had issues."
On July 4, 2003, Bryant is formally charged with sexual assault and released on $25,000 bond. Endorsements for Bryant and Jackson evaporate. Though charges against Bryant are later dropped -- he settles a civil suit for an undisclosed sum that requires him to apologize but make no admission of guilt to the victim -- and Jackson is found not guilty of all charges on June 13, 2005, their images are shattered.
The allegations crush Jackson, the public backlash a devastating blow from which he never recovers. Bryant, though, goes the other way, anointing himself with a new nickname, Black Mamba, a poisonous snake. Jordan today remains steadfast in his support of Bryant: "One of the reasons I admire Kobe the most is how he took that negative and turned it into a positive," Jordan says. "He changed his life. He continued to dedicate himself to the game and made sure that one incident would not define him." But Jordan hardly represents the conventional public sentiment. Hatred is hurled at Bryant in every NBA arena. And the Black Mamba, in turn, revels in it. A concerned West reaches out, imploring Bryant to tap into his humility -- if such a thing even exists. "Find it," West urges him. "It will save you."
When Kobe Bryant was in 8th grade, he wrote a book report on Lew Alcindor, who would later become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For Bryant's first nine years in LA, Abdul-Jabbar was an apparition, disconnected from the franchise he helped lead to glory.
That all changes when the Lakers hire Abdul-Jabbar in 2005 to work with big man Andrew Bynum. Suddenly, Kareem is around every day, and Kobe approaches the Lakers legend armed with his usual array of questions, a veritable Jonathan Livingston Seagull. How did you bridge the generations between playing with Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson? What did your Bucks team do to sustain its 20-game winning streak during the 1970-71 championship season?
"Sometimes you have to be an a--hole. Sometimes your teammates are going to hate you, but all the guys I went after -- Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler -- they won multiple championships, so I'm pretty sure they understand."
Bryant is mesmerized by Kareem's philosophies on how the mind connects to the body and his stories of sparring with martial arts legend Bruce Lee. "Kareem told me, 'I could never find him,'" Kobe says. "He'd go to hit Bruce here, and he'd be over there. So Kareem would lunge there and Bruce would be over here again. He just couldn't get his hands on him. It was a great exercise for spacing, agility and vision."
Bryant comes to crave his talks with Abdul-Jabbar, whose reputation for being unapproachable is hardly a thing to stop Bryant. "So Kareem is aloof," Bryant says. "And Michael is supposed to be an a--hole because he made Steve Kerr cry. Doesn't matter to me. I made people cry too."
Indeed he did. Perhaps you've heard the legendary tale of how Kobe once elbowed teammate Sasha Vujacic in the face during a 2004-2005 practice, causing Vujacic to burst into tears? What you do not know is that following the incident, Kobe calls Jordan, seeking his counsel. Even Kobe wonders: Has he gone to far?
"Sometimes you have to be an a--hole," says Jordan today when asked about that conversation. "Sometimes your teammates are going to hate you, but all the guys I went after -- Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler -- they won multiple championships, so I'm pretty sure they understand."
As Bryant's career unfolds, he continues to seek insight from his own personal Mount Rushmore of NBA legends.
First comes Magic Johnson, part-owner of the Lakers and a man whose cellphone mailbox proves perpetually full. For whatever reason, Kobe says, "I had trouble getting to him."
But in the winter of 2009, with the Lakers coming off a crushing Finals loss to the Celtics the previous season, Bryant arrives three hours early at the practice facility and discovers Magic sitting in the breakfast room. The two sit together, alone, for two hours, Kobe chastising Magic for being critical about him in the press, Magic challenging Kobe to use his influence in the community.
"It was a breakthrough moment for us," Magic says. "At the time, Kobe was saying, 'I'm going to do my job, then I'm out.' I told him, 'No, you have to be more than that.' I said, 'What do you want your legacy to look like? It can't just be about winning championships and killing everybody.'"
After years of missed calls, Kobe and Magic finally connected in 2009 in an empty breakfast room in the Lakers' practice facility. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Kobe listens, then counters. "My personality is more in line with Michael's than yours.'"
"That's fine," Magic says. "Nobody's saying you have to go around smiling, hugging people. That's me, not you. Stay you, but effect change by being you."
In June, Bryant is still basking in the glow of his fourth championship, a victory over Dwight Howard and the Magic, when his cellphone jingles. It's a call from Michael Jackson's mother, Katherine, who tells Bryant how happy her son was that Bryant had "proven everyone wrong."
Although Bryant hasn't spoken to Jackson in nearly six years, Katherine tells him that Michael is planning a comeback tour, This Is It. He wants Kobe to share in the experience.
"He was getting ready to rehearse at the Forum," Kobe says. "We had talked for years about watching each other train and prepare."
Instead, days later, Bryant reads a breaking-news crawl on his TV, informing him Jackson has died.
"Michael Jackson was probably the biggest mentor I've ever had," Bryant says. "That phone call in Gold's Gym literally changed my life." The man Kobe dubbed the "greatest influence of my life" is gone. Yet Jackson's bizarre and troubling behavior in his final years -- he was a shadow of the savant who had summoned him to his ranch more than a decade before -- does nothing to change Bryant's opinion of him.
"He wasn't normal," Kobe says. "Most geniuses aren't."
Later that summer, Bryant, now 31, notices his lift isn't as explosive as it once was. Kobe pops open his laptop and emails Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, the master of the low post. "He had mentioned before that he'd like to work out with me," Olajuwon says. "I thought he was just saying that as a way to [give me] a compliment."
"At 18 years old, Michael Jackson becomes my mentor. And right after that, Michael Jordan tells me, 'If you need anything, just call.' I mean, seriously? It's a dream you simply cannot f--- up."
Bryant flies to Olajuwon's Katy, Texas, ranch in his private plane. He wants to learn it all: the devastating drop step, the fallaway, the Dream Shake. For four hours, Bryant implements the same moves, over and over again. Drive, stop, pivot, turn, release. Drive, stop, pivot, turn, release.
Take it slow, Olajuwon says. We need to break each move down. Use your quickness and agility to create room in the post.
"At first he was a little awkward because it wasn't his natural movement," Olajuwon says, "but by the time he was done he was so fluid. How quickly he got it -- that was unbelievable." Says Olajuwon, who's worked with Howard, Yao Ming and LeBron, among others: "Kobe was the one who got it the fastest and used it the most." As for Bryant's famous arrogance? "If you are all about ego, you don't come down to my ranch."
Three years later, Celtics great Larry Bird is on the golf course, on hiatus from his job as president of the Pacers, when his phone rings.
"Hey, it's Kobe. Got a minute?" Kobe tells Bird he's always been curious about his routine, his pregame preparation, his offseason conditioning. He asks Bird how he handled teammates who didn't perform with the same intensity he did. (Bird famously called his Celtics teammates "sissies" following a loss to the Lakers in the 1984 Finals.) "Larry said, 'You know what? That's why you, Michael and me might have been better off playing individual sports.'"
It's 2016, some 19 years after a unexpected phone call in Gold's Gym, and Kobe is days away from retirement. He no longer seeks out the game's stars; they seek him out, in the form of calls from LeBron, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. When Kobe gets those calls, he tells them all the same thing: It's one thing to ask questions, it's another thing to carry through what you learn.
Sometimes, Kobe says, he can't believe it himself -- how, as an 8-year-old in Italy, he committed the accomplishments of NBA greats to memory. And how at night he'd play Michael Jackson's Thriller over and over, reciting the lyrics as if they were his own. "And then, at 18 years old, Michael Jackson becomes my mentor," Kobe says. "And right after that, Michael Jordan tells me, 'If you need anything, just call.' I mean, seriously? It's a dream you simply cannot f--- up."
There will always be the haters -- those who argue that for as great as Kobe's career was, it should have been greater, those who contend that by communing only with his own Mount Rushmore, Kobe engaged in a form of self-sabotage. To them, he was an isolated superstar, unloved by many of his teammates, resented by Jordan acolytes, spurned by fans of Shaq.
Kobe Bryant begs to differ.
"I was never alone," he says. "I had the game."