Someday, Magic Johnson firmly believes, Bryant is going to look back on this season and realize that he is the only one who remembers his struggles. "People forget," Johnson says, as if speaking about himself.
The believers—Johnson, Jordan, Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal—exhibit the same faith in Bryant that they have in themselves. In him they see a self-made man, a prodigy who taught himself the game by correspondence course. Perhaps no player has ever made more use of his imagination. Compared with the older stars, Bryant seems to have been raised far away in a basketball convent. In truth he was.
Where is the incentive to improve if the money and the praise—the full-page advertisements—are lavished on players before they accomplish anything? Johnson looks at many young stars as if they've inherited their wealth; when they actually take over, he worries, the business he helped to build will fall apart. He was especially distressed by the uninspired performances by basketball players at the 1996 Olympics, in which no money changed hands. "A lot of these guys are not worthy and not deserving," he says. "They don't go out and do it for their country. They want the money, but they don't want the responsibility that comes with the money. Kobe is different. He wants all of it."
In Johnson's day TV was just becoming infatuated with the NBA, principally because of him and Larry Bird, and the new exposure made the games seem larger and made the players richer and more famous. That drove the league's profits ever higher, so that a player today can enjoy the life of a champion without winning a title. If Bryant is unique, it might be because he didn't see the game as a way to improve his life. He was connected to the circuit by his father, a former NBA player, and the things Johnson did coursed through the little boy's mind like the blood that pumped through the rest of him. At the same time, Kobe was isolated and sheltered from the excesses of the superstar life. His version of the American Dream differed fundamentally from that of his current NBA peers. They believed in the jackpot. Bryant grew up believing in the mythology.
"My wife and I used to prescreen movies before we'd let the kids see them," says Joe Bryant, Kobe's father. "We used to push the kids under the seat when the actors would start kissing." Joe and his wife, Pam, were still editing Kobe's entertainment a couple of years before he signed his three-year, $3-5 million contract with the Lakers in 1996. He didn't see The Godfather, his favorite movie, until last year. "It reminds me of my family," Kobe says. "Not because of the violence, but because of the way they all pulled for each other no matter what."
The Lakers were skeptical when the 17-year-old Bryant came looking for a job a few weeks before the '96 NBA draft. The league's successful high school prodigies—Moses Malone (who began his career in the ABA), Darryl Dawkins, Kevin Garnett—had been big men who were pushed ahead by financial and in some cases academic imperatives. Bryant was different. He was 6'5", which meant that, after playing basketball in the U.S. for less than five years, he was asking teams to wager a first-round pick on his chances of thriving at shooting guard or small forward, arguably the most competitive positions in professional sports. Second, with an SAT score of 1,080, Bryant could have entered most U.S. universities on his academic talents alone, and third, his family didn't need the money; his father had recently completed a 16-year playing career in the NBA and Europe.
When Lakers general manager Jerry West asked Bryant to jump, he might have thought he was watching a coiled spring release: Bryant touched the top of the backboard square. West then put him through a kind of obstacle course, pitting him against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers defensive whiz who used to guard Bird. Cooper bullied and shoved Bryant, trying to use his strength and experience, but the youth moved like a fish under water. West then introduced Bryant to Dontae' Jones, the star of Mississippi State's 1996 Final Four team who was also working out for the Lakers and would be drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks. Both young men were starving for opportunity. A ball was tossed between them, and everyone stood back. Bryant devoured the moment smoothly, like a lion with excellent table manners.
West turned to an aide and said with a buried giggle, "I've seen enough. Let's go." West, who calls Bryant the best prospect he has ever put through a workout, was so impressed that he arranged to send the Lakers' starting center, Vlade Divac, to the Charlotte Hornets for Bryant, whom the Hornets chose with the 13th pick. Freed of Divac's salary, the Lakers then signed O'Neal to a seven-year, $120 million contract, restoring the team to title contention for the first time since Johnson's better days.
The Lakers still aren't sure how Bryant made up so much ground so fast. "Kobe is at least as mature as any player we have now," West says, "and you cannot discount his family's contribution to that."
But how did a teenager learn the fundamentals so thoroughly while spending the better part of eight years in relative basketball isolation in Europe? The smartest general manager in the game has no ready explanation. He finds himself saying, "You watch Stevie Wonder and you marvel at how he and Ray Charles have overcome handicaps, yet they are wonderfully talented and gifted."