In next month's issue of GQ Magazine, the cover story features a fabulous profile of Lakers' superstar Kobe Bryant. From J.R. Moehringer—a longtime contributor for the L.A. Times and author of one my favorite memoirs ever, The Tender Bar—comes an engaging look at one of the more enigmatic figures in sports. It's well worth your time to read the piece in its entirety here, and excerpts are below.
Unlike his greatest predecessor, Michael Jordan, Kobe hasn't had the fortune of playing in the 1990s, when fans were content to take someone's commercial presence as reality. And even if he did, Kobe's commercial idenity was shattered when he was accused of rape in a 2004 trial in Colarado. Jordan, as we've found out more and more over the years, had a closet full of skeletons that were in sharp contrast to his smiling public persona, but he never suffered the ignominy of a public rape accusation. Kobe did, and yet, more than an injury to his charactar, that scandal in Eagle, Colorado merely prompted more and more inquiries into it. What's Kobe Bryant really like?
Mainly, that question is what drives the GQ cover story. It's a question that's less fasinating than it is insanely popular. Moehringer even uses it as a device in his profile: everyone has a different theory about Kobe Bryant. How he seems. I have to a theory, too. And while Moehringer's admittedly superb profile tries to dismiss these sort of casual character studies, I can't help but share mine.
To me, Kobe Bryant seems like a simple-minded person that wants to nothing more than to win at everything and to be known as one of the most complex superstars in history.
His public reticence has left the rest of us to rely on guesswork and secondhand anecdotes for our psychoanalysis. In this regard, GQ's new profile is particularly valuable. How does he get to work?
This is how the 31-year-old co-captain of the Lakers, the eleven-time All-Star, the four-time world champion, the most prolific and accomplished scorer currently drawing breath and an NBA paycheck, commutes. He takes a private helicopter from Orange County, where he lives with his wife and two children, to every home game. It's a nice dash of glitz, a touch of showbiz that goes well with the Hollywood sign in the hazy distance. But sexy as it might seem, Bryant says the helicopter is just another tool for maintaining his body.
What does he do at night?
Every night he passes out around ten, then wakes feeling fully refreshed. He yawns, looks at the clock. Midnight. What the-? He's been asleep only two hours. He'd love to sleep more, but his body is up, raring to go.
What does he do?
Watch TV, maybe a movie. He's mad for Tarantino. (Especially the Kill Bill movies; he sees himself as a samurai, though he's a kamikaze with his body.)
What do his teammates think of him?
Everyone tries to explain him. Everyone has a pet theory, and everyone wants to test his theory on Fisher. "Ten million times," he says, shaking his head. "What's Kobe really like? Do you like him? How is he really?" He imitates the confident tone of his interrogators: "He seems like-" Whatever follows, Fisher adds, is always, always wrong.
My theory? He revels in all of this. Kobe Bryant is not nearly as complicated as he seems. He started out with a simple goal: to be this generation's Michael Jordan. He courted fans' affection from day one—carrying himself like Jordan, cracking wide grins at every turn, playing with his tongue wagging out, and saying all the right things. The problem is that nobody quite bought it. After a while, his mission was futile. Kobe would never be this generation's Michael Jordan, because you could tell that all he ever wanted was to be this generation's Michael Jordan.
But after that scandal in Colorado, something changed with Kobe. His mission evolved. The goal shifted. Instead of this generation's Jordan, he decided to be Kobe, the eternal enigma.
Now, he guards his privacy as fiercely as anyone in sports, and puts forth this ultra-competitive image that's completely genuine, and at the same time, a construction. He's the most competitive player in the league, but he wants to be known as the most competitive player in the league. Kobe Bryant seems like an intensely private celebrity, except that he wants to be known as an intensely private celebrity. Sort of a contradiction, there.
Quotes like this are like aphrodisiacs to Kobe:
Though not a big reader, he enjoys studying all kinds of geniuses, from da Vinci to Daniel Day-Lewis, and his method of study is to separate them into manageable components. "What sets him apart from others is his thirst for knowledge," says his friend, actress Hilary Swank. "He uses every way, and then some, to learn more about the art of life, getting his mind out of the way."
Kobe actively conjures this image of a basketball genius that defies understanding. And mostly, he's succeeded. Nobody can argue that Kobe isn't the hardest worker in pro basketball, that his competitive will isn't historically prodigious, and that nobody truly understands who he is as a person.
But of course, in our character analysis, it has to matter that this is how he wants to be viewed. That's part of the story. He's not simply a recluse; he's someone that consciously wants to be seen in that light. The qualities that prompt Moehringer's gushing are not innate to Kobe. The competitiveness, sure, but studying Daniel Day-Lewis? Studying the "art of life"? Helicopters to work? Is he trying to be Batman, or Bruce Wayne, or both?
And remember, when he started out, he just wanted to be Michael Jordan.
That mission never panned out, and what's emerged instead is an icon consumed by conflicting instincts. He wants to be a man of the people, but he also wants to be this singular genius. He wants to be a team player, but he also wants to get credit when his teams win. Phil Jackson nailed it with this passage, from his memoir The Last Season:
A part of Kobe desperately wants to ... enjoy the camaraderie of his teammates, basketball serving as his only true escape. But there is another part of Kobe which often wins out, a part that wants, perhaps needs, to be isolated from the group. To have it both ways is simply impossible.
Since that passage, Kobe realized the futility of his task, and has graduated to courting this mystique. The fierce competitor that nobody understands, but everyone respects. The anecdotes in GQ are valuable, insofar as it's telling that Kobe would choose to share those things. He doesn't want to be viewed as a typical superstar. He'd rather be the guy that sleeps four hours each night, views himself as a Samurai, and takes a helicopter to gain a competitive advantage.
Kobe Bryant's legacy is that of an amazing basketball player, an international celebrity, and a guy who's never known quite what he wants to be. Batman or Bruce Wayne? Kobe wants both, but he can't have either, so he's opted for a mystique that defies our understanding, relating strange anecdotes to someone like Moehringer, who probably doesn't remember when Kobe was just a 22-year old kid that couldn't stop mimicking Jordan.
But for basketball fans, we remember. He wanted to be Jordan, then he wanted to be the assassin, "Black Mamba," then he wanted to be the likable team player, and now, he wants to be the mysterious supertsar, with a competitive psychology that defies our understanding.
So how does Kobe seem to me? Like a guy who's never quite understood himself.