Book Excerpts That Don't Suck: The Art Of A Beautiful Game

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Today's comes from Sports Illustrated's ever-excellent Chris Ballard, author of The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA. Here's Chris on Kobe Bryant, basketball nerd. Chat with him at 1 p.m. in a followup post.


Consider the following hypothetical situation. Let's say you are playing for your high school basketball team and have persuaded one of the team's benchwarmers to stay afterward to play one-on-one. Let's also stipulate that you are much, much better than this benchwarmer, who, for our purposes, we shall call Rob.

Now let's say the two of you are playing a game to 100 points, with each basket worth one point, winner's outs after a made shot, and you are having your way with poor Rob, backing him down and driving by him and pulling up for jumpers. Pretty soon you've built an almost embarrassing lead — say, 40 baskets to none. Now, in this situation, do you:

a) begin to feel bad for Rob, who is, after all, doing you a favor by staying late, and perhaps ease up a bit so he can at least score a few baskets?

b) continue playing hard but maybe start taking only outside jumpers, so that Rob might have a fighting chance, thus making it more competitive?

c) never let up for a second, hounding Rob on defense and punishing him on offense, because the only way to win is to do so absolutely and completely, and only the weak relent, even for a moment?

If you answered "c," congratulations. You share a mind-set with Kobe Bryant, the most competitive life-form on the planet.

Bryant, in fact, lived the above scenario while at Lower Merion High in Pennsylvania — and did so more than once. Only Bryant didn't just get up 40–0. Sometimes he would take an 80–0 lead on Rob Schwartz, a good-natured, if undersized, junior guard. Think about that: 80 baskets to none. Can you imagine the focus, the ruthlessness, required to score 80 times on someone before they score once? Kobe can. To Kobe, this is just what you do. It is how you play.

"You'd think he'd have a tendency to ease back, but he doesn't have that in him," remembers Schwartz, who now works as a strength-and-conditioning coach near Philadelphia. "I think the best I ever did was to lose 100–12." Naturally, Bryant doesn't want to concede that Schwartz had even that much success. "I think he's lying about that," Bryant says when I tell him of Schwartz's recollection. "I told Rob that too. We were talking about it, and I said, ‘You never got 12. I never let you get double digits. Most you got was five.'" Bryant is smiling when he says this, but it's a forced grin. He really does want to set the record straight. Because God forbid any of us think for a moment that this Schwartz kid got double digits on Kobe Bryant.

Call it what you will: killer instinct, competitive fire, hatred of losing or, as Sam Cassell once said, "that Jordan thing." No one in the NBA embodies it like Bryant. It is at once one of the most valuable skills and the hardest to teach. Sports psychologist Jim McGee, quoted in Michael Clarkson's book Competitive Fire, describes elite athletes such as Bryant as "neurological freaks," positing that they have a different hormonal and neurological makeup than the rest of us.

It manifests itself in various ways. Some, like Magic Johnson, competed with an ever-present grin. Others, like Larry Bird, would rather cut off a finger than be congenial to an opponent. When Bird first met Michael Jordan, the two men were warming up for an exhibition game — NBA stars versus collegiate Olympians — on opposite ends of the court. When Jordan's ball rolled to where Bird was shooting, Bird picked it up, looked at Jordan and proceeded to punt the ball over Jordan's head. Welcome to the show, kid.

Jordan, of course, was himself famous for berating teammates in practice and for befriending opponents only to crush them later (once prompting coach Jeff Van Gundy to call him a "con man," whereupon, the next night, Jordan scored 51 points against Van Gundy's Knicks). Jordan so loathed losing that when he once dropped three consecutive games of pool to then-assistant Roy Williams while at North Carolina, Jordan refused to talk to him the next day. Asked to provide a one-word summation of Jordan, former Bulls center Luc Longley chose "predator." Yet, during his pro career, Jordan somehow managed to come off as lovable — just your friendly neighborhood athletic superhero who stars in underwear commercials and cartoons.

Because Kobe is Kobe, however, he cannot conceal his mentality the way Jordan did, behind a who-would-have-thunk-it smirk or an endorsariffic smile. With Bryant, his competitive fire manifests itself during practice, during games, during summer workouts, during conversation. When he dreams, Bryant is probably kicking someone's ass at something, perhaps swatting Bill Russell's hook into the third row. "He can't turn it off, even if he tried," says veteran swingman Devean George, one of a handful of NBA players who are relatively close to Bryant. And for that Kobe has often been pilloried — by fans, by the media, even by fellow players. But is that really fair? "Kobe wants it so badly that he rubs an awful lot of people the wrong way," says Lakers basketball consultant Tex Winter, guru of the triangle offense, who has known Bryant since 1999. "But they're not willing to understand what's inside the guy."

O.K. then, let's try, starting at the beginning, moment by basketball moment.

It's 1985, and Bryant is 7 years old, living in Italy, where his father, Joe Bryant, is playing professional basketball. He keeps bugging Brian Shaw, then a star player in Europe, to play him one-on-one. Eventually Shaw relents, and the two play H-O-R-S-E. "To this day, Kobe claims he beat me," says Shaw. "I'm like, right, an 11-year-old kid, but he's serious." Even back then, Shaw saw something different. "His dad was a good player, but he was the opposite of Kobe, real laid-back," says Shaw. "Kobe was out there challenging grown men to play one-on-one, and he really thought he could win."

Now it's 1995. Kobe is the senior leader on the Lower Merion team, and he is obsessed with winning a state championship. He comes to the gym at 5 a.m. to work out before school, stays until 7 p.m. afterward. It's all part of the plan; when Lower Merion lost in the playoffs the previous spring, Kobe stood up in the locker room, interrupting the seniors as they hugged each other in an attempt at closure, and guaranteed a state title, adding, "The work starts now." (To this day, Bryant remains so amped about his old high school league that when he taped a video message for the Lower Merion team a few years ago, it contained none of the usual platitudes; instead it was Bryant reeling off a string of expletives and exhorting the boys to "take care of fucking business!")

During the Kobe era at Lower Merion no moment was inconsequential, no drill unworthy of ultimate concentration. During one practice, "just a random Tuesday," as Coach Gregg Downer recalls, Bryant was engaged in a three-on-three drill in a game to 10. One of his teammates was Schwartz, then a 5' 7" junior bench warmer. With the game tied 9–9, Schwartz had an opening and drove to the basket but missed, allowing the other team to grab the rebound, after which they scored to win the game. "Now, most kids go to the water fountain and move on," says Downer. Not Kobe. "What do you think you're doing taking the last shot?" he demanded of Schwartz. The younger player looked at Bryant, amazed. "Dude," Schwartz said, "It's a three-on-three drill. It doesn't matter that much."

It was, Schwartz should have known, the wrong thing to say. He headed into the hallway to get a drink of water, but Kobe raced after him and berated him, and they nearly came to blows. It didn't stop with a reprimand either. "Ever get the feeling someone is staring at you — you don't have to look at them, but you know it?" says Schwartz. "I felt his eyes on me for the next 20 minutes. It was like by losing that drill, I'd lost us the state championship."

Now it's 1996 and the Lakers call in Bryant, fresh off his senior prom — he took the singer Brandy as you may recall — for a predraft workout. He flies in to Los Angeles and heads to the Inglewood High gym. In attendance are Lakers G.M. Jerry West and two members of the L.A. media-relations team, John Black and Raymond Ridder. Bryant, now 17, is to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers guard and one of the premier defenders in NBA history. Cooper is 40 years old but still in great shape, wiry and long and much stronger than the teenage Bryant. The game is not even close. "It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him," says Ridder, now the Warriors' director of media relations. After 10 minutes, West stands up. "That's it, I've seen enough," he says. "He's better than anyone we've got on the team right now. Let's go."

Now it's early in his career. Just as he once did with Schwartz, Bryant keeps NBA teammates after practice as guinea pigs. "He was notorious for asking me to stay late to work on a move," says George, who played for L.A. from 1999 to 2006. "He'd say, ‘Stand there for a minute. I want to try something.' " And then Bryant would unveil a spin move, or a cross-over, or something else he'd picked up watching tape, and do it over and over and over. "The crazy thing about it is, he has the ability to put new elements in his game overnight," says George. "Like, for example, he might say, ‘Stay after and guard this move. Let me try it on you,' and he'll do it the next day in the game." George pauses to let this sink in. "Most of us, we'll try it alone, then we'll try it in practice, then in a scrimmage, and only then will we bring it out for a seven o'clock game. He'd do it the next day — and it would work."

This is how Bryant sees it — the game as laboratory. I first witnessed it in 2002, while I was interviewing him for a Sports Illustrated story. We were in an empty room at the Lakers practice facility and, when the conversation turned to dribble-drive moves, Bryant started getting worked up. He described to me a variation on a traditional move: a jab step-and-pause, where you sink deep, hesitate to let the defender relax and, instead of bringing the jab foot back, push off it. Soon enough, Bryant was out of his chair and positioning me as a "defender" on the carpeted floor.

"O.K., when I go here," he said, lunging forward, "now I just hesitate for a second and then" — and here Bryant pretended to exhale deeply — "Bam! I'm by you."

He stepped aside and, not content with the lesson, motioned for me to catch the imaginary ball he was holding. "You try it."

I jabbed, hesitantly.

Kobe shook his head. "Sell it man, really sell it!"

And so I did. And as we jabbed and relaxed and jabbed, it occurred to me that, deep down, Kobe Bryant is a total nerd. It's just that, while some people are Star Wars nerds, Bryant is a basketball nerd. "I think Kobe's actually a little bit embarrassed by his love of basketball," says Downer, his high school coach. "People called him a loner, but it's just that basketball is all he wants to focus on. I think he's part of a dying breed that loves the game that way."

It is this affection for the game that gets Bryant so excited about meeting kindred souls. Asked about Spurs coach Gregg Popovich during the 2008 playoffs, Kobe's face lit up as he recalled his chance to play for him in an All-Star Game. "I was really hoping he'd run us through one of those rigorous practices he does," said Bryant. When he got his wish, he deemed it "fun."

Now it's the summer of 2008, and Bryant is an Olympian on a team that will go on to win the gold medal. When around U.S. teammates, he refers to himself as "the old dog," as in, when Magic center Dwight Howard is being called to the bus as the team departs from a practice, "Don't worry, those motherfuckers aren't going anywhere without me. Stick with the old dog, and you'll be fine." (Howard does, and he is). It's a role Kobe's been waiting to play his whole career. Now, finally, he can be the alpha dog — all the time.

It is not easy to coach an alpha dog, of course. Especially one like Bryant, who not only knows the game chapter and verse but also understands both his own limitations and those of his teammates. As such, he is at times given to making, shall we say, executive decisions. "He's sure got a grasp of the game," says Tex Winter, the Lakers' coach. "He understands the game. But — and don't misinterpret this — he understands it a lot better than he plays it."

O.K., Tex, so as not to misinterpret: Are you saying that he knows the right thing to do but sometimes chooses not to do it?

"Yup, that's it," says Tex.