Like a lot of NBA fans, I went through the cynical thing with Kobe. The hate bandwagon was easy: Mr. Popular. Mr. Best-Dressed. Everything too good to be true. The best thing since Jordan. But after all the obstacles he’s faced—the media, the scandal, beef with his team (and ex-teammates)—you start to take inventory, and he’s fucking undeniable. He fell down, got some blood in his mouth, and he got up, no different from anyone else who loves his job. I’ve come to like and respect him immensely, and I attribute that all to what he’s given us on the court.
He’s become authentically who he is: that guy who just wants to win. He’s one of the finest and most mature players on the court, and one of the most disciplined athletes in the world. You just gotta give it up to him. He is the league. Greatness is measured in backing up your promise, and that’s exactly what he does. He’s a throwback to that generation that died with Jordan. And he’s living up to that more than any other player right now. There’s a purity there. Even as he enters the second half of his career, he’s still what’s next.
Hey, wanna have a push-up contest right now?
Kobe Bryant: Not really.
Wait, I thought you were competitive.
Kobe Bryant: I am. It’s just part of my family. My entire family played basketball. And my cousins, we used to always play in the summertime, and we used to just talk trash to each other and beat the crap out of each other—that’s kinda where it came from. ’Cause if you lost, they talked bad about you all day.
Was it a basketball-only thing?
Kobe Bryant: Nah, video games, swimming—it was just constantly verbally assaulting each other.
So when you’re out there and you’re playing, do you get angry?
Kobe Bryant: Sometimes I get angry, but I try to stay neutral. That’s the key. I mean, you can show a burst of emotion, ’cause sometimes that inspires your team; it can inspire you sometimes, too. But for the most part, I try to stay on an even keel, because that’s when you perform your best.
But do you think of it as you being emotional, or is it like a chess game: I’m trying to provoke a reaction from my teammates?
Kobe Bryant: Nah, nah, you just play the game. We’ve been together for a long time, so I know what motivates Lamar Odom, what motivates Sasha Vujacic or Pau Gasol. ’Cause I’ve been around them so much. So from that standpoint, it kinda becomes instinctive because you’re around these guys all the time. They become your brothers.
All right, so no push-up contests.
Kobe Bryant: No push-up contests.
Because I was telling my trainer I think I could beat you.
Kobe Bryant: Easy, easy—watch your mouth, now. [Laughs.]
So fame is a funny thing. You’re an icon around the world, and I know success brings you to these kind of Forrest Gump moments where you’re in the mix of history.
Kobe Bryant: The “How the hell did I get here?”…
Right. Besides going to the prom with Brandy—
Kobe Bryant: [Laughs.] That’s funny.
Besides that, tell me a Forrest Gump moment.
Kobe Bryant: This summer with the Olympics, that was pretty crazy, man. We’d go to the cafeteria in the Olympic Village—which is only for the Olympic athletes, nobody else was allowed in there—and see all these great athletes and I recognize all of ’em, ’cause I’m a sports buff just like anybody else. That was that moment where I was just like, Damn, this is pretty cool.
I don’t know if people understand how amazing China is. I was in Beijing recently, and every time I’ve gone there for the last decade, it blows my mind. Is there anything you bought there that was really special?
Kobe Bryant: We didn’t have a chance to [shop]. Everything we bought was Olympic-related.
You didn’t buy any bootleg shit?
Kobe Bryant: [Mock-shocked] No, I didn’t buy any movies! I didn’t buy Kanye’s album that just came out! I didn’t buy that! [Laughs.]
Let’s rewind to, what were you, 18 when you came into the league?
Kobe Bryant: I signed my first contract when I was 17. I actually had to have my parents’ signature on the contract, ’cause I wasn’t of age. Then once I turned 18, they restructured the contract.
And everybody was throwing that MJ thing on you, if you liked it or not.
Kobe Bryant: Right.
I’ve seen you get bullied by interviewers trying to get you to deal with the analogy. Forget his on-court legacy for a minute. When we talk about Michael, he had the tongue, he had the baggy pants, the Spike Lee commercials, Space Jam, the really bad Hanes commercials.
Kobe Bryant: [Laughs.]
What will be Kobe Bryant’s pop-culture legacy?
Kobe Bryant: We live in a different era. When Michael came up, he was the first one to really pioneer the concept of royalties and shoes and so forth—and for me and the newer generation, we tend to look more towards longevity: owning it yourself, really building the business yourself.
So when LeBron talks about Warren Buffett and wanting to be the first billion-dollar athlete, is that one of your ambitions as well?
Kobe Bryant: Not really. What I really pride myself on doing is finding something that I enjoy doing. If you love it, the financial part will come later. I love marketing. I love advertising, coming up with concepts. I enjoy doing that.
On the convergence of all that, talk to me about this new shoe [The Zoom Kobe IV].
Kobe Bryant: Well, you know we’re gonna get real techie, because when it comes to basketball, I don’t mess around.
I’ve heard that about you.
Kobe Bryant: Nah, we don’t fool around.
But you don’t want to get down with push-ups?
Kobe Bryant: This guy swears he can beat me in push-ups! I can hear it in his tone.
I just wanna be able to say I did.
Kobe Bryant: But you see, just ’cause of that, I will not let you win. I’m not gonna let you run around saying you beat me in some damn push-ups.
We’d have video footage, too.
Kobe Bryant: It’s not happening, dog. But let’s get to the shoe. So I sit down with the Nike team, and the main designer in particular—his name is Eric Avar, and he’s absolutely brilliant. He and I just sit down and vibe out. I throw a lot of stuff at him, stuff that might seem impossible, but then they go in the [Innovation Kitchen] and they come up with it. The thing with this shoe, I wanted it to be lighter, I wanted it to be quicker, I wanted it to be sleeker, and I wanted it to play close to the floor. Sometimes a lot of shoes have too much support, too much cushion in ’em, and you can’t feel the floor beneath you when you’re cutting and making moves.
I like that they’re low-top, from an aesthetic point of view and a trend perspective. This is a meaningful off-court shoe as well.
Kobe Bryant: I’ve been wearing high-tops for so long, it felt like the movement of my ankle was restricted, like I couldn’t even cut as well or as sharply as I’d like to. And I like soccer—I love the sport, just from growing up in Italy—so I was watching it on TV one day and just looking at the way they move and how they cut. They put twice as much torque on their ankles as we do, but they were playing in shoes that were lower cut than this. So my mind got to thinking, You know what, maybe it’s time to do that in basketball. And they were able to come up with a shoe that fit that description perfectly.
Do you have any regrets when you think about how your image was cultivated early on, as compared to today, when there’s a more mature Kobe?
Kobe Bryant: I wouldn’t have been as naïve. I would’ve paid more attention to what was going on. I never read the press, never watched TV. The only thing that mattered to me was playing the game, and I was kind of oblivious to everything else that was going on outside of that.
Does reading the press matter now?
Kobe Bryant: Well, it does from the standpoint of making sure that your image is what you are, you know what I mean? Because that’s something that I take stock in and that I care about. So from the standpoint of making sure you have a team around you that supports you, making sure that if somebody doesn’t like you they don’t like you, and not what they say you are. That’s something that I’ve had to adjust to.
You’re 30 now, and the majority of your career is behind you. How do you reflect on that?
Kobe Bryant: Everybody has different paths in their careers. And mine was right for me. Everything happens for a reason, so what I went through brought me to this spot right now, the team that I have at this moment. So what I’m trying to do now is have this team be the best that we can be and try to win one more title, and then go from there.
You have three. That’s not enough?
Kobe Bryant: As long as we’re playing basketball, we wanna win the championship.
Is that a fair burden, though? I think about teams like the Lakers, the Yankees: Fans just don’t allow you guys to lose!
Kobe Bryant: [Laughs.] Right.
It’s thankless! You go out and score 81 points, and it’s not enough. What kind of burden is that to carry?
Kobe Bryant: It depends how you look at it. You can look at it and say, “That’s a lot of pressure,” “That’s a burden,” “That’s not fair.” But the way I look at it is, it’s exciting. I mean, if people expect you to win a championship, that means you got the right pieces to win a championship, and now it’s about going out there and doing it.
The rings, the Olympics, the Forrest Gump moments, Brandy at the prom—
Kobe Bryant: Yo, you still stuck on that, though! That’s like 30 years ago! [Laughs.]
You were young, hungry, arriving at the doors. It’s supposed to keep you satiated, but what’s the biggest letdown about success?
Kobe Bryant: If you feel like the biggest joy of your success comes from actually attaining what you set out to do, then that’s the letdown. I’m sure you can attest to this, too—the best part about it is the journey.
Kobe Bryant: It’s always the hunt. And then once you finally get that championship or that magazine or whatever it is, you look back on all those
moments that it took you to get to that point, and that’s where the fun is. That’s what the taste is.
Talk to me about a private failure that wasn’t in the headlines, the thing that just keeps you up at night. Something people can relate to. Not necessarily a public thing, but a thing you twist and turn over.
Kobe Bryant: [Long pause] Dogshit? Like, I hate dogshit. I have a dog and I do not clean the crap outside. It’s a phobia. It drives me crazy. You wake up in the morning and you think, Damn, this big ol’ German shepherd probably just took a crap outside in the yard, and I gotta wake up and go pick it up. That is something that keeps me tossin’ and turnin’. Does that qualify?
I guess, but that’s not so bad. That’s just dogshit.
Kobe Bryant: I hate dogshit. I. HATE. DOGSHIT.
You’re a neat freak!
Kobe Bryant: Not necessarily. I just don’t like dogshit. But the thing that really keeps you up at night all the time, my wife as well, is our kids. It’s always you thinking, Are you raising ’em the right way? How are they doing?
Especially now. You’ve got one in kindergarten, right?
Kobe Bryant: Yeah, she’s 5 years old, so you’re constantly thinking, Are we doing a good job?
I think that’s a common denominator, regardless of what kind of success you have. The humility that comes with raising a kid is just—you re-live life.
Kobe Bryant: It’s a beautiful thing, man. It’s the best thing in the world.
So they say no good deed goes unpunished. What good deed did you do in your career that kicked your ass?
Kobe Bryant: [Laughs.] Since we’re talking about perception, I’ve been with the Make-A-Wish Foundation for years, ever since I came in the league. There was one wish in particular, I can’t remember what season it was, but before the game I asked the kid, “Is there anything you want to see?” Because he likes dunks, he was like, “If you get a chance, do a 360 for me!” I was like, “Aight, cool, I’ll try—if I get a chance to, I’ma do it.” We were playing Portland, it was a close game—so I catch the ball, I’m kinda in traffic, but the opportunity was there, so I went and did a 360, and I made it, right? And after the game, it was “Showboat,” “He’s a flashy guy,” “All he cares about is...” Just this, that and the other.
You can’t even go to the media and say it was for the Make-A-Wish because—
Kobe Bryant: I never would, though. So I just stayed quiet.
What hurts when you get up in the morning?
Kobe Bryant: Aw, ankles. Ankles are the worst, man.
You sure you wanna do the low-tops? [Laughs.]
Kobe Bryant: Lemme explain something to you. When you get old—older, you get plantar fasciitis. You ever had plantar fasciitis?
No, but it sounds terrible. What exactly is that? Does lotion help it?
Kobe Bryant: [Laughs.] It’s painful, man. It’s from a lot of wear and tear on it. The shoes are a help because it’s soft and cushiony. But when you get up in the morning, or you go to take your 3 a.m. piss, you gotta [gets up and pantomimes], you gotta kinda stretch it out a bit. Then after about four steps, it goes away. But when you first get outta bed? Pins and needles, man.
What’s the deal with these NBA dance squads? The NBA is supposed be like a family-friendly activity now, but then the dance squads look like some stripper shit.
Kobe Bryant: You have to take that up with ownership. [Laughs.] One thing I will say about it, though, is the music—at least in our arena. We just played in Washington, and Big Tigger was the DJ, and it was rockin’. Our games, you walk in, it’s like 1980s, ’cause they’re playin’ Cyndi
Lauper and all this other kind of corny stuff. And my kids can’t move to that at all. The music for us needs to be upgraded. Severely.
What if Kobe Bryant was 5’3”, 240 pounds? What would he be doing with his life?
Kobe Bryant: Shit, I’d be a weightlifter! [Laughs uproariously.] Done!
It’d be something athletic and competitive?
Kobe Bryant: Not necessarily athletic, but competitive, for sure.
Like a competitive eater?
Kobe Bryant: Like Kobe-yashi, the hot dog man? There’s no way