By Sam Alipour
Special to Page 2

LOS ANGELES -- Try as he might, Kobe Bryant just can't get his game right.

Standing on an indoor court in late August, the normally ice-cold Lakers assassin is well past the point of cocksure half-smiles and winks and popped collars. Forget that junk. It won't work here.

Bryant has already cast his purple-and-gold polo aside. Now he's in a gray tank top and on his heels, sweating and stammering and gyrating like a porpoise while tossing up earth-rattling bricks and rainbow airballs from way too far outside, generally forcing the issue and -- perhaps for the first time in his life -- getting beat with the orb in his hand.

Most mildly competitive humanoids could shake off such a whupping. Not Kobe the Lion, King of Competition. For dudes like Bryant, this is a nightmare. Like being slipped four too many drops of acid. At a circus. In Moscow. While locked in what you can only assume is a mortal feud between Russian knife-eaters and three-eyed Joes. There's only one way out, and that's on a stretcher. And Bryant could use one right now.

Now, Angelinos … breathe. Exhale. Then pry your jaws from your keyboards.

Kobe's beatdown has nothing to with his ailing knee, and everything to do with the 13-year-old pumpkin he's staring down.

And those darn complicated PlayStation remotes.

That's right -- Bryant is merely playing a video game, Sony's "NBA '07: The Life Vol. 2," for which he's the cover athlete. And though it's his game, and he's playing with his team, the virtual Lakers, against the virtual Raptors -- the same wobbly runts on whom Bryant dropped 81 -- Kobe sucks at it.

Oh, and it gets worse. Much worse. The kid is talking junk.

Check out Kobe Bryant living the PlayStation life.

"You're weak, Kobe," says the pumpkin. "Just garbage."

"So that's what's up?" Bryant replies, making no effort to contain his laughter. "OK, get ready now."

That's it? No trash talk? No index-wagging? No Raja-like clotheslines?

Yes, sir, this ain't your good ol' Kobe of yesterday. This is Kobe 2.0. Kobe24. A new man with a new jersey number -- one that he says signifies the second half of his career. Now, Kobe is losing 12-2 at the end of the first quarter -- and he's loving it.

And that's because this isn't his party. It's theirs.

The Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club might be the site of Bryant's announcement as the game's cover athlete, but to the at-risk children who return here in times of need, the club is a shelter, a beacon of hope and a sanctuary free of the rap music that now blares from all the passing cars outside.

Still, for a big-ticket video game featuring a big-name star, today's announcement is surprisingly muted. Who's invited? Just the kids and some Sony suits. Les Jones, the club's executive director, says the under-the-radar jig is par for Bryant's course. "Kobe never wants press when he's here," Jones explains. "He wants to bond with these kids. To get to know them one-on-one."

Since his first no-frills visit in '03 for a health fair, Bryant has regularly returned to the club, hosting a sneaker design contest (he wore the winning sneaks for Game "81" and has kept in touch with the young man who designed them) and Christmas toy giveaways. Recently, Bryant donated $25K -- and had Nike match that -- toward a gym renovation, the same joint that Kobe and the kids now game in.

"Kobe's support is huge from the standpoint that this is Watts, which has a mostly negative reputation of poverty and crime," Jones continues. "We don't get a lot of people who are willing to extend themselves to us. And for him to actually come out is huge. People oftentimes send a check, and we appreciate that. But when you come out and you let these kids sit on your lap …"

Jones pauses for a breather.

"Kobe's special."

Kobe Bryant
Sony
Kobe unveils the new man ... No. 24.

Why, then, has the notoriously stealth seven-time All-Star flipped the script?

"In the past, I'd intentionally keep a lot of stuff private," Bryant explains. "But I realize it's important to bring attention to some of the things I do, like my work with this club. You can make donations, but the money runs out. The more people see this place, then the more they understand it. By me taking it public, and letting people know what I do for these organizations, it heightens the awareness for the organizations themselves. That's something that carries on."

So no, Bryant confirms, this isn't some image-splattering campaign by the media.

"I don't think it's intentional because the media just doesn't know," says Bryant, who recently went public with a Make-a-Wish endeavor for ESPN. "Even when I did Make-a-Wish, they said it was the first one I did. I've been a board member. I've had a relationship with them for 10 years. But that's fine with me."

Moments later, Bryant takes to the podium. He tells the kids that choosing the club as the site of the announcement was a no-brainer. They squeal, he smiles, and then walks to an aisle and pulls a black cloak to unveil the game's cover art.

The photo? Bryant focused, driving the lane, and wearing jersey No. 24.

"I guess it takes some getting used to," Bryant tells me of his new/old number. "I wore the number in high school, so it's a lot easier for me to adjust than it is for my fans. They've seen No. 8 for 10 years. For them, it'll be weird."

Still, Bryant admits he is chomping at the bit. "I've worn it once," he adds, referencing the cover photo shoot. "But it's not the same as putting it on and running onto the floor. Then it's for real."

Real will have to wait. Bryant turns his attention back to the game consoles, of which he's donated a truckload to the club.

He should have saved a few for himself, because he's getting blown out by yet another kid and staring down at the complicated handset like it's a three-legged elf. Forget Raja Bell's lack of hugs. Between Italian lessons and annihilating the neighbors' kids in backyard hoops, it's clear there wasn't much time for "Lakers vs. Celtics" on Nintendo in the Bryant household. Kobe is so bad, the virtual Kobe misses a three-foot jumper.

"You've got no game, Kobe!" yells one teen, who's now one of many Kobe-eaters who, having sensed fear and clumsy fingers, swept down from the rafters to ground Kobe's ego into salt.

And, conspiracy theorists stop there. Don't think for a second that Kobe is tanking it. In fact, as a virtual Ben Wallace deftly drives the lane on Kobe's D, he's starting to get peeved.

"Yo, this ain't right!" Bryant says. "Ben Wallace can't handle the ball! If he can handle it, Kwame can handle it."

Kwame can't. When Kobe tries to penetrate with Brown, he's picked clean. There's more yapping, and now I'm just feeling bad for the guy.

Finally, Bryant determines he's had enough. Too much losing. Far too much talking. Bryant has begun taking whispered instructions from a Sony technician.

So, yeah, Kobe's cheating. And it's working. Kobe's Kwame hits a fadeaway and Vladimir Radmonivic hits back-to-back 3s.

"Oh no, I'm getting my swagger now," says Bryant, just before Smush Parker throws down a two-handed jam. Bryant saves face with a respectable loss.

"I played as a kid," says Bryant, talking up what he calls "ruthless" competition with cousins back in the day. "Back then, I was always surprised to see Mark Price dunking. John Stockton doing a windmill. But this game gets it right. Smush was running the offense pretty good and Vlad played true to form. He can shoot in real life, and he can shoot in the game. The game is pretty realistic."

Right, and Kwame hits many clutch turnaround jumpers over Rasheed Wallace. Happens all the time.

Kobe laughs and bows his head. "Let's just say that was a good sign," he says.

So, if the game is real, the '06-07 NBA season will feature the Lakers as doormats, right?

"Naw, the Lakers are actually good in this game," Bryant says. Then, referencing a teen who had snatched the Lakers before Bryant in an earlier game, Bryant adds, "That kid who took the Lakers was moving the ball around and hitting jumpers.

"He knows how to play with the Lakers better than I do."

Bryant catches himself and does a double-take. Then he laughs.

"You know what I mean."

Yes, I do. And so do Cookie and your Slovenian Paisan.


Staples Center in September lies dormant, save for the gnarly commercial crew members who scamper about its lonely halls and a crazy white dude with a mullet and handlebar 'stache who blabbers on about his game in his too-tight throwback Jazz uni.

Like with the kids at the club, the real star of today's "NBA '07" commercial shoot -- Kobe's shoot -- is the fictional Billy Joe (actor John Mead), a former NBAer who played in a handful of games in the '80s. Two decades later, he still thinks he's the cat's meow and he'll do anything to prove it, including trying to lure Kobe into a game of one-on-one.

That's the commercial's conceit, and not a bad one. This Mead dude is pretty funny. Think Kurt Rambis meets Will Ferrell -- basically, how Larry Bird looked and talked, but not played. "You see him everywhere," Mead says. "Go to the Venice Beach courts and there he is, just a stiff hyper white guy who everybody hates playing against."

Mead is soon joined by Brian Cook and Sasha Vujucic. Bryant is running a bit late, but his two teammates are already in purple-and-gold warmups and ready for their cameos.

"I'm not into acting at all, but Kobe asked us to come, so we wanted to show some support," Cook explains of his invite, extended just hours ago after seeing Bryant at the Lakers' facility. "Plus, they say they'll pay me a little bit."

For Cook, it's also a rare opportunity to hoop. He shows off a puke-inducing scar from surgery to repair a compound fracture in his right thumb, suffered while playing ball at Sports Club L.A. against civilians. "We were down by four, so I had to start playing hard," Cook says, smiling while explaining how he popped his thumb on the backboard. "I'm sure the Lakers weren't happy, but I'll be ready for camp."

Finally, Kobe arrives, and by the looks of it he's happy to be on familiar turf after a no-ball summer. See, he himself is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. But this ain't no Curse of Amare -- last year's "NBA '06" cover boy, Amare Stoudemire, graced the box only to suffer a season-ending knee injury. No, Kobe got dinged up well before the gaming gig. When exactly? Sometime after game 81 and before the liberation of Iraq. We don't know, and Kobe isn't talking, but he says he'll be ready by the end of September.

When Kobe saunters onto the set, the place lights up. He greets the crew, then gives some love to his teammates. There are backslaps, arm-punches, poking and prodding, and some less than ingenious nicknames. "Kob" (a silent "e"), "Cookie" and Sasha (no cool handle there) generally laugh and cackle like loons.

Then Cook takes a deadly serious tone. "Wait," he whispers, closely examining Bryant's mug. "Are you wearing makeup?"

More laughter. "Come on, man, don't mess around," Bryant laughs. "I'm sensitive."

"It's cool, something to keep the sweat off, I guess," says Cookie, who is sans makeup. "I guess only superstars get that treatment."

Then a makeup artist grabs Cookie for his turn in the makeup chair. Kobe can't resist. "OH, MAN!" Bryant bellows, ribbing at a far greater volume than Cookie dared. "YOU'RE WEARING MAKEUP? DAMN! MAKEUP?"

"He had to hit me up real loud so everyone hears," Cookie says with a laugh. "OK, I see what's up now."

The floor leader's attitude is infectious. During breaks in the action, the crew runs amok on the court, shamelessly tossing bricks at the defenseless rim. It's a fun shoot and, given the context, not quite what you'd expect. After all, this endeavor is supposed to be the barometer by which Kobe the pitchman can flex his newly rediscovered marketing muscles in his first major sports marketing deal since, you know, the incident. What's more, Bryant has been handed a serious-minded task: To help Sony grab a piece of juggernaut Electonic Arts' "NBA Live" pie. Last year, PS2's "NBA Live" sold more than 800,000 copies, compared to PS2's "NBA '06"'s 100,000.

There's even a dash of rivalry. After 2K Sports lost the bidding war to Sony for the right to plaster Kobe's mug on its cover, it reinked old pal Shaq to a deal. The Heat might have bested the Lakers, but don't think Bryant wouldn't take at least a little joy in winning the gaming war.

Bryant is enjoying this gig, even if he's not much of a thespian. "Acting isn't for me," Bryant admits. "They can make you look pretty, but you still have to act. You can't just smile for the camera. I don't like being in front of the camera in general."

But it sure beats emceeing. Kobe says he's got no plans to work the mike after Sony Music put the prerelease kibosh on his album "Visions" back in 2000. "No way, not enough time," he explains, adding that he was unfazed by the critical lambasting. "I don't even remember the reaction, to be honest. Not even on my radar." (Too bad. Black Mamba would've made for the world's greatest stage name.)

If Kobe isn't comfortable on a set, it doesn't show. In one scene, the Lakers' players (and a couple of lucky extras who pretend to be Lakers) take to the court for a fictional pregame shootaround. Billy Joe heckles ("I want you, Mamba … look into the eyes of the defensive master") in an attempt to psych out Bryant. Thing is, Bryant is laughing.

Chris Smith, a floppy red-haired youngin' of a director, sheepishly offers instructions from across the court. "Um, Kobe, a hair less laughter," Floppy says politely. "More annoyance."

"But he's not annoying; he's funny," Bryant says. "I can't take him seriously with those (tight shorts)."

With that settled, or not, Floppy addresses Vujacic: "Sasha, can you also look over at Billy Joe and act annoyed?"

This too falls on deaf years. Not that Sasha is being difficult. The dude is legitimately confused because the tri-lingual wunderkind's top tongue is Serb-Croatian, with English running last. Luckily, Bryant speaks his second favorite form of discourse, so the Lakers' star relays what, to these clumsy ears, sounds something like this:

"Blah, blah, blah, Donatella," Bryant says. "Blah, blah, blah. Comprende? Vamos."

That's right. Throughout the day, Bryant will relay Smith's directions to Vujacic in Italian. While the Slovenian -- who picked up the language while playing pro ball in Italy -- is grateful for Bryant's help, he's hardly surprised.

"I always had a good feeling with Kobe," says Vujacic, who joined the Lakers in '04 at the age of 19. "From the first day, Kobe has helped me out the most. I had a terrible rookie year and I didn't play at all. I had a tough time. But Kobe always kept my head up. He taught me some moves, and he told me to leave the year behind and come back to show what you can do."

"Kobe, he has really … took me … um, under his … arms," Vujacic says thoughtfully, slowly and a tad incorrectly. "How you say? Sorry, I don't know how to express myself."

It's cool. I think I got you. And if there was any doubt, Cookie drives the point home. He says Bryant is indeed a new man, meaning he wasn't always this … how you say? … cool.

Kobe Bryant
Sony
Virtual Kobe got game (as long as the real deal isn't at the controls).

"We've only hung out once or twice off the court, but he's really making an effort now," says the third-year vet. "He has been a lot better since my first season, a great leader, more open with his teammates, and a more personable guy in general."

It doesn't take a mathematician to estimate when this all started to change.

"I wouldn't couldn't call it addition by subtraction, but the main reason is it's his team now," Cook continues. "Let's face it, there was a chemistry issue. You have to have good guys on the team to have chemistry and we've got a good group, from Kobe to the 14th man on the bench. We're all around the same age, 25-27, we talk about the same stuff, and everybody gets along. I've never really seen it like this since I've been here. You can tell the atmosphere has changed a lot."

His English might not be great, but Vujacic understands this, and he chimes in.

"Right now, it's terrific," Vujacic says. "We're bonding and having fun. Really. Not just in the game. We having fun with each other off the court."

And that, he says, helps drive their ball.

"When I came back from Europe this summer, everybody was already working out in the facility," Vujacic says. "We were one rebound away, but we have positive people. Everybody tells me they can't wait until the they can start the second year with the triangle."

Ah, the triangle. Vujacic says he and his teammates are picking up that language too ("Oh, yes, the triangle is the best and most important language," he says, laughing) right after he two-ups Kobe by picking up Spanish. What's more, Vujacic is telling me this just before he tosses in a 3-ball from the bench. Near Jack's seats. While sitting.

This trickery does not go unnoticed by Bryant. As the shoot winds down, Vujacic's shot has Kobe's competitive juices flowing anew. The two teammates meet at the Lakers' logo. The game? Half-court right-handers. The purse? Fifty dollars. With the entire crew turned spectators, Kobe clanks one, then gets too close as Sasha attempts his. "No, no, back up," Vujacic laughs. "I know you well."

A few tosses later, Sasha is the victor. Now, we know the old Bryant would never go down like that. Kobe24? Same deal. Onto left-handers for another $50, and after a few attempts, Vujacic miraculously swishes one in.

"Noooo," says Bryant, enveloping a giddy Vujacic in his arms before spitting out more rapid fire Italian. "Pinche, blah, blah, blah, madre."

You don't have to be Slovenian to know Bryant is complimenting Vujacic's mamma.

Just like that, Kobe24 is good ole' Kobe8, and Kobe8 has one key scene remaining. It's a tough one, because it doesn't quite fit as drawn out.

The director needs a shot of the teammates leaving the court through the player's tunnel. They do a rehearsal run, with the players like cadets, jogging into the tunnel single file. "That's not right," Bryant tells Floppy afterwards. "We don't ever go in single file like that."

Floppy suggests that Bryant improvise, offering to hand the reigns to the commercial's star. Bryant huddles with Vujacic and Cook, and then they try the shot again, this time implementing Bryant's suggestion. When the director yells, "Cut," Bryant heads to the playback monitor.

"Cookie, Sasha, come here," Bryant says, clearing two spots in front of the monitor. They watch the last take.

This time, we see the three Lakers sauntering, not jogging.

Laughing, not stern.

Arms draped around one another, not separate.

"That's about as natural as it gets," Bryant says, nodding with approval.

"Yeah, that's real."

THE BUS HITS THE OFFICE
Beyond their Pennsylvania roots, The Bus and the Scranton, Pa., set of "The Office" have much in common.

Can Bettis act as well as he ran the football? Check out his scene from "The Office."

A year ago, the cast and crew of NBC's largely unnoticed mockumentary-style series -- about the sometimes mundane, always awkward American workplace -- were fully prepared to be pink-slipped. This was roughly the same time when the Bus' wheels were set to come off and Jerome Bettis was playing second fiddle to some dude named "Fast" Willie in the waning days of an illustrious career.

Of course, that was then. Bettis now has his Super Bowl bling, and a trillion TV viewers, many iPromos and a "40 Year Old Virgin" later, "The Office" is the thing.

These awesome forces collided when the Bus rolled through a Burbank hotel convention center for a cameo.

"It came about quickly," says Bettis, who was on his way to the NFL Network to talk up his gig on NBC's "Football Night in America" when he received a call from a network suit. "They told me they'd written a part for me and asked if I was interested. I thought, great, I love the show and the style of comedy. I'm a big fan of that dry humor."

BOOTLEG SCRIPT
"The Office" is a mockumentary-ish series, meaning the actors tend to improvise. You're not buying? Peep the script excerpt below, and then check it against the episode, which airs Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. ET. Then call me a liar -- but never to my face. I frighten easily.

INT. CONVENTION HALL -- D2

JEROME BETTIS signs autographs. We see some kind of SIGN that says JEROME BETTIS. Dwight taps Michael on the shoulder.

DWIGHT
Check it out.

Michael sees him. Flashes a look of "Oh my God!" at the camera and heads over to the front of the line.

MICHAEL
Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin. Huge fan.

JEROME
Thanks, that's nice.

MICHAEL Listen, I'm having a blowout later. Room 308. Free booze. You should drop by. It's gonna be off da hook.

JEROME
Yeah, cool ... maybe I will.

MICHAEL
Awesome. Can I put your picture on my flier and tell everyone you'll be there?

The scene in question is set at a paper convention, where Bettis plays himself during an autograph signing. Star Steve Carrell's character, Michael Scott, a ball of nerves, invites Bettis to a party in his room ("It'll be off da hook," Scott promises, in as white a fashion as those words have ever been said).

Four takes later, Bettis is done and Carrell is impressed. "Jerome has some comedic flair, underplayed and real, which is perfect for our show," he says. "You can tell he's a fan because he picked it up quick."

"Quick like a bus," Carrell adds. "A supercharged bus."

Still, Carrell isn't exactly a Bus enthusiast. "I know the bullet points on Jerome," says the quasi Cubs/Bears devotee. "I'm a sports fan, but less so than when I was single, without kids and living in Chicago. Now I'm a fan of my wife."

That said, Carrell would like to be consulted on all future sports cameos.

"I'd rather have Maria Sharapova," he adds. "Let's add some spice and delight to the proceedings."

Though Bettis has to run, he can't. The convention extras have become real-life 'graph hounds. One dude wants to know when the Bills will return to prominence.

"I told him it'll be a while," Bettis says. "Sometimes I have to tell the fans that their team sucks. Hey, someone has to be the bad guy."

The extras aren't alone in the adulation. The cast might be fresh off its Emmy win for Best Comedy Series just four days prior, but that thing is a bugger in the face of Super Bowl bling. Bettis is wearing his, and the stars are loving it -- all except Seattle-born Rainn Wilson, who plays office suck-up Dwight and is still seething from the Seahawks' Super Bowl defeat.

"I wish Shaun Alexander would've been here today," Wilson offers. "Jerome is the worst actor ever. I hate him. In fact, I'm going to take him out."

"You need a six-point stance to do that," warns John Krasinski (Jim), but this goes unheeded. Wilson runs with a full head of steam before slamming into an oblivious Bettis, who's in mid-conversation. Of course, Wilson flattens like a pancake, sliding down Bettis's legs to the floor.

After he brushes himself off, Wilson then changes his tune: "I now admire anyone named after a large piece of mechanical equipment."

Despite the cheap shot, Bettis has much love for the actor.

"I dig Dwight," Bettis says of Wilson's alter ego. "I've always wanted a yes-man. That would have helped prolong my career."

Come on, Bus, no rookie hazing? Not even with Willie Parker? The punk took your snaps. The least he could do is take your bags and throw in a back scrub. Bet he'd do it fast, and soft and tender-like.

"I was able to convince Willie to do stuff for me, and a few other rookies," Bettis admits. "But they did it unwillingly. That's the hard part. You kinda feel bad."

Truth be told, Wilson has made a small fortune off Bettis -- the virtual one.

Jerome Bettis and cast of
NBC Universal
The Bus hangs out with Dunder Mifflin's finest.

"I sucked so bad at Madden until I found Pittsburgh," Wilson tells Bettis.

"Rainn didn't even know how to snap the ball," Krasinski confirms. "But you're his secret weapon. He tries to play you at every position."

"Speaking of which, how are your linebacking, skills?" Wilson asks Bettis, before hitting him up for tips.

"I gave Madden up cold turkey," Bettis says. "I'd get off the field, then play all night, all morning, and go to work the next day with no sleep. I won't touch it now."

"My god," Krasinski stammers. "You're talking like it's a drug."

If it is, much of the cast is littered with dope fiends and pill-popping Bengals, a legion of seriously sweaty characters holed up in gaming-equipped trailers engaged in epic Madden fueds.

"We play every single break, and we play for money," Krasinski adds, before turning to Wilson. "In fact, Rainn, you owe me $60."

Finally, the Bus is gone. Minutes later, the fine people of "The Office" are already reminiscing.

"Man, that guy was awesome," Wilson says. "He's the Bus-t you can get,"

Krasinski takes the baton. "Yeah, he really Bus-ted his butt," Krasinski adds.

Great, moving on...

"No, wait," Wilson says. "He's also done his Bettis for the NFL."

OK fellas, can it.

"Never give up on a joke," Krasinski reminds.

Good point. Thankfully, the NBC suits know this, too.

Now, damn it, will someone please tell me what's going to happen with Jim and Pam? (No). Fine, then give me Jenna Fischer's number. I'm a professional, and I need to conduct serious-minded Q&A about the direction of the show's third season.

And her marital status.

Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at Sam.Alipour@gmail.com.




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