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Wednesday, May 15, 2002
Updated: May 16, 4:46 PM ET
The seven voyages of Kobe

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Like the Seven Names of Jose Canseco, the Seven Voyages of Kobe are not to be confused with the Seven Crucial Moves of Kobe in the category of things that are ... well, frankly, unstoppable.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant's skills are getting to be absurd.
You been watching This Guy?

Of course, he's so off the charts we shouldn't call him "This Guy," even though calling athletes "This Guy" is now habit among us working the World's Greatest Dodge, watching pro ball games for worm sign.

"This Guy's a Steroid Baby -- he never makes the Hall."

"People laughed at This Guy."

"This Guy needs a psychiatrist."

Kobe's more a "Your Honor," "Highness," "Spider-Man," sometimes "OhmiGOD!"or possibly, among players, "Sir? May I not Have Another? Not On National TV? Please?"

Move-wise, checked out these Kobe Unstoppables lately?

  • Deep-Jab-Step-Pull-Back-High-Rise-Penthouse-J.

  • Tilt-A-Whirl-Either-Way-You-Choose-In-Lane-J.

  • Pivot-Step-Through-Extension-Ice-Ice-Finger-Roll.

  • Angle-To-Hole-So-It's-Over-One-Hand-Tomahawk.

  • Jordan-Homage-Look-Up-In-The-Sky-S-On-Chest-Fade.

  • If-He's-Hitting-This-Thing-Too-It's-Over-Deep-Trey-Ball.

  • Overhead-Reverse-Look-Back-Zero-Gravity-Starship-Layup.

    Forget hectic. It's gettin' kind of ridiculous. Gettin' to be like one of Michael Jordan's favorite words: absurd.

    ***** ***** *****

    Kobe Bryant is human. He is not a mutant. He is not one of the X-Men -- although if he were an X-Man, which X-Man would he be? A combination of Angel and Iceman?

    Kobe Bryant
    Just think what Bryant would try if he didn't have Shaquille O'Neal as a teammate.
    Kobe will go through trials and tribulations. He already has. Life is hard, even for the chosen. Nobody gets a pass. Not really. That's all the opposition can hang its high hat on, that circumstances will change. There's a bizarre hope in that, at least.

    People say Kobe is lucky to have Shaq. He is. The people trying to guard Kobe are lucky he has Shaq, too. Not a man in the league Kobe can't take off the bounce. Not one. Dominated playoff fourth quarters, not entire games, and mostly hasn't even been looking for or even really hitting his shot -- not really. Think about it.

    So what are these coming Seven Voyages of Kobe? Where is he now? Is he like, Sinbad? Not the big red comic who moved his op to the Caribbean. Ulysses? Jordan? Definitely Kobe ain't like Jay-Z, or Sir Charles, or Reggie Miller, or Pistol Pete or West. In the end, this might work to his advantage.

    We've consulted with Jordan, Magic, Phil, Jerry Buss and Jerry West. We will get to the bottom of it; getting to the bottom of the how and why of things is ... what we do.

    First Voyage: The Sea of Naivete
    Kobe Bryant
    Bryant was worldy at 18 ... but still naive.
    Kobe is down. I feel he is, anyway; that might be part of his problem. I am old, or at least older; it might be that being down to me won't help Kobe with fans of, say, Ja Rule. Ja Rule is a bite on Tupac. Even I know it. True believers of Tupac would not be totally down with Ja Rule. But still, Ja Rule is popular, particular with the generation under Tupac. Anyway, Kobe ain't "real," by which the peer-pressurized mean "real street" or "screet," as Dog says when he's up on the block. This un-street-wily-ness makes Kobe naive at first, but it'll also help Kobe last longer, in the end; in the end, as Dog says, "Them screets takes they toll on you."

    He thought there would be a smooth transition from people loving and wanting to be like Mike to people loving and wanting to be like Kobe. Duh! Wrong. But Jordan, who dissed every other player with a wave of his hand full of cards back in the day, as far back as 1997 said of teen Kobe, "He's got skills. Lot to learn, but ... he's got skills."

    The thing with Kobe's naivete is, it wasn't obvious, like Magic's, who had the limo stop at the first palm tree and the first orange tree he saw when he first came to L.A. out of Mickey-State. Actually got out of the limo to marvel. Kobe was much more worldly at 18 than Magic was at 20. Kobe was still naive, and even today at 23 has much to learn about the foibles and frailties of fellow human beings and therefore (this is always the big surprise) himself.

    We won't get into Kobe getting married at 23, except to say everybody from airline flight attendants (male and female) to skycaps ask the same question of me. Like I know. Hey. If you were there, you might have done the same thing. That's the way some guys do it. Whether it will stick, again, who knows? A man's got to do what a man's got to do, is all. Will Kobe be married to Vanessa Laine Bryant (hey, she's already got her own store!) forever and ever? Well ... he did grow up the model of a one-marriage hook-up. So we'll see. Notice that the 13-bedroom, 13-bathroom, faux theme park crib in Orange County idea kind of cratered. The owners saw Kobe coming and jacked up the price a few mil. What did a young childless couple need with 13 baths anyway? In the end, older heads prevailed.

    Second Voyage: The Island of Success
    Kobe Bryant
    Kobe met the challenge early, winning his first title in 2000.
    What else has he known? Yeah, he missed a couple of jumpers in the playoffs when he was a rookie against Utah. And? So? Phil Jackson was right, in his own way, when he talked about Kobe wanting to be the hero at the end of the game, although Kobe vehemently denied to me that he'd sabotage games so he could come back and win them and be a hero. I'm sure Kobe didn't have the pedal to the metal all the time in high school. He doesn't seem particularly cruel. He didn't have to necessarily sabotage games. Just let them come to him. Doesn't strike me as an example of poor character. Just giving himself something to do. Put mystery in the proceedings. Challenge himself. He likes it like that.

    The Lakers were a year early winning their first NBA title in 2000. Portland probably had a little bit better run that year, but they appled up. So much for them. Too late now.

    Now the Lakes are going for three in a row. Sacramento presents a formidable foe. Doug Christie can at least give Kobe a decent check, stop the ball, give him a game, give him a decent look (Bruce Bowen? Don't make me laugh). It is within some distant realm of possibility that the Lakes could lose to the Kings; it's the same realm where Hobbitts and Green Goblins live. Wouldn't necessarily bank on it.

    If the Lakers did lose, or whenever they do lose -- and sooner or later, they will -- Kobe will continue on with and finally finish his third voyage, one of the most difficult to survive without bitterness, one he already knows something about:

    Third Voyage: The Whirlpool of Resentment
    Reggie Miller and Kobe Bryant
    Too bad Indiana's elimination wiped out a Bryant-Reggie Miller rematch.
    Must seem everybody who matters resented Kobe. Philly? Booed real hard there. Despised almost without thought. If people thought about it, they asked themselves, "Why?' " 'Cause he dissed Philly!" Hey, Dick Vermeil still has the biggest billboard up in Philly, and he left town how long ago? Moms and Pops? See marriage. Phil? Telling stories out of school. Teammates? Mad because he busted 'em back in the day, went shot for shot with Jamison one night up in Oakland in 2001, just to drop 50 for the hell of it; Jamison was talking smack, trying to get jiggy -- wasn't like the game was for home court or anything like that. But his teammates despised that action of his. Felt it impure.

    Ironic. Kobe is the purest one. Purest I've seen.

    The hip-hop nation doesn't really connect with Kobe either. It's like he's not "real" to them or something, not of them.

    Individually, it might be even worse.

    I don't know about you, but I was hoping Reggie Miller and Indiana would make the Finals, just so we could watch what Kobe did to him. Unless you've forgotten, Kobe and Reggie had that little dust-up in the regular season, which happens. What doesn't happen is a team issuing a press release about it later, quoting Reggie basically saying Kobe had "other problems" on his mind, opening up a cornucopia of whispering and he-said she-said drama. Kobe, in the Sturm und Drang, did not say that it was Reggie Miller who was the one now divorced from yet another in the endless procession of cold-blooded professional actresses that follow NBA ballers around like barnacles on boat hulls.

    Kobe's moving on toward the end of his third voyage now. It will be instructive in this way: There will always be people who don't like him, with his pat hand, coming to the Lakes out of high school, having Shaq, or whatever. Some will resent him just on g.p. But ... another generation always comes, hard as it might be to believe for twentysomethings of today, and that generation will belong to him. Gen K.

    Fourth Voyage: The Harbor of Uber-Success
    Kobe Bryant
    A threepeat is within reach, and four in a row would surely elevate Kobe among sport's all-time greats.
    He's in its midst right now. adidas shoe line not what Alley I.'s is with Reebok, or T-Mac's with adidas. Kobe logo. Must rethink. Get somebody on it, Sonny V. The splay-leg Air Jordan logo inviolate. Silhouette of Kobe's puffball 'Fro hanging on the back of his head is not a good way to newest latest. Just a matter of design. Take away these and other fairly petty commercial marketing considerations, and school's pretty much out on the success end.

    Sprite ads, Tiger comparisons, Jeter jerseys, Secret Agent No. 8, Great Lakes going for three straight, All-Star Game MVP, Ultimate Go-To Guy, Final Finisher.

    Either they get the three titles this year, or next. Even if they win this year, Kobe won't embark on the next most dangerous voyage (Malaise) yet. Others -- Jordan and the Bulls -- won three straight. It would be unprecedented in this era to win four titles in a row. Or four in five years. Or five in six years. That would clean up Dodge City.

    If (when) this task is done, by acclamation Kobe Bryant joins the Pantheon of the greatest athletes who have ever lived. And since most of the great athletes of today, if they could choose, would choose to be great at basketball, Kobe Bryant, if the Lakes won three straight titles, is the No. 1 baller on the planet (except for Tiger Woods, who has a special sponsor's exemption on the All-Time No. 1 tour).

    Kobe already is the No. 1 baller -- but that's another point. It makes a better story anyway, for him not to come to it too fast. That which you do not earn, you will not keep.

    Fifth Voyage: The Grotto of Malaise
    Kobe Bryant
    With every title, Kobe's greatest enemy is complacency.
    Doldrums will come. Sirens will sing. Madness will descend. Can Kobe fight if off, survive the Fifth Voyage?

    Say it works out like this. Say the Kings give them a game in these 2002 playoffs. That would be progress against Shaq and Kobe. Somebody giving 'em a game, taking two or three games off them, is progress at this point. Damn!

    Say the Kings get real robust all of a sudden and take the Lakers to seven games. Say, for instance, Kobe makes the end-game move, finishes, destroys and the Lakes win at Arco, making a few more believers up there. Making believers -- real true believers -- is no overnight deal.

    Then say they take out the Nets, or Celtics, conceivably, anyway, in six games. Say next year, somebody else gets close, but the Lakers win again, spurred on as a group by the idea of four NBA titles in a row, in this life, this world, in this era. That would make Kobe Top of the Line.

    And it might be the end of the line for Phil Jackson right there. He seems like the sort who would call it a day, move up to icon status. Although he might stay because neither Shaq (spoken) nor Kobe (unspoken) seems to be bulls---ing when they say they won't play for anybody but Phil.

    Shaq says it outright, almost emotionally. Shaq is very emotional. Kobe is much more cold-blooded. More like an assassin. Jordanesque. Kobe has talked about the finality of Phil's (and his associates') game plans and counter-moves in the May-June playoff days, saying how combining those tight game plans with his ability, and combining his ability with Shaq's, makes the outcome moot. Simple physics.

    With all that in mind, Jerry Buss might talk Phil back for a run at five. But say Phil "retires"-- his poor replacement is doomed to be a vic of circumstances. Say Cuban buys Ben Wallace and Baron Davis to replace Shawn Bradley and Nick Van Exel. Say Kobe misses the last shot by accident, and goes through a summer of doldrums and discontent. In the bigger picture, so what, as long as he comes out of it? Remember, after he'd spoiled them so by winning a high school state championship, an NCAA championship and an NBA championships in four years, people later called Magic, "Tragic" Johnson the first time he didn't hit a shot and smile. Say the Kobe Lakes come back and win a fifth the next year. Say they win five in six years. Then what?

    At that point, Kobe, grizzled vet, Top of the Line, all the high hoop the youngest generation then knows, will be 27.

    27!

    Sixth Voyage: The Storm of Exile
    Jerry West
    Jerry West's special connection with Kobe might alter the direction of his career.
    That gives him three more years just to get to age 30, let alone to add more titles to the four or five rings he and Shaq will have. Jordan played baseball after three NBA titles and six scoring titles, after it took him six years to get the first NBA title. Kobe's life (and game -- Kobe is on his way to having more game than Jordan, if he doesn't now -- what Kobe doesn't have, and can never have, perhaps, is mature Jordan's ball control -- the open secret of Jordan's game was his huge hands, his ball control. Kobe can't do world-class one-hand ball fakes. It's physically impossible for him. But then again, Kobe is much longer, 6-foot-8, which is super-long for a man with the skills of a point guard.

    When Dr. Jerry Buss speaks of Kobe, he doesn't speak of Kobe being at one with him, not like Magic was once. Then again, he doesn't speak of letting Kobe get away, either.

    Magic learned business willingly at the foot of Dr. Jerry. Magic has done well in business. Very well, indeed. They also hit the Playboy mansion together, brought up the sun a few more times, shooting racks of 8- and 9-ball. Downed a few. Hell, more than a few. And in more ways than one. Of course, Dr. Buss was younger, too, in Magic's era. Now his ticker couldn't take it anymore. Kobe's Times are different. Kobe cares about different things (just what, is a question; he talks about designing clothes -- but that can't be all of him). His relationship with Buss is bound to be different.

    Buss says so himself.

    The tell here might be Kobe's relationship was not as strong with Dr. Buss as it was with Jerry West. It was West Kobe dug on -- they could talk on the level of having played. It was West who brought Kobe in, West who believed in him when he was a preppy snot-nose everybody was trying to resent, West who could've left him in Charlotte, but didn't, West who told Kobe he'd have to come down off his high individuality, said just because he could bust everybody in practice didn't win him championships, and West knew, that's what they respect -- rings people remember. How Many Rings ends the conversation. It's like saying "755." Bottom line? Kobe Bryant heard Jerry West.

    So when the Sixth Voyage of Malaise comes, what will Kobe do? Play minor-league baseball? No. All he knows, in a competitive sense, is basketball. And don't say that he could never leave the Lakers, although Dr. Buss takes great pains to say it. He says he could never envision a scenario where Kobe leaves the Lakers. But Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls now plays for the Washington Wizards.

    Kobe is signed through the 2003-04 season, at which time the Lakers will have won those four or five NBA titles.

    Much scurrying around will accompany Kobe's malaise. Buss will try to sign him. Maybe he will. But do you really think, when the time comes, Jerry West won't give Kobe Bryant a call? Oh, you can't imagine Kobe in Memphis?

    Maybe it takes more imagination than we've got on hand.

    The way to break out of the doldrums of the voyage of malaise is via the next great challenge. Buss or West will have to sell Kobe, not so much on big money, but on what he might be able to accomplish in the game. A great new challenge tends to take your mind off the lack of other things.

    Maybe it will be better for the league by then. Somebody might steal one from Shaq & Kobe here or there. But only one. Maybe it will come down to seeing if Kobe can start from scratch and do it. Maybe not, maybe it's all pure speculation, even paranoia, but that's part of the Grotto of Malaise, thinking of the way things might have been.

    Seventh Voyage: The Ocean of Illuminati
    Kobe Bryant
    By 2015, you'll probably be looking back in amazement at this early stage of Bryant's career.
    By 2010, all the Michael Jordan talk will have abated around Kobe Bryant, just as all the Julius Erving-Larry Bird-Magic Johnson talk abated around Michael Jordan.

    All Jordan's people can do now is quote scoring averages of Jordan and Kobe at the same age. Otherwise, Kobe is ahead. Maybe even Miles Ahead. We haven't seen what Kobe Bryant might become. We can't imagine. We have seen only glimpses of what he is now. He might like to see for himself, one day, not if he could win a scoring title, but by how much. No question Kobe could average 40. The question is, could he hold up physically and mentally well enough to average 50? Taking it out of the context of winning the NBA title, and just saying for instance. Once you've won six, it takes the edge off that aspect of the competition, the NBA titles part of it.

    After Malaise, the average man, you might never hear from him again. He'd live off his clippings, his hoardings, his past glory, his own pathologies. I'd give you O.J. Simpson, but, knowing you, you'd probably just try to give him back.

    Kobe Bryant, just off me talking with him briefly, seeing how he handled himself then, carries himself in general, watching him go through two of seven voyages already, sensing him sublimating his skills for the benefit of a team concept, hearing him accepting advice, yet living his own way, finally watching him become the most unstoppable baller on the planet, he doesn't strike me as your average man. He is extraordinary upstairs, too, I mean. Mentally unique. Perfectly suited to a new millennium. New Man.

    By the year 2013, when he is 35, and has made unflinching, unregenerate, unapologetic and dedicated followers out of people who haven't yet been born, the people who will be driving the culture by then, Kobe will be of the Illuminati.

    "That guy?" Better to say "Got-To Guy." Better to hope he's "good guy." Good in the real, not the PR sense.

    As Kobe goes, so goes the arc of legend. They might have gotten lucky, the 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds, the ones who haven't been born. Even luckier than we got with Jordan.

    Never known the game to go backward. Never.

    Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."