Commentary

Kobe Bryant: Imitating greatness

Originally Published: June 4, 2010
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Kobe Bryant is ready to come clean. As the Los Angeles Lakers prepared to defend their NBA championship against the Boston Celtics, their gifted leader confessed he has plagiarized almost everything in his patented basketball portfolio.

"I seriously have stolen all my moves from the greatest players," he admitted.

Watch a highlight reel of Kobe and you will witness Hall of Fame hints of influence sprinkled throughout: the way he freezes defenders and creates space in the mold of Oscar Robertson, or the explosive pull-up jumper he copied from Jerry West, or the post-up shake-and-go he took from Hakeem Olajuwon.

Bryant incorporated the skills of these legends into his game by breaking down their finest moments on film.

[+] EnlargeOscar Robertson
Vernon Biever/NBAE via Getty ImagesKobe says Oscar Robertson had some offensive assets he's not blessed with.

It's an obsession that began when Kobe was 10 years old and living with his family in Italy, where his father, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, played pro basketball after an eight-year NBA career. Kobe's grandfather routinely sent over tapes of NBA broadcasts, which had just begun airing on TNT, and the young boy devoured them.

Yet it wasn't just the Hall of Famers who Kobe emulated. One of the first films his father broke down for his son was an Atlanta Hawks game.

"My father told me, 'Watch this. See this guy? This is how you can make use of your left hand,' " Kobe said. "It was John Battle, dribbling left and laying it in."

By the time Bryant was an 18-year-old NBA rookie, game film had become a significant part of his routine, in part because he recognized he would not overpower anyone with his slender frame.

"I was a scrawny kid," he said. "I knew for me to get any type of edge whatsoever I had to be more prepared than the person I was matching up against."

He spent hours preparing for an exhibition game against Dallas in Boise, Idaho, by poring over film of Jimmy Jackson and Jason Kidd. The first time Jackson spun to his right with a crossover to blow past the rookie, Kobe picked him clean. He already knew exactly what Jackson planned to do.

"It was only a preseason game, but I prepared for it like it was the state championship," he said.

Bryant sat down recently with ESPN to break down film of West, Robertson, Olajuwon, Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and revealed which part of their games he pilfered.

Robertson, said Bryant, is "like looking at LeBron James years ago. Same build. Stronger than anybody else."

As images of Oscar flickered on the screen, Bryant offered his own play-by-play: "He's coming down, isolating, now it's a glitch and a pump fake. Freeze the defender then raise up and shoot it anyway. I use that all the time."

When footage of Jerry West appeared on the screen, Kobe leaned forward eagerly. His former Lakers mentor spent many hours discussing angles, footwork and positioning with Bryant.

"His pull-up jump shot was vicious," Kobe said. "Oscar used his body, but Jerry is kind of like me -- he doesn't have that big old booty. He's got to use his quickness to get his shot off."

Bryant fell in love with West's smooth and sudden release. As a child, he studied the cuts West used to get open, then went out in the playground and tested them out. If his offerings got thrown back in his face, he'd play the tape again and try to discern which nuance he hadn't perfected.

Baylor's highlight reel prompted Bryant to coin the former Lakers great "the footwork king."

"He was Dr. J and Michael Jordan before Dr. J and Michael Jordan," Kobe said. "He could get to the basket and do all these incredible things in the air, but I wanted to know, how did he get to the basket? It's cool to be able to do all those fancy things, but how did he get here?"

The answer, young Kobe discovered, lay in Baylor's unorthodox footwork. While most scorers like to establish a rhythm in the way they attack the basket, Elgin was adept at mixing up his fakes, thereby keeping the defender guessing. His explosive first step, as well as his superior strength, made that possible.

[+] EnlargeJerry West
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesJerry West's influence on Kobe's game can be seen on the court.
Kobe pointed out images of Baylor pivoting on his right foot and using his left foot to fake out the defense.

"It's an uncomfortable move for right-handed players, but he looked absolutely natural doing it," he said.

Bryant became enchanted with Magic's court vision, his ability to anticipate, and his uncanny knack for delivering the ball precisely where it benefited his teammates most. His allegiance to Magic prevented him from immersing himself in the lore of Michael Jordan.

"I wasn't a fan, actually," Kobe admitted. "Not that I didn't like Jordan. I was just a big Magic fan so it was a territorial thing, but when I realized I wasn't going to be 6-foot-9 like my dad and I was pretty much stuck at this height [6-foot-6], I started seeing similarities between Jordan and me in terms of physique and things like that.

"I figured I could learn from him how he got his shot off against bigger players."

As he charted Jordan's signature offensive assaults, Bryant recognized His Airness had also appropriated West's and Robertson's moves -- with one major difference.

"Michael took it to a whole other level with his athletic ability, determination and fundamentals," Kobe said. "At the end of the day, that's what separated him from everyone else."

As the odometer on Bryant's body keeps advancing, he recognizes the need to be more effective below the rim. In September 2009, he spent an afternoon with Olajuwon breaking down post moves. He learned it was the subtle shift to either side of the block, or the sudden upfake, that made the Dream so effective. Bryant has incorporated some of Olajuwon's sequences on the block and enjoyed tremendous success with them.

"It's very tough for teams to double me from [the post] because of the amount of talent we have," he said. "If I'm sitting on the perimeter guys can trap and zone up, but if I catch it down on the block, with the fakes I have and the ability I have to shoot, I'm going to give you fits."

Bryant's belief in film study has extended beyond his own locker. After he views halftime clips prepared for him by the Lakers' video staff, he occasionally waves coach Phil Jackson over to discuss a rotation he's identified. He often corrals teammates, fires up the laptop, and shows them precisely how they can carve out easier shots for themselves.

"He mentions stuff to them before it happens," said video coordinator Patrick O'Keefe. "They say, 'How did you know that?' It's because he's studied it. He's better-prepared than anyone."

In the late stages of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix, Bryant sealed in the post, caught Phoenix napping with a head fake, and nailed a turnaround jumper that was positively Dream-like. The experts lauded the move as yet another weapon Bryant created for his arsenal.

Yet Kobe knows he stole it from Hakeem.

"There isn't a move that's a new move," he said. "There's nothing that hasn't been done before."

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPN.com.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist