Kobe Bryant Up Close: Ferocious and Flawed, Gruff and Gracious

It was late at night in January 2015 and the Lakers had lost a game to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the media relations people in Los Angeles said in a whisper that their temperamental star would soon hold court.

Twenty minutes later, as the clock neared midnight, Kobe Bryant strolled into the press room at Staples Center, lithe with those high cheek bones and ferocious eyes. He wore a tailored white shirt and an Italian-cut gray suit with a black satin pocket square.

He took a seat and peered at the two dozen reporters before him and shrugged. Go ahead. Ask me something.

Bryant’s sessions with reporters could be combative and obscure — he once compared his urgent, clamorous need to shoot to a city’s fight against crime — but they could also be honest and piercing, and the uncertainty could make performance art of such encounters. This night, midway through his penultimate N.B.A. season, he had dished 17 artful, darting assists, part of his career-twilight incarnation as a point guard.

Did you, a reporter asked, ever think you’d have this many assists?

Bryant peered at the reporter and nodded.

“Yes, honestly,” he said. “Yes, I did.”

What about the applause you get now on the road and all the opposing players who embrace you? What do you make of that? Bryant leaned forward and nodded, self-aware enough to concede that opponent love weirded him out.

“This is different for me, man. I’m used to being hated. This is really unnatural.”

Bryant was a confounding and intriguing star, complicated and intelligent and self-aware and nasty, and accepting of all of that in himself. He came upon the N.B.A. scene as a preternaturally composed 18-year-old, a man-child fluent in Italian who could dart downcourt putting the ball once, twice, three times between his legs and then launch a fall-away 3-pointer.

He embraced competitive rage as an elixir, to the point where you wondered if it might drive him mad. He reveled in his nickname, Black Mamba, that most venomous of Africa’s snakes. In games, in mid flow, his eyes would narrow to slits as he coiled and spun one way and another and another and his wrists flicked that deadly fall-away jumper. As he backpedaled downcourt, he liked to lean into his hapless defender and detail precisely how and why that man should feel humiliated.

Once, in middle school, Bryant recalled, he destroyed the ego of an opponent and ever after ached for more.

“That feeling of playing with that rage was new to me, but I loved it,” he said in a Showtime documentary.

The great Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce, no slouch when it came to abasing opponents, noted that Bryant’s genius as an offensive player was that he exhausted you before he exhausted his supremely conditioned self.

All that is gone. Bryant’s career ended four years ago, and now a helicopter crash has claimed not only the life of that still-young force of nature but of eight others, including his lovely 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. That is a horror beyond words for any father and mother.

There is, if we’re honest, more to reckon with here, a darker chapter of Bryant’s celebrity, especially a young woman’s accusation that he sexually assaulted her and sidestepped any legal consequence. That 2003 accusation was nearly washed away at the time in an unsightly river of salacious reporting and counterclaims about the woman. Relatively few in the news media or basketball did themselves proud, and you are left to wonder if Bryant would have survived in a #MeToo age of awareness.

The evidence, incomplete though it might be, long struck me as deeply troubling, and so I’m left trying to take account of this man, this star, without sidestepping it myself. Perhaps the eventual subsiding of grief and loss will allow us to take a clearer measure of Bryant. For now, we’re left with the memory of his ravenous will and intelligence, and his rage against the dying of his athletic light. And to wonder if a softer, more chastened Bryant had emerged.

The 2014-15 season, his second to last, came as his body ran upon the shoals, with a blown knee, fractures and a torn Achilles’ tendon. He battled back with attitudinal fury. His coach, Byron Scott, predicted — foolishly — that Bryant would play all 82 games that year; Bryant didn’t disagree. (His body allowed him to play only 35.) He screamed at his teammate Jeremy Lin. He walked out of a practice, calling his teammates “soft like Charmin,” a critique larded with a splendid helping of obscenities.

And he shot, and shot again. He averaged just over 22 points a game that season even as his shooting percentage plummeted to 37 percent. On too many nights, his rage to dominate seemed to deprive him of his basketball senses. Even the greatest athletes find that mortality shoves, rather than tiptoes, into their room.

His redeeming grace, on display that January night, was that he was never less than cleareyed about what was happening to him. So when a reporter asked Bryant if he remembered what it was like as a young lion to face an old star like him, he shook his head. Know thyself.

“For me, it was always about chasing the wounded gazelle,” he said.

Talk turned to his opponent that night: LeBron James, then with the Cavaliers. As Bryant had spent much of his career chasing the legend of Michael Jordan, so James had spent years chasing Bryant’s crown. Respect in such rivalries was most often expressed with snarls and Darwinian thrusts, and never more so than with Bryant.

This night, however, Bryant sat back in his chair, his jawline soft, and talked of something like friendship with James. The men had exchanged hand slaps and a smile during the game.

“When we were competing for championships, it was a little different, a lot more moody,” Bryant said.

He shook his head, as if to make sense of a strange thought. “We seem to have become friends.”

On Saturday, the night before he boarded that helicopter, Bryant watched James hit a driving layup and pass him on the N.B.A.’s career scoring list. And Bryant, who in recent years seemed excited to discover that his retirement had given him a second life of possibility, wrote a tweet of genuine respect:

“Continuing to move the game forward,” he wrote, tagging James’s account. “Much respect my brother.”

It was the last public gesture Bryant would make in a life foreshortened.