Kobe Bryant White Hot
In a town where celebrity is a common commodity,
the basketballer is a category unto himself
by TOM MURRAY / photographs by RUVEN AFANADOR
styled by JAMES VALERI / produced by HANNAH HARTE
It’s almost 4:30 in the afternoon. In the vast Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, everything is in place for Kobe Bryant’s cover shoot: The photographer and his three assistants have been here since 8 a.m. creating a set for the shoot that is swathed in black duvetyn and dominated by three towering light stands. There is even a Kobe stand-in for adjusting the lighting.
There’s a stylist and a seamstress, a groomer and a manicurist, assistants and publicists galore. A woman from Harry Winston is here with a serious pair of diamond-stud earrings Bryant will be slipping on, along with a rack of all-white designer outfits. There’s just one thing missing—the man himself. He’s running late...actually, not running at all. Flying. In his helicopter. From his home in the O.C. He just landed, a publicist assures. He’s 10 minutes away.
“I knew he’d be late,” says the creative director, completely unfazed by the fact that he now has barely two hours to pull off a job that normally takes at least four. And there’s no wiggle room: Bryant has to leave by 6:30. He’s doing the Kimmel show tonight.
Suddenly, there he is—long, lean, in shades and simple gray sweats, a small entourage in tow. Bryant ambles over, smiling and exchanging hugs, handshakes and fist pumps. The stylist shows him the clothes, and they chat easily in Italian before deciding on the first ensemble. The manicurist starts on his nails, while the groomer rubs moisturizer on his face and head. Not the ideal circumstances to conduct an interview, but on this tightly scheduled day, it’s the only option.
Tom Murray: I have to ask, When you’re in that chopper, do you ever look down on the city, pinch yourself and say—
Kobe Bryant: How the hell did this happen? Absolutely—every time. Like I’m sitting here right now. [Nods toward the two ladies primping him.] You know what I mean? This is dream s--t. Wardrobe that’s all white? This just doesn’t happen. Not for me. This is crazy.
You’re very relaxed. Of course, we’re talking as you’re getting a manicure and a facial before you have your makeup put on. Is this a side of your personality you’d like more people to see?
I think people, especially here in Los Angeles, are starting to understand me a lot more in terms of what I’m like personality-wise. I’m relaxed, laid back, pretty funny, smartass. I like having a good time.
But people don’t often see that.
When they turn on the TV or go to a game, that’s not the side of me they want anyway. They want to win a championship, and that ain’t gonna get it done. [Laughs.] Know what I’m saying? Most of the time when they see me, I’m in that golden armor. We all have different personalities. The competition and the nastiness part of it, that’s a part of my personality, too, you know? It just depends on what environment I’m in.
You take heat because of your demeanor in postgame interviews, especially if you lost.
Well, everybody gets upset. But if I’m being short, I’m being short. It’s not like I’m telling people to go F-off. It is what it is. At the end of the day, you play to win. I do whatever it takes to get my team in the best position of winning, and when it’s over, we’re celebrating again with another parade—then everybody is happy.
But wouldn’t it benefit you if the media in L.A. saw this side of your personality more?
It probably wouldn’t be helpful for them, because they have to write and sell stories. And you can’t have everybody saying positive things all the time. It’s just not going to work, even though this is, like, my city when it comes to sports, you know what I mean? You gotta have people on one side of the fence and people on the other. If not, the story’s not compelling. The people who truly know me know what I’m like. There have been people who try to say things that aren’t fair, and I check them. And then they don’t like me because I checked them.
When you say check them, what do you mean?
Call them out. I’m not going to be a pushover. If I’m going to talk to you, I’m going to talk to you respectfully. I’m comfortable in my own skin. If I’m upset, I’m upset—write about it. If I’m happy, I’m happy—write about it. I’m gonna just be me, and let them report what they’re gonna report.
When I first met you years ago, you lived in the Palisades. Now you’re in Orange County.
I love Orange County. I get to enjoy L.A. more. Living in L.A., you don’t get a chance to enjoy it, because there’s so much traffic, and it’s so congested. So, moving outside of it, I get a chance to be close to the water. It’s relaxing, spread out. I can come to L.A. and enjoy it, then go back to the peace and quiet.
How do you like to enjoy L.A.?
We go to restaurants, things like that. I love Koi. Most of the time, after a game, I go across to Katsuya at L.A. Live. And I love Philippe’s.
Yeah! They make a great French dip sandwich!
[Looks confused, then starts laughing.] I don’t know about roast beef. I love the Beijing chicken. That’s my favorite. [Now I’m confused. Bryant, sensing that my inner rube has surfaced, comes to the rescue.] No, man, I’m talking about Philippe Chow—on Melrose.
Ah, of course. So, what else can you tell us about yourself?
I love dogs, I hate bees, I love snakes. And I hate dog s--t. I absolutely hate dog s--t.
So what do you do when dogs poop in front of the house?
Clean it up. [Laughs.]
Wait, you’re out there with a—
Pooper scooper? Yeah, I’ve done it a few times. Every once in a while, you have to.
That helps keeps you grounded, I'm sure, but most would think you’d have someone whose job is to pick up your dog poop.
I do, but they have to have off days. And the dog doesn’t say, “Oh, it’s my walker’s day off, so I’m not gonna s--t today! When they gotta go, they gotta go. And somebody’s gotta pick it up.
You’re playing Guitar Hero at an event with Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis after this. You play a pretty mean air guitar?
Oh, yeah, man—everybody can play a mean air guitar! I’ll be rocking out!
Even against a badass NFL linebacker?
You can’t sack a guitar...but you can’t dunk one either. [Bryant beat Lewis two out of three, despite admitting to never having played the videogame.]
Any songs or bands you like?
“Hells Bells”—a little AC/DC never hurt anybody. Dropkick Murphys get me going, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana...plus, all the regular hip-hop stuff.
The World Cup is around the corner. Are you rooting for any particular players or teams?
I’ll obviously pull for the USA, but I have sentimental ties to Italy. I have a friend who plays for Argentina. [David] Beckham I was pulling for, and it’s unfortunate what happened [torn Achilles tendon]. But it’s tough to say which team I think is going to win the whole thing.
It’s time for Bryant to head to the set. Music pounds and lights flash every few seconds, and when he’s finished, there’s time for just a final few questions out by the pool.
Do you think about your basketball mortality at all—that one day you won’t be able to do everything you can now?
I feel invincible out there, but it’s a different kind of invincible than when I was younger. Can I jump over two or three guys like I used to? No. Am I as fast as I used to be? No, but I still have the fundamentals and smarts. That’s what enables me to still be a dominant player. As a kid growing up, I never skipped steps. I always worked on fundamentals because I know athleticism is fleeting.
Have you thought about what you’d do after your playing career that would get the juices flowing as much as basketball?
The game...there’s beauty in it. The motivation comes from wanting to do it the best way you can. So whatever endeavor or field I decide to go into after I play, I’m going to approach it with the same discipline.
Do you think it might be in the game?
Hmmm, never say never. But coaching, managing, stuff like that—I seriously, seriously doubt that. Heavily doubt it.
Why so emphatic?
I don’t really have any interest. Me going into that would definitely increase my frustrations. But part of my personality is I’m infinitely curious. And finding something else that could get my juices flowing—that’s a bigger challenge.
Time’s up. Bryant has other commitments, then it’s back to the chopper. “What do you think about while you’re up there?” Kobe is asked, as he winds through a throng of admirers.
“I think about a lot of things,” he says. “I think about driving around the streets of Philadelphia as a kid and looking at all the tall buildings downtown and just wanting to be a great basketball player. And then I fast-forward, and here I am, in a helicopter over a city I’ve been playing in for 14 years. That’s pretty surreal.
“I think about all the fans we have, the houses I’m flying over. Especially when I’m heading to a game, I’m like, How many will watch us play for the next two hours and be pulling for us? That helps motivate me.
“But most of the time...I just sleep.”
TOM MURRAY is upset because he forgot to ask Kobe Bryant for floor seats to a playoff game for him and his two sons. Ha!
So, what’s the locker-room talk on Kobe’s photo shoot? The L.A. Times’ Lakers blog goes straight to the source...
Set design: Jamie Dean
Stylist Assistant: Brandon Palas
Grooming: Helen Robertson / Celestine Agency
Manicurist: Michelle Saunders / Celestine Agency
Shot on location at Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel