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Kobe Bryant Biography

Kobe Bryant was born on August 23, 1978 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents, Joe and Pam, already had two girls, Sharia and Shaya. Kobe was their third and final child. Life in the Bryant family was not your normal everyday existence. Joe, a playground legend from Philly’s John Bartram High School, was in the midst of a scattershot pro basketball career that took him to three different countries. After three stellar years at La Salle University, he was drafted in 1975 by the Golden State Warriors.

“Jellybean Joe,” a 6-9 forward with the skills of a point guard, never really found his place in the NBA. After the Warriors refused his contract demands, he was dealt to Philadelphia. From there, he bounced from one team to another, appearing in a total of 606 games for the 76ers, Clippers and Rockets and averaging 8.7 points along the way. He also played professionally in Europe.

Pam was by Joe’s side for every stop of his career. He had had his eye on her since childhood. Their grandparents lived on the same block in Philadelphia, and they often crossed paths during the 1960s. The pair rekindled their relationship in college in the early 1970s and got married soon after.

Kobe grew up eating, sleeping and breathing basketball. A yearafter he was born, Joe was traded to the San Diego Clippers. The Bryants loved being in sunny Southern California. Their neighbors were friendly, and rain rarely forced the kids inside. Kobe developed an intense love of hoops on the West Coast. By his third birthday he was already telling people be would be an NBA star.

In the summer of 1982 the Bryants packed their bags for Houston, after Joe was dealt to the Rockets. Kobe, who was gaining a better understanding of what his dad did for a living, started following the NBA seriously. His favorite player was Magic Johnson, a point guard in a power forward’s body—not unlike Kobe’s dad. The youngster responded to Magic’s flashy style and winning ways, and adopted the Lakers as his favorite pro team.

Joe’s stay in Houston lasted only one season. When the Rockets didn’t renew his contract, he signed with a team in Rieti, Italy. The Bryant family’s basketball odyssey continued. For Kobe and his sisters, the move proved to be a meaningful bonding experience. Stuck in a foreign country and unable to speak the language, they relied on each other to get by. Every day after school they practiced new words and phrases together. Within a couple of months, all three were fairly fluent in Italian.



Joe, meanwhile, finally hit his stride in the pro ranks. Encouraged to use all the talents and instincts he developed on the streets of Philadelphia, he blossomed into a star. Joe regularly poured in 30 to 40 points a game. He made a very good salary, and his family was treated well by the people in their town.

Kobe’s world revolved around his father’s basketball schedule. He often accompanied Joe to practice, and rarely missed a game. Kobe studied his dad’s moves, then tried to mimic the way he played. At halftime of games, Kobe sometimes entertained fans by shooting baskets. On Joe’s days off, if the family wasn’t on a sightseeing adventure, they would spend time with the families of other American players, including Harvey Catchings, whose daughters, Tauja and Tamika, would go on to stardom in the WNBA.

This lifestyle—particularly seeing his father thrill crowds with thunderous dunks and no-look passes—further inspired Kobe to dream of a career in the NBA. The soccer-crazed Italians, however, pushed Kobe in another direction. They told him more than once that, with his long arms, quickness, and leaping ability, he would make a world-class goalkeeper.

Kobe kept tabs on the NBA thanks to his grandparents. They recorded games and sent the tapes to Italy on a weekly basis. Father and son watched these videos together, as well as those Joe received from scouting services in the U.S. With Joe offering his expertise, Kobe learned to see the whole court and read how the action unfolded during game.

Kobe got a chance to hone his skills each summer, when the Bryants flew back to visit family and friends in Philadelphia. From the age of 10, he competed in the city’s high-powered Sonny Hill League and held his own against boys his age and older. His father and Pam’s brother, John, counseled him on areas of his game that needed improving.

ON THE RISE



The Bryants spent the 1991-92 European season in France after Joe latched on with a new team. The move was hardest on Kobe and his sisters, who endured a two-hour daily commute to an international school in Switzerland. Joe retired after the campaign ended, and he and Pam decided it was time to return to the U.S. Shaya and Sharia were thinking about college, and Kobe was ready to begin high school.

After Joe accepted an assistant coaching job at La Salle, the Bryants bought a house in Ardmore, a well-to-do suburb about 10 miles northeast of Philadelphia. Kobe viewed the change in scenery with mixed feelings. Connecting with American kids was difficult for him, and he worried about fitting in socially.



Tamika Catchings, 2002 SI for Kids
On the court, Kobe’s transition was seamless. He was one of the Sonny Hill League’s top players during the summer of 1992, then he entered Lower Merion High School and made the varsity basketball team for the Aces. The following spring he began going to the gym at Temple University looking for pick-up games. Among those who befriended him was Eddie Jones, one of the Owls’ starting guards.

Life outside of hoops wasn’t quite as easy. A solid B student, Kobe struggled to find common ground with his classmates. In Europe he had been sheltered from many of the temptations and pressures faced by teenagers in the U.S. Naturally quiet and reserved, he got a crash-course in dealing with the daily dramas of high school hallways.

By his junior year Kobe felt comfortable in his surroundings. He also began to make major strides in his hoops career. At 6-5 (and with another growth spurt likely), he decided his basketball future was probably in the backcourt, and began to think and practice like a guard. This was fine by Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer, who liked the mismatches Kobe presented to opponents. In truth, between the expert advice the youngster received from his father and competition he faced each year in Philadelphia’s top summer leagues, he would have been a handful for just about any high-school defender.

Kobe sizzled during the 1994-95 season. The junior averaged 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists and was named Pennsylvania Player of the Year. Kobe also unveiled his devastating cross-over dribble during the campaign. He learned the move from God Shammgod, a teammate on his summer AAU squad.



Eddie Jones, 1994 Classic
After Kobe’s breakout year, college recruiters from across the country came knocking. The soon-to-be senior boasted excellent grades and SAT scores, so academics would not be an obstacle. At the top of his list were Duke, North Carolina, Villanova and Michigan. But when Chicago schoolboy Kevin Garnett went in the first round of the NBA Draft in June of 1995, Kobe began seriously considering going directly to the pros. That summer, Joe arranged for his son to work out with members of the 76ers, and Kobe was awesome. He also made a big impression on scouts at the ABCD All-America camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

As a senior, Kobe’s sparkling play put Lower Merion on the high-school basketball map. The Aces posted a 32-3 record and captured their first state title in 42 years. The school’s name was in the newspapers constantly, college coaches filled the stands for every game, and coach Downer received invitations to several prestigious tournaments. Kobe finished the year with a scoring average of 30.8 points, pushing his four-year points total to 2,883, which shattered the Pennsylvania record set four decades earlier by Wilt Chamberlain.

The fun really began when the season ended. When an Italian League team approached Joe about becoming its coach, management insisted that his son be part of the deal. Meanwhile, with several other top high school seniors—including Tim Thomas of New Jersey, Lester Earl of Louisiana, and Jermaine O’Neal of South Carolina—thinking about going to the NBA, Kobe did nothing to squelch rumors that he would do the same. The 17-year-old added fuel to the fire when he wowed the scouts at the 1996 Beach Ball Classic in South Carolina.

Kobe ended the speculation that spring at a press conference in the Lower Merion gym. Before dozens of reporters and camera crews—and with friends from the group Boyz II Men nearby—he announced that he had decided to take his talents to the NBA. A short time later he signed on with the William Morris Agency, then inked multi-year endorsement deals with adidas and Sprite.

The news was greeted with mixed reviews. Some sportswriters compared Kobe to Grant Hill and Anfernee Hardaway at the same age, only with better offensive skills. They believed the teenager was ready. Others criticized Joe and Pam for pushing their son into a bad decision. Kobe bristled at the suggestion that his parents didn’t have his best interests at heart.

Debate began almost immediately about whether Kobe would be a lottery pick, as Garnett had been the previous June. The top four selections in the draft would likely be Marcus Camby, Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, and Ray Allen. From there, the college talent thinned quickly.

The Lakers and their president, Jerry West, were among the few teams convinced that Kobe was destined for greatness. In a private workout for the club, the teenager impressed with his leaping ability and wide array of offensive skills. The Lakers asked Kobe to play one-on-one against Dontae’ Jones, and he blew the Mississippi State star off the court. Los Angeles also felt Kobe’s upbringing was an advantage. As the son of an NBA player, he would be able to assimilate into the league better than other rookies.

On draft day, West worked his magic. First he tabbed Derek Fisher, a defensive-minded point guard out of Arkansas-Little Rock, with the 24th pick in the first round. Then he put a call into the Charlotte Hornets, who had grabbed Kobe at #13, and after a little haggling arranged a trade for Vlade Divac. The move created extra salary space, which Los Angeles used to sign Orlando free agent Shaquille O’Neal. The building blocks of a new dynasty were in place.



Kevin Garnett, 1995 Sports Illustrated
Kobe was ecstatic to join the Lakers. Not only was he starting his pro career with his favorite team, but he would not be expected to be its savior. In addition to Shaq, Los Angeles had exceptional talent, including Nick Van Exel, Elden Campbell, and Kobe’s old pal, Eddie Jones. An added bonus was coach Del Harris, who had been the head man in Houston for Joe Bryant’s one season there.

Kobe signed a three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Lakers, then averaged 25 points per game for their summer-league team. He bought a home in Pacific Palisades, Joe quit his job at La Salle, and the family moved out to California with him. During a Labor Day pickup game at Venice Beach, Kobe fractured his left wrist. Though the injury wasn’t serious, it forced him to sit out five weeks and miss much of training camp. Going into the regular season, Harris and the Lakers decided to bring their 18-year-old rookie along slowly.

Somewhat fittingly, Kobe made his official NBA debut against Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves. In six minutes, he bricked his only shot and committed a turnover, but also hauled down a rebound and blocked a shot. Sparse playing time was the norm for Kobe through the first part of the 1996-97 campaign. With Los Angeles vying for the Pacific Division crown, there was no need to throw him into the fire.

In January, a thinning roster forced Harris’s hand. At 18 years, five months, five days Kobe became the youngest starter in NBA history. Weeks later, during All-Star Weekend, he set a record with 31 points in the Rookie Game and won the Slam Dunk Contest—the first Laker ever to do so. Those were the highlights of the season for him. Injuries to O’Neal and other key players decimated Los Angeles, and the club was steamrolled by the Jazz in the second round of the playoffs. Kobe, who saw only spot action in March and April, ended the year contributing just under eight points a night.

Prior to the 1997-98 season, West and Harris agreed to install Kobe as the team’s sixth man. He took to the role immediately. Playing between 20 and 30 minutes a game, he boosted his scoring average to nearly 18 points per game. Kobe was just the spark the Lakers needed, as they reeled off 11 straight victories to start the year. Even when O’Neal went down with an injury, Los Angeles flourished. Van Exel, Jones and Campbell all were contributing, as were supporting players Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher.

With the Lakers battling the Sonics for first in the Pacific Division, fans voted Kobe into the starting lineup for the 1998 All-Star Game. The NBA, in turn, advertised the contest as a battle between Michael Jordan and the heir apparent to his throne. Kobe, the youngest All-Star in league history, didn’t handle the situation well. He drew the ire of teammates by hogging the ball through the first three quarters and dissing teammate Karl Malone. West coach George Karl sat him for the final period.

Kobe’s All-Star performance highlighted a growing problem with his game. He wasn’t sharing the ball. Even Jordan talked with the 19-year-old about this shortcoming. It got so bad that in March Harris scaled back Kobe’s minutes. Slowly the message sank in, and by playoff time he was working within the team structure and making meaningful contributions on the defensive end.

Los Angeles opened the post-season with an impressive series win over the Trailblazers. Next up were the Sonics. After dropping Game 1, the Lakers took the next four in a row. Kobe’s role was limited thanks to a bout with the flu that caused him to miss two games. Though he returned to full health for the Western Conference Final against Utah, Los Angeles was completely outclassed by the more poised and experienced Jazz.

The NBA lockout turned the 1998 off-season into a frustrating waiting game. When the labor problems were finally settled, the resulting 50-game campaign put the championship up for grabs. Los Angeles responded with three major moves. The Lakers signed Dennis Rodman, replaced Harris with assistant coach Kurt Rambis, and in March dealt Jones and Campbell to Charlotte for Glen Rice, J.R. Reid and B.J. Armstrong.

Kobe, meanwhile, nailed down a spot in the starting lineup and responded well, earning Third Team All-NBA honors.He began to add depth to his game, leading the Lakers in steals and ranking second on the team in scoring with a 19.9 average. In all, he logged nine double-doubles, and proved increasingly dangerous in crunch time. Indeed, though his jumper lacked consistency, the Lakers were going to Kobe more and more in key situations—and he was delivering.

After going 31-19 in the regular season, Los Angeles felt it was ready to go all the way. Rodman gave the club a veteran presence, and Rice’s outside game created more space on the floor for Kobe and Shaq inside. But all was not right in Lakerland. Rumors surfaced that O’Neal was jealous of Kobe. In a team meeting, the club tried to smooth over the rift, but bad feelings lingered.

The off-court controversy didn’t faze Los Angeles in the first round against the Houston Rockets, and the club advanced with a 3-1 series victory. Then the Lakers ran into the red-hot Spurs. After dropping the first contest, Los Angeles battled back and seemed in control of Game 2. But with 19 seconds left, Kobe missed a pair of foul shots that would have given the Lakers a three-point lead. The Spurs ended up winning by three, and seized the series momentum. When the series moved to L.A. the Lakers let Game 3 slip away late, and the next day succumbed to San Antonio in an embarrassing four-game sweep.



Kobe Bryant, 1996-97 Fleer Metal
A big change was clearly called for, and it came at the top. The Lakers’ new coach was Phil Jackson. He brought Tex Winters and the Triangle Offense along with him. Jerry West knew he had to find a way to make Kobe and Shaq see eye to eye. Jackson’s unorthodox approach had worked wonders with Jordan and Pippen in Chicago; now he would get to play Svengali to two new superstars.

MAKING HIS MARK
Kobe was excited by the opportunity to play for a proven winner like Jackson, and spent much of the off-season improving his quickness and footwork on defense. From the get-go, Kobe and Shaq looked different on the court together. In Jackson’s system, the ball moved more freely and there was less standing around. With the addition of veteran Ron Harper, Los Angeles had all the ingredients for a championship.

The club won 25 of its first 30 to start the 1999-2000 season, and registered three separate winning streaks of at least 10 games during the year. The Lakers rolled to the NBA’s best record (67-15) and homecourt advantage (which they now enjoyed from the Staples Center in downtown L.A.) throughout the playoffs. O’Neal, healthy and happy, was the runaway choice as the league MVP.

Kobe, meanwhile, enjoyed his best season as a pro. After missing the first 15 games with a broken bone in his right hand, he blended in perfectly with his teammates and blossomed into a complete player. His shot selection was better, his rebounding and scoring increased, and he began hitting more regularly from the outside. Most notable, however, was his sterling defense. In a February victory over the 76ers, Kobe shut down Allen Iverson, holding him to 0-of-9 shooting in the fourth quarter. It was this kind of effort that earned him a spot on the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team.

In the post-season, the Lakers got all they could handle from the Sacramento Kings in the first round, but squeaked by in five games. Next they manhandled the smaller and less physical Suns. In the Western Conference Final, Los Angeles split the first six games with Portland. Then, down 13 points in the fourth quarter of Game 7, the Lakers stormed back for a miraculous win.

Though Indiana battled hard in the NBA Finals, Los Angeles won the series in six games, earning its first title since 1988. Kobe went down in a heap early in Game 2 after rolling an ankle. He sat out the next contest, which the Lakers lost, then returned to limp through the first half of Game 4. With the Lakers trailing, Kobe exploded for 10 points in the third quarter, then finished off the Pacers with a stunning virtuoso performance after Shaq fouled out late in the fourth quarter. Jackson told his troops to abandon the triangle and just get the ball to Kobe, and he won the game to give the Lakers an insurmountable 3-1 series lead.

Tired and battered after the longest season of his young life, Kobe took it easy during the summer of 2000. He declined a last-minute offer to join Team USA at the Olympics in Sydney, and by the start of the following campaign felt healthy and refreshed. Coach Jackson’s roster was infused with new energy, too. To better handle the Western Conference’s high-scoring forwards, Los Angeles acquired Horace Grant and Greg Foster in a three-way trade with the Knicks and Sonics.

Unlike the previous year, the Lakers stumbled from the starting gate. By the All-Star break, they had already lost more games than they had in the entire 1999-00 campaign. Injuries had a lot to do with the club’s inconsistent play, as Kobe, Shaq, and Derek Fisher all missed time. But when Los Angeles returned to full health, the team rediscovered its rhythm. Sparked by an eight-game winning streak down the stretch, the Lakers edged the Kings for first in the Pacific Division.



Phil Jackson, 1999 Sports Ilustrated
Kobe was key to the club’s resurgence. Playing 40 minutes a night, he averaged 28.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists in 68 games. Among the single-game career-highs he established during the season were points (52), steals (6), and blocked shots (5). Kobe also posted the first two triple-doubles of his career.

Kobe raised his performance even higher in the playoffs. With the Lakers sweeping by Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio in succession, he was scintillating. Kobe tallied 48 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in Game 4 against the Kings to close out the series. In the Western Conference Final against the Spurs, he shot a sizzling .514 (54-105) from the field.

Facing the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Final, the defending champs opened at home with a surprising 107-101 overtime loss. It was all Lakers after that, however, as Los Angles roared to victories in the next four. Kobe was high scorer for L.A. in Games 2 and 3. At just 22 years old, he had his second NBA championship.

With whispers of a dynasty growing louder, Kobe approached the off-season with his typical vigor. He continued working on his perimeter game, taking as many as 1,000 jumpers a day. The Lakers, meanwhile, fine tuned their roster in preparation for another title run. Grant left via free agency and was replaced by Samaki Walker, Harper retired and Foster was dealt to Milwaukee for guard Lindsey Hunter.

Despite an injury to Derek Fisher, the Lakers broke from the gate with victories in 16 of their first 17 games in 2001-02. Kobe was the catalyst. He was good for 25 a night, made key defensive stops, and by season’s end was the team’s best playmaker. Kobe carried the team when O’Neal landed on the injured list for a couple of weeks with a bad foot. He made his fourth All-Star appearance and was voted the game’s MVP after tallying 31 points, five rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers cruised in the second half and finished at 58-24. Their road to a third title would take them through Sacramento, where their Conference Final opponent, the Kings, had put together a dynamite team. Mike Bibby, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac tortured the Lakers, while Shaq and Kobe counterpunched and forward Robert Horry killed the Kings with buzzer-beating dramatics. The series went the full seven, with the Lakers prevailing in overtime, 112-106, in what were the de facto NBA Finals.

As expected, L.A. trampled the Nets in the championship series. New Jersey just didn’t have an answer for O’Neal. The four-game sweep landed Shaq his third straight playoff MVP award and Jackson his ninth career championship. The Nets were in Kobe’s kitchen throughout the series, but he logged over 40 minutes a game and hit one crippling shot after another to stall New Jersey’s frequent comeback attempts.

With Shaq sidelined to start the 2002-03 season, the load was put on Kobe’s shoulders to keep the Lakers close to the Kings until the big guy returned. Los Angeles got some help in the off-season when Missouri star Kareem Rush fell into their laps in the draft, but for the most part the key players for Jackson remained the same. Early in the year Kobe thrived under the increased expectations. While his shot selection raised some eyebrows, he was scoring, rebounding, and passing at career-high levels.

But Kobe began hearing it from his critics when the Lakers stumbled from the gate. Even when O'Neal came back in November, however, Los Angeles struggled to regain its championship form. Reports hinted at unrest in the locker room. The supporting cast, supposedly upset at suggestions that they weren't carrying their weight, challenged Kobe and Shaq to act more like leaders. The club played lethargically through December, including an embarrassing 27-point loss at New Jersey in a rematch of the 2002 NBA Finals. The next game, Kobe went for 44 against the Sixers. Though the Lakers fell in OT, they showed signs of awakening from their doldrums.

Indeed, Los Angeles mounted a steady ascent through the Pacific standings. Kobe was the main man. In January he launched a scoring streak of at least 40 points in nine straight games, including 52 in an overtime victory against the Rockets. The Lakers won eight times during Kobe's sensational stretch.

By March, Los Angeles had established a firm hold on a playoff spot. Ending the year at 50-32, the Lakers loomed as a serious threat in the West—though there were major questions about the club's depth. Shaq looked healthy and motivated, as did Kobe, but they had expended a lot of energy.

Kobe, who finished second to Tracy McGrady in the scoring race at 30 ppg, had logged more than 40 minutes in a night, often taking a pounding when he was on the floor.

The Lakers faced Minnesota in the first round, and dropped two of the first three in the series. After back-to-back poor shooting performances, Kobe asserted himself over the next three games. Averaging 31 points and six assists, he led Los Angeles past the Timberwolves to set up a tough match-up against San Antonio.

The strain of the Minnesota series on the Lakers was evident early against the Spurs. When San Antonio took the first two games on their home floor, the pundits were ready to write the defending champs' obituary. But Kobe and his teammates came back to life in Los Angeles. He went for 39 and 35, and the Lakers knotted the series. In San Antonio for Game Five, Los Angeles fell behind by 20 points, then launched a furious rally in the fourth quarter. But when a late three-pointer by Horry didn't go down, the Lakers lost a 96-94 heartbreaker—not to mention their legs. The tank finally ran dry in the second half of Game Six, as the Spurs cruised to a 28-point blowout. Like the rest of the team, Kobe watched the carnage in disbelief.

How would Los Angeles recover? Throughout Kobe's career, the Lakers had asked him to adjust to the needs of the team. But the day was coming when it made more sense for the club to adjust to him. Fans were waiting to learn whether Kobe could lift a team like Jordan did. That being said, Los Angeles was still in dire need of a third star to complement him and Shaq. Against the top teams in the West, it was simply asking too much of this dynamic duo to do it all themselves night after night in the post-season. The club acted decisively, acquiring Gary Payton and Karl Malone. With four future Hall of Famers and Jackson still at the helm, the Lakers were viewed by many experts as potentially the greatest team of all time.

For sure, they turned into one of history's greatest soap operas. Though LA broke from the gate in impressive fashion, egos and injuries plagued the team most of the 2003-04 season. Kobe had a lot to do with the club's disfunction.



Kobe Bryant, 2001 SI for Kids
Of course, his problems stemmed from a highly publicized rape allegation. In the summer of 2003, after six years of meticulously cultivating a spotless image, Kobe experienced firsthand the pitfalls of fame. In July he was accused of sexual assault by a 19-year-old girl in Colorado. The alleged attack occurred while Kobe was at a resort near Vail, where he was waiting to have surgery performed on his right knee. Kobe acknowledged that the two had sex, but contended it was consentual.

A month later, despite his legal troubles, Kobe was selected for the Choice Male Athlete Award at the 2003 Teen Choice Awards. Proving that his popularity hadn’t entirely eroded, he accepted the award to a standing ovation from the California audience.

Unfortunately, some of his fans let their emotions run over the edge. Indeed, Kobe's accuser began receiving death threats. His security team assisted in an investigation, which led to the arrest of a man attempting to solicit the murder of the Colorado girl at the center of the case.

In addition to the mental turmoil off the court, Kobe had physical problems to deal with on it. Early in the season, he stayed out of several games while rehabilitating his knee. When Kobe returned to action, the Lakers began showing signs of disintegrating. Jackson couldn't get everyone on the same page, and Kobe did little to smooth the waters.

In the first quarter of a January 2004 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kobe's struggles continued, when he left with a sprained right shoulder on a foul by Kedrick Brown on a three-point attempt. After sinking his free throws, he went to the locker room for an X-ray. Kobe came back, only to leave again before the end of the first half. Weeks later, he re-injured the shoulder in a March game against Seattle. With the Lakers sputtering, many fans wondered whether the team was doomed to another early exit from the playoffs.

The fact remained, however, that when healthy and focused, LA was still a title contender. Kobe seemed at his best when the mental toll of his legal proceedings became its worst. Though hearings required his presence in December of 2003 and March, April and May of 2004, he missed only a single game. On those nights, Kobe played with erie focus.

The regular season ended with him averaging 24 points, but injuries limited him to just 65 games, the lowest total of his career. His personal highlights included six steals against Denver, 14 rebounds against the Wizards, and a 45-point outbrust in a 109-104 win over Golden State. In mid-May, Kobe led the Lakers back from a 10-point deficit against San Antonio to lift LA near the top of the standings in the West. The team finished at 56-26, good for the second seed in the conference.

The Lakers looked revitalized to open the playoffs, taking the Rockets in five games. Kobe's performance was the most inspiring off all. He scored nearly 25 a game—but, more important, added six assists and three steals per contest.

Up next were the Spurs in a rematch the Lakers relished. Though San Antonio grabbed the first two, LA stormed back to win the next four. Kobe poured in 42 in Game Four, then served as a decoy in the waning seconds of Game Five, as Fisher hit a prayer at the buzzer for a 74-73 victory. In the clincher two nights later, Kobe went for 26 points with seven rebounds and seven assists.

Kobe wasn't quite as sharp in the Conference Finals against the T-Wolves and league MVP Garnett. Though LA handled Minnesota in six games, the club revealed chinks in its armor. Payton wasn't much of a factor, and Malone was wearing down. If Kobe or Shaq didn't get the job done, the Lakers were a very ordinary team.

Still, LA was the prohibitive favorite in the Finals versus the Detroit Pistons. The Lakers, however, lost Game One at the Staples Center. Kobe deserved much of the blame. He shot just 11-for-33 from the floor, and forced the action far too often. He reasserted himself in Game Two, netting 33 points, including a clutch three-pointer with time winding down. LA won in OT, but the Pistons returned home bubbling with confidence.

This was more than evident as Detroit swept the next three on their hone floor. Kobe and crew had no excuses; they were simply outplayed by the hungrier Pistons. Kobe shot dreadfully on the road, as Detroit concentrated all of its defensive effort on stopping him. When he refused to share the ball or go to the hoop, LA's offense ground to halt.

And the devastation wasn’t over once the series ended. Jackson’s five-year contract came to an end, and no extension was offered. While this left Shaq fuming, it put Kobe in the driver’s seat. He became a free agent on July 1, and then expressed interest in several teams, LA among them. Ultimately, Kobe stayed at home.

With several other Lakers shopping their talents, the club underwent a major facelift. Shaq was dealt to Miami for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler. Payton and Malone got their waking papers, too. Meanwhile, Rudy Tomjanovich assumed the coaching reigns.

As the 2004-05 season approached, Kobe’s focus shifted to his impending rape trial, scheduled to begin August 27. But in a surprising turn of events, all charges were dropped when his accuser decided she did not want to continue to pursue the criminal case. While she still sought a large civil settlement, Kobe no longer faced the prospect of jail time.

With this distraction erased, Kobe learned a new lesson about life in the NBA: it's a lot harder to win without a dominant big man. The Lakers started the campaign unevenly, a state of affairs for which Kobe was partly to blame. He remained aloof from this teammates, who struggled to establish chemistry with him on the court. He also confounded his new coach. In fact, Rudy T’s health suffered terribly as the year progressed, and he resigned in February. Among the reasons Tomjanovich cited was his inability to communicate effectively with his players.

Frank Hamblem, a longtime assistant of Jackson’s, was named the interim coach. He didn’t fare much better, as LA finished 34-48 and far out of the playoffs. The record was all the most embarassing considering that Shaq and the Heat posted the East’s best mark at 59-23.

Kobe’s numbers told two stories. He made 66 starts, an impressive total given that he labored through a painful ankle sprain for a good part of the season. His wife's health was also a concern. Carrying their second child, she was hospitalized in April, forcing Kobe to leave the team to be by her side.

When Kobe was in the lineup and feeling strong, he played well, but often out of control. He ranked second in the league in scoring (27.6 ppg) and triple-doubles (5), fifth in minutes per game at 40.7, and raised his assists average to six a night. But Kobe never really meshed with his new supporting cast. He took too many shots, many of them bad ones, and turned the ball over four times a game.

Kobe has now reached an interesting point in his career. When it's all said and done, there’s no doubt his name will live on for a long, long time. Of course, how it lives on is another matter. At one point, he was on his way to becoming the most diversely marketed athlete ever. Endorsement clients included adidas, Mattel, Sprite and McDonald's. He has been on the cover of Forbes and is part-owner of Olimpia Milano, a team in the Italian league. He released his own CD in 2000, and launched Kobe Family Entertainment, a production company that focuses on movies and sitcoms.

But Kobe's image has taken a significant hit. Granted, the rape charges were dropped, but he may forever be stigmatized. Some have already judged him harshly for simply admitting to adultery.

What is clear is that Kobe's world has changed. Advertisers will think twice before showering him with endorsement dollars, and fans in enemy arenas now have enough ammunition to heckle him for the rest of his career. There was a time when the worst thing you could say about Kobe was that he was a ball hog. Now he will be viewed as just another selfish, spoiled superstar—and possibly a criminal.

Restoring his good name have become job #1. He is about to discover there are some things you can’t do with a three-foot vertical leap and a nasty crossover dribble.

For Kobe, the fight of his life may never end.

KOBE THE PLAYER

Kobe has improved every year he’s been in the NBA. Part of that is due to his devotion to the game. When Kobe joined the Lakers as a rookie, he asked the coaching staff for tapes of all the league’s two guards and went to school on their strengths and weaknesses. He still studies all-time greats like Pete Maravich and personally seeks out current players to solicit advice on how to hone his skills.

One-on-one, no one in the NBA can handle Kobe with any consistency. He explodes on his first step to the hoop, and his crossover dribble leaves most defenders flat-footed. Already adept at taking and making big shots, Kobe will become an even bigger headache for opponents as he increases the range and accuracy of his jumper.

As for Kobe’s leadership skills, some say they have yet to be truly tested. Laker fans would argue otherwise. It took a mature team player to realize the benefit of letting the intractable Shaquille O’Neal call himself captain, then respecting the big man’s role, both in public and private. Few doubt that, when the time comes, Kobe will become one of the league’s most dynamic leaders.