Out of nowhere one afternoon, Michael Jackson made a call to the irrepressible and isolated Kobe Bryant (notes), and so much changed for him. From a distance, the King of Pop could sense so much of his own obsessive genius within the prodigy. Bryant was the 18-year-old wonder for the Los Angeles Lakers, and no one knew what to make of a restlessness borne of a desperate desire for greatness.
“He noticed I was getting a lot of [expletive] for being different,” Bryant said. They would talk for hours and hours, visiting at Neverland Ranch, and Bryant has long been fortified by the lessons Jackson instilled about the burden of honoring true talent, about the ways to open your mind to be smarter, sharper and insatiable in the chase. “It sounds weird, I guess, but it’s true: I was really mentored by the preparation of Michael Jackson,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports.
Bryant isn’t much for nostalgia and sentimentality, but it hung in the air as he cut into his steak over dinner recently in the fourth-floor restaurant at the Graves Hotel. Jackson is gone, but Bryant is going on 15 years with the Lakers.
“We would always talk about how he prepared to make his music, how he prepared for concerts,” Bryant said. “He would teach me what he did: How to make a ‘Thriller’ album, a ‘Bad’ album, all the details that went into it. It was all the validation that I needed – to know that I had to focus on my craft and never waver. Because what he did – and how he did it – was psychotic. He helped me get to a level where I was able to win three titles playing with Shaq because of my preparation, my study. And it’s only all grown.“ That’s the mentality that I have – it’s not an athletic one. It’s not from [Michael] Jordan. It’s not from other athletes.
“It’s from Michael Jackson.”“Guys have voices now, want to build brands,” Bryant said. “I don’t identify with it, but I understand where it’s going, why it’s going there. That’s not for me. I focus on one thing and one thing only – that’s trying to win as many championships as I can.”Kobe Bryant arrived in the NBA as a lone wolf, has played his whole career that way, and that’s how he’ll leave the league. One of the things which Michael Jackson helped him understand was that, ultimately, you’re competing far more with your own standards, your own limits, than someone else’s. Bryant’s never run around in packs of players, never let his career be judged or driven in the context of his contemporaries.
“That’s how I am,” Bryant said. “That’s what made me tough. I didn’t need other guys to push me. This is me. I’m like this with you, and I’m like this without you. Michael [Jackson] was the same way. That was our connection.”
Once the NBA’s twentysomething stars were done with the stage-smoke shows this summer, the preening, the predicting of five and six championships, they were playing ball at the White House with the president. On a tour of the West Wing, Bryant tried to be hospitable in those most-familiar surroundings.
“You’ve got to go to the bathroom? Oh, go that way, take a left and then turn right,” Bryant said, his head bobbing back in laughter now. “Oh, you want the chef? I know where he is, too. We’ve been a few times.” Privately, there are plenty of national-team elders and coaches who are curious about how that chemistry will work in 2012. Mostly, they wonder whether James will see it as his time, his team, with Bryant 34 years old. From the return of the Miami clique to the arrival of Kevin Durant, it’ll be a different dynamic, a different vibe.
For a moment, Bryant tried to answer it diplomatically. “Um, I don’t know,” he said. Only, Kobe Bryant did know – and finally said so.
“Actually, I really don’t give a [expletive]. I’m not curious about it. Give me my [expletive] gold medal and then let me try to win another NBA championship. Let’s practice, have a good time, and if you need me in the last two minutes of the game, I’ll be coming in to pull the [expletive] out.”