LOS ANGELES – There was a time when things were so negative and his image so shot – mostly self-imposed, of course – that Kobe Bryant would find solace only when he slipped on a motorcycle helmet and raced through the streets of L.A.
It was then, under a dark visor, that he was anonymous; happiest when he was just another guy trying to outrace his mistakes under the California sun.
Thursday Bryant stood in the middle of Staples Center, in the middle of downtown, and held up his arms for everyone to see. Hiding no longer, he soaked up the roar of the crowd, the cheers that weren't just for the 39 points he had hung on the San Antonio Spurs in a 100-92 win to send the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals next week.
Here in a city where any image can be created, Bryant's has been recreated.
Less than a year since he blasted teammates and demanded to be traded, just a few years after sexual assault allegations made him radioactive, even when they were dropped, and only a year more after he helped send Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson (temporarily) running for the hills, Kobe was the star in the center of a city full of them.
Arms raised by center court, the whole city screamed for him, not at him.
Later he would conduct every interview imaginable, share congratulatory hugs with everyone from Tony Parker to Reggie Miller and joke with the kitchen staff and security guards like they were peers, just a few of Lakers owner Jerry Buss' employees sharing laughs.
This was the Kobe from the fun-loving sneaker videos, the one giggling hysterically after jumping cars and throwing jackasses into a pool of snakes.
Eventually he'd even share a kiss with his wife Vanessa – gossip sites be damned – and walk off hand in hand, the two of them headed to the movies to see "Sex and the City."
Kobe and a chick flick – and he wasn't even afraid to admit it.
"Seriously," he said. "We're going to see it."
Bryant is a long way from those secret motorcycle rides, a long way from being a difficult teammate on a fading team, a guy with such public negatives that Nike wasn't producing any commercials with him, let alone ones where he acts like a kid.
Kobe can't stop smiling now. While deciphering whether it is just an image rehab, just the high of success or an actual life change is impossible, there isn't any question he's acting differently now.
You could have had long odds last summer on the Lakers reaching the NBA Finals. Not nearly as long, however, as no less than former Lakers star and executive Jerry West making a postgame, center court speech about Bryant that encouraged children to "look at his work ethic and dedication, the leadership ability he has."
This is the Kobe who dang near blew up the franchise, what, two, three, four times? Who knows how many? Let's just say he has a lengthy "conflicts and turmoil" section on his Wikipedia page.
"Everyone around here knows he's come a long way in terms of being a leader, a teammate (that) younger guys can talk to and learn from," said Luke Walton, who's had his locker near Bryant's for the past five years.
This has been the Year of Kobe in the NBA and this spring, this 12-3 playoff run that had the Staples crowd chanting "We want Boston" has been the capper. Even when the Lakers were trailing big early, it was predictable he would vanquish the defending champions with a series of improbable fallaway jumpers and assorted acrobatics that left the Spurs spent.
This was Bryant paying back the franchise for its patience and perseverance. L.A. is a forgiving town, the fans have all but forgotten the years of Hollywood drama. All around the organization though, there remains this disbelief that Kobe, at nearly 30, somehow flipped the maturity switch at last.
"Coming back after a bewildering two weeks or so in the preseason where things were tenuous at best, as an organization I thought we were really a great support of him," said Jackson, who deserves as much credit as anyone.
"And then to be able to throw his energy wholeheartedly into this team again, that…has to be a very special feeling for him."
Bryant's most effective leadership move was abandoning the intensity. His gruff "keep up" style turned teammates off and left him brooding in frustration about players he saw as incapable of matching his competitiveness. Instead he's found time for team meals, long laughs and shared memories. In becoming a leader he didn't ascend above the guys, he went back down and joined them.
"Before he was a talented player who said follow my example," Walton said. "(It was) 'I'm going to go out and do what I do.' This year it's just been an unbelievable pleasure playing with him.
"He's happier," Walton said. "Around the locker room he's happier than I've ever seen him. He's enjoying himself, having fun, joining in on all the team pranks that make playing sports so fun."
In the locker room Thursday, it was a bunch of clowning around, guys busting on Sasha Vujacic for hitting a three with 0.7 seconds left that ran up the score.
"We are a bunch of kids," Bryant smiled.
Not long after Vujacic's shot, after the game was won and they were handing out the Western Conference trophy up on a makeshift stage, after Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington and the rest had all but stormed the court to offer their seal of approval, after the upper decks with the workday fans had chanted "MVP, MVP," it was West who made his stirring testimonial.
Bryant listened closely to the words, coming from such a man, it was almost too much to take. He stood deep in the pack of his teammates, off to the side, for a moment returning to his old ways. He was trying to get out of the spotlight, even if this time, at last, it was a positive one.
The NBA logo, the L.A. great, was hailing him over and over – as a player, as a person, as a Laker.
So Kobe Bryant just stood there, all eyes on him again. He bowed his head a bit and smiled.