MINNEAPOLIS – 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.
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"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."
Bryant wore his Lakers varsity jacket, purple gold. It had several championship trophies across the back. For all the cynicism the years have brought him, a lot of that teenager still lives within. Kobe Bryant is 32 years old now, and he keeps coming and coming like nothing witnessed since Jordan himself.
He's chasing his sixth championship, a second three-peat, and still, Kobe Bryant doesn't want to talk about Twitter followers. He doesn't want to talk about all the Hollywood acting roles he has turned down, the parties and nightlife that he has mostly forsaken in his career. He's chasing a ticking clock, chasing the ghosts before him – Jordan and Magic and Russell.
The world has changed around Bryant in this modern NBA, but his core basketball values have remained largely untouched and unimpeachable: His will stays greater than yours; his talent evolves but hardly diminishes. His single-mindedness remains maniacal.
"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."
Yes, he's got five, and the Lakers stand as a favorite to get him his sixth this season. The false god of celebrity still isn't intoxicating to him like the grit, the grind of greatness. He still loves the work, craves the pain that comes with pushing himself – pushing everyone. The craft, he calls it: Honor the craft. On the night before every game, he still downloads video into his iPhone from Mike Procopio in Chicago about how opponents may attack him, the way the defenders will rotate to him, the spots where he can feed his teammates the ball – small things beyond the Lakers' own scouting reports, another edge. Sometimes, they'll email thoughts back and forth past midnight, which isn't such a big deal because Bryant seldom sleeps more than three hours a night.
For him, so much of the genius remains in the details.
So when you start a question, "I know you don't see the end coming … ," Bryant corrects you quickly. "But it's a lot closer; I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
And you won't be the one to stay too long, to make them rip the jersey off your back?
"Just thinking about some of the guys that I take advantage of now, taking advantage of me later – that doesn't sit too well with me," Bryant said.
In a lot of ways, Bryant believes he has never been better. Every time he sees Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, they talk about the ways that you grow, about the ways you take your team and mold and push and prod it. The biggest revelations, the epiphanies, have come out of Bryant's own trial and error, his own successes and failures.
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"You don't have a choice," Bryant said. "You come out of it and you come out of it better than you were. You can crawl up into a little ball like a coward – or you can fight it."
Well beyond his most trying personal test, Bryant sees the growth within his professional self in the oddest moments and times. Just a week ago, on a cold night in Milwaukee, he had gone to the scorers table to substitute for Shannon Brown(notes). Only, Brown was hot. He hit a 3-pointer, and another, and another, and soon Bryant – waiting to check into the game with Lamar Odom(notes) – told Odom that he should take out Luke Walton(notes), and Bryant would get Matt Barnes(notes).
Said Bryant: "Because now I understand: 'Let him go; let him ride that.' Back in my younger days, I never would've thought about that."
Ask him what he embraces in his early 30s that he never understood in his 20s, and there's no hesitation: It's what everyone insisted he had been a failure with, a perception that he has transformed with two post-Shaquille O'Neal(notes) championships.
"How to truly make players better, what that really means," he said. "It's not just passing to your guys and getting them shots. It's not getting this or that many players into double figures. That's bull[expletive]. That's not how you win championships. You've got to change the culture of your team – that's how you truly make guys better. In a way, you have to help them to get the same DNA that you have, the same focus you have, maybe even close to the same drive. That's how you make guys better.
"I've never understood this stuff, where a star player sits out and a team goes into the tank. Well, they need him because he makes them better. Well, if he's making them better, they should be able to survive without him. That's how you lead your guys. You've got to be able to make guys suffice on their own, without you. If you're there all the time and they take you away, they shouldn't need a respirator.
"Once I understood all that, I looked at things completely different. I took my hands off. I didn't try to control them. I let them make decisions, make their own [expletive]-ups and I was there to try and help them through it."
As much as anyone, Russell led Bryant to those epiphanies. At an NBA All-Star weekend years ago, Bryant introduced himself to the legendary Celtics center and they've never missed a chance to sit and share thoughts and memories since. Things Russell told him years ago made more sense as Bryant grew up, grew older and saw leadership and winning through more advanced prisms. When the rest of the league's best players were invited to play at the White House this summer, Bryant ended up sitting on the side with Russell because of his knee surgery.
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"Bill is always a Celtic, but I think he's appreciated my thirst for knowledge," Bryant said.
He'll never reach Russell's 11 championships, but he has a chance to pass Magic Johnson's five championships, pass Michael Jordan's six and get closest. For as much sense as Russell made to Bryant over the summer in Washington, something else there completely confounded him. As he walked the District's streets in August, people peppered him with three words: Beat the Heat.
Beat the Heat?
"That's what I get a lot now," Bryant said. 'Beat the Heat.' "
Truth be told, it hadn't occurred to him that would be the mantra for the two-time defending champion Lakers.
"Um, they're in the East," Bryant would say.
Which was his polite way of saying: For starters, how about they beat Boston and Orlando? And now, at 8-6, let's face it: The least of LeBron and the Miami Heat's worries ought to be Kobe and Los Angeles Lakers.
Bryant won't call it insulting, only saying: "It's funny. I get a good chuckle out of it."
History matters to him, and that's why you see his eyes grow as wide as half-dollars when the rivalry with the Boston Celtics gets raised. As Bryant attempts to chase down Jordan's six titles, the Lakers will try to chase down the Celtics' 17 titles this spring. The NBA scripted the Lakers vs. Heat on Christmas Day, but Bryant is convinced that these things can be so easily manufactured, made to matter because of television marketers.
"It's another game," he said. "I don't think the masses understand that. It's just another game. It's the Heat. I mean, Christmas morning, I'm going to open presents with my kids. I'm going to take pictures of them opening the presents. Then I'm going to come to the Staples Center and get ready to work.
"But I'm not doing anything different. I don't have to."
Yes, the Celtics are different.
"Now that's a war," Bryant said. "Boston is a great city to go to, all the history. If you're an opponent, they hate your [expletive] guts – like New York, like Chicago, all those Eastern cities. That's the one that gets me excited.
"If you're a basketball purist, that's the [expletive] you want to see."
The Celtics have framed Bryant for history. He sees them as championship peers. He lost in six games to Boston in the 2008 Finals and beat them in seven in 2010. For Bryant, who considers himself a direct descendent of the basketball '80s, there's a passage to greatness. To be the best player in the sport, well, Bryant promises there's a rite of passage which comes with the biggest performances in the biggest games, a rite that comes with titles.
History dictates the rules, the criteria, and people don't get to be called the best player in the sport without earning it the way predecessors did. He wouldn't sit here over dinner and declare himself the best player in the sport, but he's never conceded it to LeBron James(notes) or Kevin Durant(notes).
Validation comes with victory. This rule doesn't belong to him; it belongs to history.
"In an individual sport, yes, you have to win titles," Bryant said. "Baseball's different. But basketball, hockey? One person can control the tempo of a game, can completely alter the momentum of a series. There's a lot of great individual talent. Oscar Robertson was a great individual talent. So was Elgin Baylor. Part of my frustration was that I didn't want to go down that path for the second half of my career. I didn't want to be a Dominique Wilkins. I didn't want to be an Elgin Baylor and not win. …
"Part of the pride within me was that I won by being the sidekick. I'm going to be the only player in league history that's won being a sidekick – and I had a lot of responsibility – going to be the only player to do that, and being the main guy. I'm going to show you that I can do that.
"How do I get to the next level? How do I get everyone around me to the next level? Yeah, you've got to win; that's what I had to do. I was a great individual talent but I wasn't comfortable with that. I wanted to do more."
Kobe Bryant wasn't naming names, but hey, if the Nikes fit …
"Michael wasn't Michael until he won championships," Bryant said. "It's as simple as that."
In so many ways, this has become an NBA of cliques, buddies hanging out with buddies. James wanted to play with Wade and Bosh. Amar'e Stoudemire(notes), Chris Paul(notes) and Carmelo Anthony(notes) have toasted to the possibility of playing together in New York. The draft class of 2003 – James and Wade, Anthony and Bosh – has always run as a pack, always been associates more than adversaries.
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."
Yes, Kobe Bryant kind of liked that one. All he knows is this: Between now and the London Olympics in 2012, one of his U.S. teammates ought to do himself a favor and win a championship. Otherwise, it'll be a long, hot summer of Bryant riding them all. Around Team USA, they'll tell you that Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade(notes) were the two Americans who had the dispositions to dominate in the gold-medal game's fourth quarter. "Our alpha dogs," one official said.
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."
And there you go. Whatever everyone thought would happen this summer, here we are in November and something hasn't changed in the NBA: They're still chasing Bryant. Every year, something else is going to stop him. This time, it was the knee. It was LeBron and Wade on South Beach. Something. It's always something.
"They don't learn," Bryant said. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. No matter what the injury – unless it's completely debilitating – I'm going to be the same player I've always been. I'll figure it out. I'll make some tweaks, some changes, but I'm still coming."
Bryant is 32, chasing Jordan and Russell the way the rest of the twentysomethings chase him. And now he sits up straight and says it one more time, because he wants to make sure everyone understands the truth of the matter.
"I'm still coming."