On the eve of a Kobe Bryant interview that seemed destined to be difficult because of how much exposure he has received of late, that was the advice of a reporter friend who was more than willing to offer a relevant reminder: When it comes to athletes opening up, the Los Angeles Lakers star almost never disappoints.
All these interviews leading up to the launch of his Showtime documentary that premieres on Saturday (GQ Magazine, Grantland’s TV show, Jimmy Kimmel and the like) surely meant there was no new territory to cover. But true to form, Bryant showed yet again why he has such a knack for moving the proverbial needle.
The following is the part of the interview that was not in the main story:
Q: So my main curiosity is to understand the “why” of some of the things you’re doing. Why do this movie now? Why keep coming back after all your setbacks? What’s driving you?
A: What’s funny is both things are connected, so the answer to both of them is the same. We started out (the film) with the process, (director) Gotham (Chopra) came and approached me about doing a documentary with Showtime, and I said, “Yeah, sure.” So they followed me around with the cameras, and we did all that stuff, and we had a film. We sat here, watched the film, and at that time I had already crystallized what we were going to do with Kobe Inc., and what I enjoy doing, which is storytelling. So after we watched this, I said, “You know what? Let’s not make a standard documentary. Let’s make something more.” If I’m going to do a doc, I want to do it as if I’m writing a book, and instead of writing a book we’re going to make a film. So we put the brakes on that project (nearly a year ago), and just created something completely new.
A: Sometimes things just work out. (Laughs.) It made for a lot of bantering in the office.
Q: One thing strikes me about this is the idea that maybe there’s a ripple effect to you being this open. It takes some of the mystery away, explains why you are the way you are. But because you’re not done playing yet, is there any part of you that feels like this could help when it comes to convincing guys to come join you (with the Lakers)?
A: The ones who understand me are the kids who grew up watching me, like I grew up watching Michael (Jordan) and Magic (Johnson). The ones who don’t understand, don’t understand what it’s like to carry this organization to the next level. It comes with a lot of responsibility. You have to be able to be OK not pleasing everybody, so Kyrie Irving, James Harden, (Russell) Westbrook, that generation of players speak my exact same language. They grew up with that philosophy. So I don’t look at this as, “This is going to help them better understand.” They know who I am. It’s very easy to deal in gossip or what other people say, but the fact of the matter is that everybody wants to play for this organization because this is just a great organization.
But the facts are facts. The salary cap is the salary cap. Players aren’t going to leave millions and millions of dollars on the table twice to come here and play. It’s just not realistic. Wanting LeBron (James) to come here and take a massive pay cut again (last summer), after taking a big one to go to Miami, is not realistic. Melo (Carmelo Anthony) leaving $15-20 (million) on the table to come here is not realistic. So we have certain restrictions, but we’ll figure it out.
Q: In a lot of your interviews, I’ve heard you talk about DNA quite a bit. Are there fewer players in the league now with your kind of DNA than when you first came in?
A: I can only guess, but when I was growing up it was completely OK to be competitive and to want to be better than the other guy. It was completely understood that I was trying to be better than Tim Thomas coming out of high school, and he was trying to be better than me. That was OK, and now it seems like it’s almost passive aggressive — no, I’m not really trying to be better than you, but you really are. As opposed to laying down the gauntlet, and saying, “No, we’re going after each other, even though we’re still friends.” Magic and Isiah (Thomas) were great friends, but it was understood that, “I want what you have.” So I think the AAU circuit might have a lot to do with that, because guys were just around each other all the time, they get to know each other a lot, and they lean on each other a lot for support, which is completely fine. But you wind up seeing so much of a camaraderie where it becomes uncomfortable to really compete.
A: Go back and watch the 1988 All-Star game, the ’89 All Star game. Those guys competed. They were trying to win, man. And I always tried to do the same thing. … You understand, when I’m matching up with Vince (Carter) in the All-Star Game, or matching up with Dwyane (Wade) in the All-Star Game, they know I’m coming. Hopefully All-Star Games will get back to that.
Q: One guy who you clearly didn’t think had the right DNA was Dwight Howard. You’ve opened up a bit about how all that went down, but I wanted to run something by you. I’d always heard that you told him in the free agency meeting (in July 2013) that he could be the guy in three or four years when you were done. Is that about right?
A: It’s very simple. It’s not about three or four years, and I’ve told management this. For me, it’s about making sure the Lakers have the right person in place who’s going to carry this franchise. I tried teaching Dwight. I tried showing him. But the reality is that when you have a perception of what it is to win a championship — and most perceptions of what it’s like to win are a very outgoing, very gregarious locker room where you pick each other up and you’re friends all the time. That’s the perception. And I think that’s what his perception was of what the idea is. But when he saw the reality of it, it made him uncomfortable. And it’s very tough to be able to fight through that, to deal with that challenge. And I don’t think he was willing to deal with that uncomfortable and combative nature.
A: No. I always told the organization, “I can only give my opinion, but I will follow whatever direction you guys want to go down because of everything that they’ve done for me in my career.” So I will work with whatever pieces they give me.
Q: You talk a lot in the movie about your inspirations and the root of how you became such an aggressive player. Was there ever a time when you may have thought about changing because it caused conflict, or compromising?
A: There’s a great chapter in the film called “Black Hat,” (and wearing it) is a balance sometimes. I can swing too far on the nice side, or on the bad-cop side. Being a leader, it’s the art of trying to find the balance, the right times with each individual player and what they need at that moment. It requires looking outward as opposed to looking inside. In 2008, 2009, 2010 (with the Lakers) it became more about the guys in the locker room, it became more observing where they are emotionally, whereas before you’re just thinking about where I’m at, how can I get results. It’s a very big difference — it’s a small shift, but it makes a big difference. Because once you open your eyes and start looking around you, you start picking up things that are very obvious. It becomes very easy to understand what Pau (Gasol) needs right now, what Lamar (Odom) needs right now. You have to open your eyes to it.
A: Massive. Massive. Being able to stay present, stay in the moment and not predict what it is that you’re seeing. You see it in all the time in your profession. Writers come up and they talk to a player, and they already have a preconceived idea of what it is they’re going to write. So whatever answer you get, whatever answer you see, is being viewed through the lens of what it is you’re trying to write. And as a leader, you have to have a completely blank slate. You can’t go and anticipate what it is that you want to see. You just have to be present. Be here. It’s hard to do.
Q: Your storytelling passion is something I didn’t know about you. Where does that come from?
A: I’ve always enjoyed it. In high school, I had a great Speaking Arts teacher. She really challenged us to formulate stories, and share stories, so I enjoyed that. And then when I came to the league, I became very curious about the process of making commercials, and why certain commercials bring out certain emotions. Why was Wieden-Kennedy (an advertising agency that works with Nike) doing it in such a spectacular way, while other agencies couldn’t seem to find the emotional thread. I just kind of absorbed it, so I started my own agency that I had until recently — started in 2005. Zambezi Media. We created advertising campaigns for a lot of different people.
That’s kind of where it came from. So I started writing my own commercials. And when I signed on with Nike, that’s when it really took shape because now I have the ability not only to formulate the story in a campaign, but also to tell the story through product. So that’s when I really started to understand, because I’d have these ideas, and them being a great marketing company I would learn from them and how they take my ideas and fine-tune them, and then I would come back the next year with another story. Our product has a story from beginning to end. Everything has a purpose. And that purpose has a story that goes along with it. For me, my passion is that, you know what I mean? For other players, maybe it’s something else, maybe it’s investing. … It just depends on what your passion is.
Q: Is this the kind of thing that will get you in the morning when you’re done playing? There’s still not a guy across from you on the floor who you can destroy.
A: That’s a big misconception of my competitiveness. People look at my competitive spirit, and they automatically attach it to the thing that’s most similar, most easily recognizable, which is Michael’s competitive spirit. I’m different. I enjoy building. I enjoy the process of putting the puzzle together, and then the byproduct of that, the consequence of that, is beating somebody. That becomes the cherry on top, the icing on the cake. But the thing that’s most enjoyable to me is not actually beating you. It’s the process of coming up with the blueprint of beating you that I enjoy. That’s a huge flip, so for me I enjoy building. I enjoy coming up. So the transition for me is a little different than it is for other guys.
A: A couple years ago, just being open. In fact, I’d take it back to my first Nike campaign I did. It was actually a print ad and we created a TV spot from it. It was a “Love Me, Hate Me” spot. We made that in one day, Super 8 film, but that’s when I decided that everything I do is going to be a snapshot. It’s almost like looking at a balance sheet. You’re going to get me at a moment in time, so when I go back and look at everything, whether it’s a story that you wrote or an ad campaign or a shoe, everything represents where I am at this moment in time.
It’s fun to kind of look back and look at the mentality along the years, and be able to grow. And for me, it’s really special, because I’ve been growing in the same city, the same franchise, all those years.
Q: You and I talked earlier this season about that concept, the fact that so many people kept assuming you’d want out at some point because of how bad things had gotten (with the present-day Lakers).
A: That’s not what I do, man. I’ve got to take the good times with the bad, man. You can’t ask to be the leader of the franchise, and then when the franchise hits rough times, you say, “All right, thank you. Peace.”
Q: A couple random questions for you. So you’ve talked about this fascinating habit you have of cold-calling powerful people to learn from them. Who’s the last person you cold-called?
A: Anna Wintour.
Q: I should probably know who that is.
A: The editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine.
Q: Call or e-mail?
A: E-mail. We exchanged e-mails.
A: She has a reputation in her industry similar to mine, and we drive people. But I was really curious to understand how she’s able to create such a culture of excellence, of glamour, in her publication and be able to do it consistently year after year after year after year after year. How is that culture created within that company, and how is it sustainable? It’s funny because the reaction is always the same (from people he reaches out to), where everybody is a little taken aback because nobody has really had a chance to think about their own process and how they do things. It winds up being a therapeutic experience. You get a chance to think, “How did I do this?” I don’t know.
Q: Since your movie is looking at the whole span of your career, what are your highest and lowest moments of the last 20 years?
A: I think the public can kind of guess at the highs and the lows. What I’ve learned throughout both of those things is to stay even keel throughout the moment, which is very hard to do. It sounds kind of hokey, but the truth is that (expletive) is great today, and (expletive) can be (expletive) tomorrow. But the thing that’s consistent is the moment, and not losing sight of that. Just put one foot in front of the other, go on to the next thing, and try to do something better the next day than you did the last day.
A: You know what, though, Sam, if you follow that thread through, you’ll see no difference between him, myself, Anna Wintour, Phil Jackson, Steve Jobs. It doesn’t matter. The hunger is the same, no matter what it is that you’re doing. It’s like an unquenchable thirst to learn more, or to feel like you could have done more, and to be brutally honest and self critical, which is very hard to do. It’s easy, and human nature is to just blame somebody else. It’s very, very hard to self assess. What I take from that is him at the most gut-wrenching of self-awareness, when lives are at stake, he has the courage to self-assess and say, “I could have done more.” That’s (expletive) phenomenal.
A: I (cont’d)