His ignorance was bliss. There was never any harm meant by the “weirdness” that made others uncomfortable around him. It was just Kobe Bryant. He practically grew up in Europe. Everything he had seen about basketball was idealized in NBA Entertainment home videos. He then went straight to an affluent suburban Philadelphia high school where he was unquestionably “the man.” He didn’t know anything different other than him being the show.
For someone who witnessed up close and personal the first few years of Bryant’s career (I used to have season tickets at the Forum near the Los Angeles Lakers tunnel), I can tell you he was no ordinary rookie, or 18 year old for that matter. The first thing that struck me was how much time he willingly spent on signing autographs before a game. In the NBA, players will come out maybe an hour before the game and warm up, and some will sign a few autographs on their way back into the locker room.
Well, Bryant was the only person I have ever seen that would stand there for 30 minutes at a time, signing and signing and signing. It got to the point where the ushers at the Forum, because fans would come from all over the arena and cause a ruckus, had to come up to him and say “Hey, you don’t have to keep signing.”
Kobe would just shrug off the usher and let him know everything was fine. He was just oblivious to all the commotion around him. It was like he waited his whole life for this. Someone would ask for an autograph, and Bryant would say “Surrrrrre,” in the thickest East Coast accent you ever heard.
All rookies and most veterans during their one-hour-before warm ups will take some simple shots, break a sweat and run back into the locker room. Not Bryant. I can still see it now — diligently working over and over again on baseline fade-away jumpers, with Lakers assistant coach Larry Drew feeding him, each shot with the same amount of intensity and form.
As a young kid, I couldn’t quite grasp why he was so focused, but I knew it was special. There wasn’t anything that would distract him on the court practicing, no small talk with fellow rookies on the other team. Just baseline fade-away after baseline fade-away.
On the other hand, you had Derek Fisher. Fisher was another unique rookie. The guy operated like a veteran from day one. There was no transition for him mentally. Has not changed one bit since he came into the league.
Bryant was a different kind of cat. Whenever head coach Del Harris decided to actually throw him into a game back then, Bryant literally thought it was showtime. His first move with the ball was always an exaggerated crossover, and every play he made seemed scripted. It was his own personal exhibition for the crowd to see. It was the Bryant portion of the Lake Show.
Of course, it’s still his show, but in a much more refined manner. And it takes his mindset, his work ethic, and having no inhibition to become a legend.