What's Eating Kobe Bryant?

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Kobe Bryant is known as a focused, driven player and one of the best — if not THE best — in the NBA. But he's also got an attitude when it comes to the press.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Professional basketball's Lakers and Celtics are at it again tonight. Whatever happens in game four of the NBA Finals, part of the storyline will be, as always, what did Kobe do? Kobe Bryant is the league's transcendent star. Win or lose, good or bad, his performance is always part of the narrative.

Bryant usually makes an appearance after the game when teams trot out players to meet the press - that's because reporters want to know his take on the game. More and more, though, reporters also want to know what's eating Kobe Bryant. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Kobe Bryant in these NBA Finals, a two-act drama. Act One...

(Soundbite of basketball game)

Unidentified Man #1: Kobe Bryant (unintelligible).

Unidentified Group: MVP, MVP...

GOLDMAN: He performs in front of an adoring home crowd to the constant chant of MVP, MVP.

Unidentified Group: MVP, MVP...

GOLDMAN: He displays a kaleidoscope of emotions - gritted teeth, celebratory fist pumps, angry foot stomps, brawn happy smiles, sardonic ones as well.

Act Two: game over, Lakers win - yet his postgame press conference reveals the monochromatic man - pursed lips, flat tone, his demeanor so different from Act One it elicits a question.

Unidentified Man #2 (Reporter): Do you see yourself as any different than you were a year ago going to the finals? I mean, you were a little surly last year.

Mr. KOBE BRYANT (Professional Basketball Player, L.A. Lakers): I don't know what that means.

Unidentified Man #2: Kind of short, you know, short.

Mr. BRYANT: Oh, no, I don't know.

GOLDMAN: This was Bryant and another reporter during those 2009 finals when the Lakers led the Orlando Magic two games to none.

Unidentified Man #3 (Reporter): I'm still waiting for a big smile out of you. You're up 2-0. What's the story? Are you not happy or...

Mr. BRYANT: What's there to be happy about?

Unidentified Man #3: You're up 2-0.

Mr. BRYANT: The job's not finished. The job finished? No, I don't think so.

Mr. MIKE BRESNAHAN (Reporter, L.A. Times): I would say the last two finals Kobe has started to put on his playoff demeanor.

GOLDMAN: Mike Bresnahan is in his sixth season covering the Lakers for the L.A. Times.

Mr. BRESNAHAN: I think part of it is definitely a realistic thing. He really wants to catch Michael Jordan with six championships. Right now, Kobe has four and he senses the fact that he's getting into his early 30s here and he wants to win immediately.

(Soundbite of archived TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man #4: ...but Michael Jordan does not like to come in second in anything.

Unidentified Man #5: And Jordan being played by Bryon Russell. Fires over him for three.

GOLDMAN: For all the comparisons people like to make between Bryant and the legendary Michael Jordan - same style of play, same mannerisms and appearance - it's the singular focus and intensity that unites them. But in the interview room, Jordan often was more amiable, even after a loss.

Unidentified Man #5 (Reporter): Michael, did the altitude or anything else bother you? You didn't look like you were moving around too well tonight.

Mr. MICHAEL JORDAN (Retired Professional Basketball Player): No, I felt fine. You know, I felt fine. The altitude didn't bother me at all.

GOLDMAN: Former Chicago Bulls guard Steve Kerr played with Jordan.

Mr. STEVE KERR (Retired Professional Basketball Player; General Manager, Phoenix Suns): Michael probably had more of an image to protect. I mean, everybody has to protect their image, but Michael was selling all kinds of products and he had to be really careful about everything that he said.

GOLDMAN: Kerr now is general manager with the Phoenix Suns. He says Bryant has fewer endorsements and less to lose. The grumpiness, Kerr says, might put off reporters but impress basketball fans.

Mr. KERR: They realize the guy's a killer, the guy's a winner, and that's what important to him. And I think that's good for his reputation.

GOLDMAN: It's a reputation in a constant state of flux. Reporter Mike Bresnahan says he's never covered a more polarizing sports figure. The haters focus on Bryant's legal troubles several years ago, his perceived arrogance - he flies to home games in a helicopter to beat the L.A. traffic.

The lovers point to his engaging personality when it's not playoff time and his greatness on the court, which will be reaffirmed if the Lakers can beat the Celtics two more times. And, like last year...

(Soundbite of archived TV broadcast)

Mr. BRYANT: I was grumpy for a while, now I'm just ecstatic. I mean, I'm like a kid in a candy store right now.

GOLDMAN: ...bring a championship smile to Kobe Bryant's face.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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