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A Balancing Act

Bryant Deals With Rising NBA Career, Changing Priorities in Life


Kobe Bryant winks, and everybody's in.

It's his left eye, usually. And it is disarming.

He winks, he grins, and you're in.

So when he takes the basketball along the baseline, three-point line to rim, in about three-quarters of a second and rises up and everybody's screaming and he's descending, you knew it all along. You've been right there with him, your heart on a clumsy drum roll.

Because he winked. He invited you along, asked you to feel it with him, to look down--yes, down--and see net, and in the eyes of the defender, desperation and surrender.

He asked you to stand with him in that moment when all is still, when no one knows what the next move might be, least of all him.

With him, you looked into the eyes of a man on his heels, 20 years of basketball in those eyes, more probably, but he hasn't the slightest notion of what the next second, two, three might bring. He only knows that it probably won't be kind to him, but that it'll be some other poor sap's problem tomorrow night, and if it has to be bad, it might as well be quick.

And, then, you're beside that defender, the first move so startling, and then past him, on to the next, then the next, and they fall away so fast you can't remember their faces.

The flashes from the cameras mounted to the backboard like barnacles on a hull crackle and every color bleeds into the next until there is only light and dark and the shrill sound of 16,000 people at the very end of a breath that quit on them too abruptly.

Then he lets you off.

Kobe Bryant knows. He knows what it's like to have it all go faster than is entirely pleasant. He is 22, beginning his fifth NBA season, a championship immediately behind him, a career immediately ahead.

Bryant walks with an elegant stride. He peers out from behind the coolest eyes. He winks. He knows. It's fast. But it's OK. He does this kind of thing every day, every night.

"I'm very blessed to have a family that's caring and loving," he says. "I've found the woman I'm going to spend the rest of my life with at an early age. I'm very at peace with myself. There can be a lot of things going on around me. People talking. All this stuff going on, and I'll just sit in the middle, very calm.

"Sometimes it feels like things are moving a million miles a second. You tend to get caught up. You might get a little frustrated. That's when you detach yourself from the situation. That's when you're back to your basic self."

Those are the moments when Bryant retreats to the basketball court, where the things that matter are family and team and that's it. Or, to the deck in Pacific Palisades, where the mountains grow from the right, the ocean lazes ahead, then Catalina and the pier, where his mind is cleared simply by the spectacle.

In every season since he arrived from Lower Merion High in suburban Philadelphia, Bryant has raised his averages in points, rebounds, assists and shooting. And, although that matters over the course of a season, put him on the deck off the back of his house, and the numbers wash away.

"I think in learning from the past, learning from other successful people, some of them haven't been able to detach themselves," he says. "They become so driven and so focused that it actually hurts them.

"There is a middle area. There is a point where you can be driven so that it gets you the ultimate goal and beyond, and you can still detach yourself and still have a personal life, and not letting it get too mixed up. That's what's fun about doing it, because it's a constant challenge trying to measure out the two.

"When I can, I've found that my life will bring me more success than basketball. My basketball will bring me more success with my life. It's about being in the present."

Bryant appears to be changing. Always unusually adult and famously guarded, he has begun to let people in. There is the wink, often to total strangers. There is Vanessa Laine, the recent high school graduate whom he will marry, he says, during this season. They live together in Pacific Palisades. And, Bryant says, he is ready to lead this basketball team, because he thinks he has earned it.

"I've proven myself to this ballclub," Bryant says. "I do see myself as being more of a leader and being more vocal than I have in the past. Being around the guys, it's given them a chance to know me a little more. I opened up a lot more. As far as the heat of the battle, we went through some serious wars last year."

Coach Phil Jackson hears that and says, "Great. I'll go along with that. Sounds good to me."

If the rest of the Lakers are ready for Bryant to lead them, to walk shoulder to shoulder with them, that means Bryant has closed a chasm of credibility issues in their locker room. Some of his teammates take some of the blame for creating it, which may be why it has closed so quickly.

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