Kobe Bryant is officially retired. The 38-year-old superstar went out with a bang last April, scoring 60 points in an incredible finish to a 20-year career in which he helped the Los Angeles Lakers win five NBA titles.
With Bryant’s playing career now in the rearview mirror, best-selling author Roland Lazenby released a book on the life of the future Hall of Famer, Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lazenby at length about his feature book. We talked about the process of putting the book together along with what Lazenby learned about the iconic superstar who was the face of arguably one of the most successful professional sports franchises for two decades.
What would you say is the most interesting thing you learned about Kobe Bryant while writing this book?
Roland Lazenby: “I sort of went out in search of the organic Kobe. When I went to Italy, his years there, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11…he was just starting to emerge as a basketball player. It was just fun to run into the people that played with him and how intense he was as a little guy.”
“I ran into a guy who had been one of the older kid when Kobe would play pickup game there. He said, ‘Man, his face was always a frown. Always serious while he was competing.'”
“Kobe, on the bus riding with his old man, with Joe Bryant, and his Italian league team going to games. One day when Kobe was about 10 and he looked at his father, and one of his teammates, and said, ‘I’m going to be better than both of you guys.'”
Is there anything that surprised you about Kobe Bryant when you were writing the book?
RL: “Many things. It’s true when I do a biography is when I wrote about [Michael] Jordan. He did so many of the big things while in his private life major things were going on, painful, difficult things. Same was true for Kobe. Right as the 2001 playoffs started he had a total split with his family, he basically removed them from his life. Sold the house from which they were living almost overnight. There were canceled credit cards. Changed phone numbers. Yet, he went out and was able to play a very big role in the Lakers winning that second championship under Phil Jackson’s tenure there.”
How much of an influence was Kobe’s father, Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant, on his son?
RL: “A tremendous influence because it was a family obsessed with basketball. Magic Johnson was like the being, the creature in their lives, and Jelly Bean loved basketball. Almost 6’10”, I mean, he was fully athletic. He was a guy born for pace and space. He could handle the ball, in high school he played like a point guard. Many times he could pass, shoot, could dribble. He really was a unique player. There would be crowds at the playground in Philly watching him play.
“And so, part of the title of the book Showboat comes from this legacy, it’s not just the Shaq nickname for Kobe, but it’s this legacy of this flashy player, and Joe Bryant was able to do that. Paul Westhead who coached the Lakers was Jelly Bean’s coach at La Salle, and that was just the way he played. The saying in Philly was, ‘Gotta be jelly cause jam don’t shake.’ Jelly Bean could break down people on the court and do all kinds of stuff.”
“So Kobe was this little kid in Italy that just loved watching his old man play. Revered him. I think that’s what’s so hard for people to understand, who knew the Bryants then. How could they come to a family breakup because so many people viewed them as this really tight family unit? People that loved basketball. Kobe obviously loves his father very much, but it’s sometimes a common tale as one of the marketing people who helped Kobe early on said, and a guy that has worked with a lot of professional athletes, the vast amounts of money that flow into their lives it really becomes difficult for a lot of them to manage, and they end up in family conflict and difficulty because of it.”
Now that you’ve written a book on Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, what are the comparisons you’ve seen between these two NBA icons?
RL: “Well, I think it starts with their freshman year. Michael Jordan hits the shot in 1982 to win the National Championship for the University of North Carolina to give Dean Smith his first long-awaited National Championship. And so, at 18 years old, Michael Jordan is the darling of Tar Heel nation. Kobe’s freshman year was spent in the NBA, and his big moment came against Utah [Jazz] in the playoffs when he found himself in the game and the team needed him to hit shots and he took those four airballs.
“Sonny Vaccaro, who was the king maker for Kobe, called him right after the game after those shots. Sonny is the shoe man and the king maker in basketball. He’s the guy that made Kobe’s career happen.”
“So he calls Kobe and says, ‘Are you okay?’ Kobe goes, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ And Sonny was like ‘Well, those shots.’ And Kobe said, ‘Screw them. Nobody else wanted to take them.’ And Vaccaro was telling me the story in the interview, and he said, ‘No other 18-year-old on the planet could take those shots, shoot those airballs, and fail the Lakers in that big moment and survive! But Kobe Bryant had the will and the biggest balls of anybody and it never mattered.'”
How long did it take you to write Showboat?
“They wanted it in a year. It took about a year and a half. I put a lot of time. I had to travel to Italy. I did about 400-500 hours of interviews all over the place. Tracking down people to talk. Their observations.
“Kobe obviously did not want to be involved in this in any way. People do not like biographies. The readers like them because it’s an independent look at the figure, but it’s hard to have a biography written about you. Kobe is a guy that has a hidden agenda here or there, but by in large, the Jordan bio I wrote, a lot of people starting to look at Michael negatively. Then when you put the context of a person in the flow of their life and the flow of their family, you begin to look at them differently, and Michael today it is understood that he’s not a bad owner in Charlotte he’s a guy trying to rescue a bad franchise, a terrible franchise, while trying to learn how to be an owner. I think that’s a much fairer assessment.”
“The Kobe book is much the same way. Yes, there are harsh and difficult things I had to report opinions and views of Kobe, but there are certainly other things. His narrative is very different than what we think. He was put on the Lakers as a young guy through the experts of Adidas, Sonny Vaccaro, and his agent Arn Tellem. Even Arn Tellem, Vaccaro had to insist to the Bryant family they have him as an agent. This changed the Bryant family, it changed Kobe’s life, it changed the Lakers, but it was really perceived at the time as Kobe’s family and coach doing all of this, but that really was not the case. So once you change that narrative, all the other narratives also have a different look. Kobe is a little more human than sometimes people perceive him.”
How would you describe Kobe Bryant the player and Kobe Bryant the person?
RL: “He told me once, after a season where we were walking out of the Forum, I said, ‘What are you going to do for the summer?’ He said, ‘Basketball. There is nothing else.’ Well, Kobe Bryant the person actually did have some other things. He set them all aside. He tried to have a music career that blew up and was a big embarrassment to him. He loved writing. He has some of these softer elements, but they really got in the way of the singular pursuit of the game. He threw that all out of his life just like he threw his family. He was going to do anything it took to have the most efficient approach to his goal. Now some people would see that as monumentally selfish. Others would see it as the ultimate competitor.”
“Kobe was so isolated. He is an iceman. He’s to himself, and now he’s approaching this career very wisely. He probably made a huge mistake in leaving Adidas. He was very upset with them, but he is very wisely invested in these media companies he got, and he’s got the advertising and the filmmaking. He has some basis for going forward. He’s very bright. He loves to write. He’s interested in media, but Phil Jackson sort of commented to his associates that the two guys he worries the most about are Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant because they were these two unbelievably driven guys who it was all basketball. Virtually nothing else.”
“Kobe loves his daughters. I think that’s another thing that is going to draw him along in life and rescue him of the remnants of everything he laid on the line.”
Is there anything that was cut from the book that you wished made it?
RL: “There are things that I could’ve put in there that I decided not to. I’ve done that with all the books you do. These are people that are living. They have their lives. I don’t think you want to rub people’s noses in their mistakes. We all make huge mistakes. We all have family issues. We all have these things, so the whole purpose of including that stuff in a biography it really sort of amazes me, and it amazes a lot of our readers, that these people like Jordan, Kobe, and Jerry West they have all this stuff going on in their private lives. Things that are huge and difficult. It’s happening sometimes during their biggest moments on the floor.
“To me, I like to report all the facts that are appropriate, but just see how they handle it all at that level always is the basis for me having greater respect for the person I’m writing about.”
What compelled you to write the book on Kobe? Did writing about Jordan have anything to do with wanting to write about Bryant?
RL: “Sure. Kobe and Jordan are a subset of each other. Jordan was fascinated by Kobe. Fascinated by all the work he’d done. They both played in the same offense, for the same coaches, Tex and Phil.
“Jordan had David Thompson and his guys. When you’re at that elite level of talent your teachers have to be people at a high, high level. Jordan explained to me, ‘I had the light that was shining on my path. I had those people that were my teachers.’ Kobe was no different. He’s a genius-level guy, and he studied. Sometimes you have genius-level talent that never studied.”
“The other thing is, of course, Tex Winter, who was such a big factor in both their lives with his approach. Tex coached Michael longer than anyone, but they had a truce of sorts, and great appreciation for each other. But Kobe Bryant adored, idolized Tex Winter. Considered him his Yoda as you well know. He brought some happy moments to Tex Winter and his coaching career. Now Tex would get furious with him. And Tex doesn’t hold anything back. He would get right in someone’s face, and to have a superstar like Kobe suddenly in his face and for him to put up with that and not want to lash out. There’s a lot of places where Kobe deserves credit.”
Where can people find Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant?
“Well, I hope it is everywhere. The publisher is Little Brown. Jordan is in 13 languages, so it’s all over the world. Kobe is going to be in seven languages, and if it sells well in the United States, we’ll probably see as many languages for the Jordan book.”