LOS ANGELES—Kobe Bryant had a stock answer when friends -- and teammates and parents -- asked why he wanted to get engaged at 21, to a girl he'd met when she was 17 and still in high school:
"I do everything young."
Fortunately or not for him, it was true, extending to his fall from grace.
He once said he knew what he was going to do in life when he was 5 years old, and when asked if he were serious, insisted it was true. Of course, he was right there too. He was a multimillionaire NBA superstar with three championship rings before he turned 24, but, as he was about to learn, for him, the basketball would always be the easy part.
Nothing in what follows should be read as an attempt to prejudge Bryant's legal case. This is an attempt to understand how he got to the scandalous place he acknowledged last month, so far off the path he'd chosen so early and traveled so faithfully. Of course, everything came so fast, he thought that was how things worked. How was he supposed to know that life was so much trickier than basketball?
In his case, golden child that he was, if he dreamed of ruling the game, it wasn't fantasy, merely audacity. His breathtaking talent and advanced skill level were only the start. He had uncommon, grown-up attributes, poise and focus.
People always mistook that part for maturity, but away from the game, he was your basic teenager. When he went pro at 17, the Lakers' Jerry West brought Bryant home after a pre-draft workout. Kobe hung out with West's teenage son. That's when it struck West that this was a new era.
Bryant was a young 17, at that. Kevin Garnett, who had preceded him from high school to the pros by a year, was from a broken home, had moved to Chicago for his senior year and was already the head of his household that included a younger sister. Bryant still lived at home with his mom and dad, even if Pam and Joe had to move the household from Philadelphia to accommodate his new career.
The Bryants were a warm, values-preaching family, drawn even closer from their time abroad when Joe played in Italy. Both older sisters went to college and with his 1,100 SAT score, Kobe could have gone just about anywhere. Kobe was their darling, the youngest, cutest and most precocious, emerging with so much self-confidence, he seemed bulletproof. Nothing in the game could scare or discourage him, not even failure (his four airballs in Utah at the end of his rookie season) or Shaquille O'Neal (whom he tried to fight in a 1999 practice before teammates jumped between them).
If Bryant was unstoppable, his parents weren't about to keep him from following his dream, but they were coming with him. Not that it ever occurred to him that they wouldn't.
They set strict rules for him too. Kobe would not be seduced by the fast-lane lifestyle, or as Pam had characterized it, back in his prep days when his parents still talked to the press, "drugs, alcohol and fast women."
Pam knew about the lifestyle. As a young bride, she had endured the embarrassment of seeing Joe, coming off his rookie season with the Philadelphia 76ers, arrested for leading police on a late-night, high-speed chase before crashing into a wall, with a female companion and two vials of cocaine in his car.
Pam was there with their 10-week-old daughter, Sharia, when Joe was found not guilty, after a parade of character witnesses had testified on his behalf, among them 76er coaches, players and owner Irv Kosloff. At one point, the judge whimsically inquired whether any Boston Celtics would be testifying.
Once in L.A., Bryant didn't hang with the other Lakers, or go to clubs, and all but ran the other way when approached by girls. As he told Rolling Stone, "Basketball is my girlfriend."
On the road, he'd be in his hotel room, on the phone with high school friends like Anthony Bannister, his partner in a "spiritual rap" group. (Bryant was "Kobe One Kenobe the Eighth.") Bannister told the magazine that before they hung up, they would pray together.
Bryant overwhelmed older NBA players from the start, but they had something he didn't too.
"Nobody was going to listen to him when he was 18, 19 years old," teammate Brian Shaw once told Sports Illustrated. "He didn't have enough NBA experience or even life experience. We all had wives and kids and he hadn't even gone to college."
Bryant had that ahead of him. It all happened on the Lakers' time and, if not out in the open, close enough that you could track it.
Now You Saw Him, Now You Didn't