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Kobe Bryant's greatness was both beautiful and maddening

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Kobe Bryant's career, in his own words (6:47)

Relive Kobe Bryant's historic NBA career, as described by the Lakers icon. (6:47)

The text from an unfamiliar 949 number arrived at some ungodly hour in the spring of 2016. I don't have it anymore. I wish I did.

"It's Kobe. Call me."

I assumed it was a hoax. I called my colleague Ramona Shelburne. I recited the number. She said it was the real Kobe.

I pivoted into fear. I started covering the NBA in 2010 as Kobe Bryant entered his twilight. It went downhill fast. An Achilles tear -- one that seemed to barely register to Kobe as a serious injury when it happened -- hastened the end.

Even before his injuries, I had been hard on Kobe from afar. His style of play had grown antiquated. As retirement neared, I argued Bryant was perhaps a hair overrated in historical debates. Had he heard and read that stuff?

What I found out when I called him was that even if Bryant had read any of it, he had bigger things on his mind -- grand plans to put in motion.

He told me that as he neared retirement, he was growing concerned about media coverage of the NBA. He felt in the endless focus on legacy and championships and trade machinations, the game itself -- the craft, the beauty -- was getting lost. The unofficial winner of #RINGZ discourse was tired of it.

He appreciated that I tried to write about X's and O's. He wanted to meet and discuss the future of media coverage.

He invited me to his office in Newport Beach, California, to watch Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, on May 25, 2016. I was petrified. This was a basketball test administered by Kobe Bryant. How many staff members and assistants were going to witness my humiliation?

I also felt ambivalent entering his orbit. It was and is impossible to separate Bryant the basketball supernova from the man who was accused, in 2003, of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman in a Colorado hotel. Fourteen months later, prosecutors dropped the criminal charge when the woman declined to continue to participate in the case after a series of courthouse errors, including the release of her name. (Bryant and the woman subsequently settled her civil suit out of court.) Bryant issued a written apology, saying in part, "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did." That was a real and serious concession. It is hard to reckon with now.

I was uneasy when I knocked on the door of his office. He answered. He took me to a conference room with a giant TV. It was me and Kobe. An assistant left after bringing a six-pack of beer. Kobe asked if I wanted to split it.

For the next four hours, we sipped beer, talked hoops and analyzed what quickly became a boring Cleveland Cavaliers blowout over the Toronto Raptors. He paused the game a few times to point out nuances: something about Kyle Lowry's footwork on defense, a missed opportunity by some ball handler to attack a defender who had his feet angled the wrong way.

Kobe had no interest in becoming another media talker. He wanted to change the entire media discourse, likening the challenge that night to "turning around the Titanic." He almost burst from his chair as he spoke about gathering archival footage and making mini-documentaries about individual games -- a great Bill Russell performance, that kind of thing. He talked about working together, and in early 2017, he had me send him clips of James Harden and Russell Westbrook navigating various pick-and-roll defenses -- another test, I think.

I left that room thinking Kobe was a little too ambitious. But as we kept in touch over the years, I realized -- of course -- that was Kobe. That audacity is what made him great as a player. He announced it right away, in the lead-up to the 1996 draft, when this teenager and his agent, Arn Tellem, dissuaded the New Jersey Nets from selecting Bryant and angled him to the Lakers. Before that, as a high school phenom outside Philly, he would head to Sixers practices and challenge veterans to one-on-one games.

Before I had Jerry Stackhouse on my podcast in the summer of 2017, I asked Bryant about those games against Stackhouse. Bryant insisted Stackhouse never beat him. "Not once," he texted. "If he tries to lie, Tom Thibodeau and John Lucas were there." (Stackhouse has indeed disputed this.)

Kobe achieved a lot of his media ambitions too, with his Oscar-winning animated short and his ESPN+ film study series "Detail," and he was on his way to achieving much more.

Critics mocked Bryant's "Muse Cage" videos, in which he talked with a puppet snake named Little Mamba, but I admired him for going for it. He took big swings. He would accept failure, even humiliation. He would not blend in.

That is how he played, too, and that is why everyone -- fans, players, media -- was so drawn to him. Kobe generated loud debates about strategy and efficiency, but for most people who consumed the game, all of that missed the point. More than every contemporary save perhaps Allen Iverson, Bryant transcended statistics and scouting and even championships.

Bryant became an ideology, yes, but also a style. I spent Sunday night watching old Kobe playoff games. On the road in Los Angeles, without my daughter to hold, that is the way I chose to distract myself from the enormity of the loss: Bryant; his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; Christina Mauser; Ara Zobayan, the pilot.

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The life and legacy of Kobe Bryant

A look at the legacy of Lakers great Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash at the age of 41.

Man, Kobe was a beautiful player. Everyone compared his movements and tics to Michael Jordan's, and there is some of that. But as I watched prime Kobe again, I was reminded of Roger Federer. They both glide and change direction with liquid grace. They never seem to hit the ground with force. They float.

I watched Game 6 of the 2008 Western Conference semifinals between the Lakers and Utah Jazz, when Bryant sent Utah home with a 34-point, 6-assist, 8-rebound performance. Over and over, Bryant would take a screen on the left block, cross the paint facing the sideline, catch an entry pass on the right block, and turn in one motion -- legs kicking out -- for a midranger. It was the smoothest damned thing in the NBA.

When Utah overplayed that cut, Bryant countered. He would hit the brakes, and flare out for open jumpers on the left wing.

That is what so many in the league admired: Bryant practiced every skill within a skill, every trick of footwork, every post-up move (the up-and-under step-through was a personal favorite), and watched enough film to know how to deploy them in specific situations against specific opponents.

That knowledge translated to defense. He knew every game plan and individual tendency. He was a rover and a gambler, but he had an edge. If he made a mistake, it was one of overactivity -- of overestimating how much he could do. He almost never lost focus or botched some element of a game plan.

The fascinating, sometimes frustrating thing about Bryant's career was that he could have been any kind of player he wanted to be. He was that skilled.

He is being remembered as the last of the midrange gunners -- the great despot of Hero Ball -- but his career did not have to go that way. Phil Jackson's triangle offense actually nudged Bryant's game in the opposite direction -- toward selflessness, movement, random screening.

He went long stretches as dutiful entry passer for Shaquille O'Neal, but he knew how to score within the triangle -- when to take over. No one could stay in front of Bryant when he faced up from the triple-threat position. His first step was lethal. He set defenders up with jab steps and feints. He could go left or right, from either wing.

The Shaq-Kobe partnership crested in 2001, when the Lakers went 15-1 in the playoffs and laid waste to the league. Shaq was the fulcrum, but Kobe was as close to an equal partner in those playoffs as any second superstar has ever been.

If you want to pick one Kobe game from that run, I might suggest Game 4 of their second-round sweep of a 55-win Sacramento Kings team. It was a nip and tuck game. At halftime, Bryant told Jim Gray on the NBC broadcast that he was having the most fun he had had in a long time. Gray asked why. Because we're losing, Bryant replied, according to Gray's telling. The Lakers were so dominant, Bryant was happy to be trailing in a playoff game.

He finished with 48 points and 16 rebounds. (Bryant could really rebound. He won a pivotal Game 4 in the second round in San Antonio the next season by tracing the arc of a Derek Fisher miss, sprinting in from the 3-point arc, leaping and extending his left arm back as far as he could because he had somehow overrun the rebound, snaring the ball and putting it back in.) He earned 19 free throws, the same number he took in Game 3. He cracked double digits in free throw attempts every game that series. You could not keep prime Bryant off the line. In that 2008 series against Utah, he attempted 96 free throws in six games -- 16 per game.

Bryant played every second of that Game 4 against the Kings in 2001. One first-half possession almost made me leap from my chair as I rewatched it. Bryant brought the ball up the left wing and ran a pick-and-roll with Horace Grant. Bryant faked right toward Grant's screen, then veered the other way. He sliced through an open lane, and dunked on Vlade Divac, who was guarding Shaq on the block.

It is the kind of play that makes you wonder what Bryant could have done in a modern spread pick-and-roll system. Bryant was a great passer when he wanted to be. He could read layers of help defense in a blink, then whip the pass they didn't see coming.

Lowe Post Podcast: Nichols, Shelburne on Kobe

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Remembering Kobe's legendary 81-point performance

On Jan. 22, 2006, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant dismantled the Raptors in a 122-104 win.

The triangle coaxed Bryant toward the better angels of his nature, but the system and the spacing hemmed him in, too. Today, could he be a 6-foot-6 point-forward averaging 30 points and nine dimes per game? I bet he could have been.

He might never have wanted that. He chafed at the triangle, and broke from it enough to irritate Jackson, Tex Winter and some teammates -- even beyond O'Neal, with whom he feuded until the Lakers broke them apart.

The stubbornness and determination that made him great also alienated teammates and worked against the Lakers here and there as Bryant's athleticism waned. There were times he would have been better had he struck a healthier balance in his game. But had he been wired to find that balance in the first place, he might never have been as great as he was. Maybe you don't get great Kobe without the flawed, maddening, sometimes cruel one.

There is no debating the results Bryant achieved with the triangle. Shaq's dominance in their early 2000s three-peat does not lessen Bryant's centrality. Replace Bryant with someone 5% worse, and who knows how many championships those Lakers win. The 2000 and 2002 titles bookending that 2001 romp were perilous: surviving the Portland Trail Blazers in 2000 in a wild Game 7 featuring That Lob, and that infamous 2002 seven-game conference finals against the Kings.

There is a tendency to sort of rush past the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 titles with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom: LeBron James wasn't ready. Kevin Garnett got hurt. The San Antonio Spurs were in a weird in-between era. Don't. Winning even one is hard. Kobe's closing game against Phoenix in the 2010 conference finals is another classic, complete with Bryant patting Suns coach Alvin Gentry's butt after a fourth-quarter dagger.

Jackson left in 2011, and the triangle gave way to Mike Brown and then Mike D'Antoni. But it was too late for Bryant, the personnel a clunky fit with D'Antoni's system.

The last few years of his career veered toward the carnivalesque. Without the structure of the triangle, without the high stakes of a championship run, Bryant indulged the shoot-first, shoot-always side of his game. (Some non-Lakers executives later snickered about hoping rival teams would send young stars to learn bad habits at Mamba Academy.)

Kobe seemed to delight in calling his young teammates "soft like Charmin," with cameras watching, early in the 2014-15 season. There was something performative about Bryant's transition to cantankerous, foulmouthed old head. He was crafting a persona.

His late-game shot selection -- his occasional ball hogging -- had always been performative in some ways, even if it was also very effective in his prime. Bryant could not go down as a Jordanesque clutch player unless he proved willing to take every clutch shot -- to risk failure. He made enough to blot out the misses. He became indomitable in the eyes of some fans -- a myth. For others, his failures were heroic: They proved Bryant's courage.

But Bryant believed he would make those shots. It was delusional toward the end, but the underlying confidence -- the fearlessness -- is what defined his career.

It is what attracted fans and players to him, even basketball aesthetes who wouldn't have played that way. It was telegenic. You couldn't take your eyes off of Bryant. Dirk Nowitzki -- unassuming, soft-spoken, everything Bryant was not on the surface -- told me in 2013 that he would stay up late watching Bryant's games on NBA League Pass. "To me, he's the No. 1 player over the 15 years I've been in this league," Nowitzki said then.

Nowitzki wasn't talking about Bryant's all-time ranking relative to Tim Duncan or anyone else. That wasn't the point. The style, the degree of difficulty, the viewing experience -- that was the point.

The 2015-16 Hawks were in flight from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta during Bryant's final game in Los Angeles. Those Hawks were about as stylistically far from Bryant as possible: pass-first, equal opportunity, the team for basketball nerds. And yet they were, players and coaches recalled, huddled around the one player -- Dennis Schroder -- whose phone was picking up enough Wi-Fi to provide updates of Bryant's point total. "Everyone was going crazy, especially when it got to 50 and then 60," Kyle Korver said.

Everyone has a Bryant story. Every NBA story somehow connected to Bryant. Our last text exchange happened almost exactly a month ago. I was writing about Ben McLemore's tortuous journey, and McLemore had a Kobe story.

McLemore worked out at Mamba Sports Academy last spring while he was out of the league. As he walked in one morning, he ran into Bryant, who offered words of encouragement: "Stay ready. Your time is gonna come."

Those words buoyed McLemore because they came from Bryant. I texted Kobe to ask whether he recalled the conversation.

I didn't know if he would respond; Bryant in retirement was protective of family and vacation time. But I suspected he would be happy ESPN was digging into the story of a journeyman.

"Yup," Bryant responded an hour later. "Glad to see him doing his thing."

Of course he was watching. He probably would have been ready with some pointers soon. Kobe wanted what he knew about the game to live on in others. The details mattered.