Few writers know more about Kobe Bryant than Roland Lazenby, who wrote the 2016 biography “Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant.” Lazenby witnessed many of Bryant’s milestones in-person, from his first NBA field goal in 1996 to his first championship in 2000. In addition to interviewing a ton of people in Bryant’s life for his book, he developed a unique bond of his own with Kobe.
Lazenby’s book has been translated into nine different languages, so he’s spent the last several days doing interviews with outlets in many different countries and seeing how the entire world has been affected by this tragedy. HoopsHype spoke to Lazenby about his relationship with Bryant, his favorite memories, Bryant’s legacy, the impact that Kobe had on his daughter and more.
First of all, how are you holding up?
Roland Lazenby: I haven’t really spent much time thinking about me, beyond being numb. Kobe lost his daughter. When I first started interviewing him, my youngest daughter was just starting to play basketball. She was in AAU and then eventually she played in high school and college. When she was about 12 or 13 years old, Kobe sat down and wrote her a note, telling her to never give up on her dreams. She is a mother now, living in Boston, and she has sort of followed Kobe’s coaching of his daughter from afar because Kobe had a tremendous impact on her when she was that same age. Like Kobe, she is a grinder with a fierce work ethic. When I got done doing interviews last night around 11:00, I was driving home and I called her. She had found that letter that he had written for her and… Kobe was our guy. It was our father-daughter thing. It’s something we share and she had always had such high regard for Kobe, even through all of his troubles. It’s a mix of personal and professional [feelings].
How did you learn about Kobe’s death?
RL: I’m not the kind of guy who goes back and reads my books when I’m done working on them, but what’s really weird is that on Sunday morning, before I heard anything, I picked up my Kobe book and I read a good portion of it. Maybe 10-15 minutes after I put it down, the phone rang and I just… Like everyone else, I was devastated. I introduced Kobe to George Mumford, the mindfulness guy who was the team psychologist for the Bulls and Lakers. George texted me right away. He had just been called by TMZ. He said, “I thought it was a cruel joke.” That’s what he told me. It has been cruel, but there’s not much joke to it. It’s so tragic.
Millions of people all over the world are grieving and celebrating Kobe’s life right now. Why do you think Kobe resonated with so many people?
RL: Oh, I think that part of it is easy. He had many flaws. He, at one point, literally destroyed his career and then had the will (and the luck) to rebuild it. But the one through line that remained consistent throughout Kobe’s life was his competitive integrity. It was unrivaled, in many ways. He left no stone unturned, no chore undone and he shirked no duty. He trained ridiculously hard, to the point of even doing damage to himself. And he went at it with a pure spirit that was evident in him from his first days playing the game.
When did you first meet Kobe and what was your relationship like over the years?
RL: Early in the 1996-97 season, during his first trip to New York, he declared to the media in the Garden that he was going to be the greatest player of all-time. This was an 18-year-old kid starting his career, but he meant every word of it. This wasn’t some idle, boastful threat. He was rising early every morning to put in more work because practice wasn’t enough for him. He had a circle of friends at Lower Merion who would go to the gym with him early for hours of training. This wasn’t some idle boast. He had all of this ambition. He would tell me, “I just want to be the man.” He would say that over and over: “I just want to be the man.” He wanted to be the greatest of all-time. And, of course, when you start announcing things like that, people start to question your sanity (laughs). It was a little crazy! Right after that New York game, his next game was in Charlotte and that’s when I met him. He made his first NBA field goal, a three-pointer. After the game, he came bouncing into the locker room and he hit me with a soul shake, as I stood there with my microphone and notebook. He had no idea who I was. But he was eager to greet the world.
He maintained that fierceness and put a lot of pressure on those Lakers veterans as a rookie. He was a nightmare in practice and wouldn’t make things easy for any of them. They viewed him as a kid and they knew he had the big adidas contract, so he was in a different standard. Rick Fox explained to me that the way they viewed him was like the kid who cut in line at the cafeteria. But he won them over. When he was young and frustrated in the ‘90s, I had the password to his hotel room, so I could call him or visit with him and we’d have these long talks. Or I’d see him at the Lakers game and we’d talk. Kobe was a lost guy in those early years with the Lakers. It was sad, and that was when we really talked a lot. That’s why I introduced him to George Mumford. I had George fly down to Houston, so I could introduce him to Kobe courtside. We’re mourning Kobe right now, but I don’t have a tightly packaged narrative about his life.
You wrote books about both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Considering you’ve researched both men, what were some of the similarities between the two and what were the biggest differences?
RL: Well, I would always turn that question over to my dear friend Tex Winter because he coached Michael longer than anyone and he was Kobe’s Yoda and protector. When I introduced Tex and Kobe, Tex was a Bulls assistant and Kobe was a lost kid. Tex would always say that the main difference between Kobe and Michael is that Michael went to UNC and played in that very limiting offense for three years. He felt that his experience in that setting at North Carolina prepared him for the NBA and allowed the Bulls to win those six championships. Tex would say that time and again. The difference is Kobe went right from Lower Merion to a very veteran team with the Lakers. It may have been great at first, but it quickly cratered. It became hell for Kobe Bryant and that ultimately led to a lot of his mistakes. He had so much anger and frustration coming out of the ‘90s. Even the championships couldn’t prevent a lot of that. He ended up throwing his parents out of his life; they were controlling and he was in love and wanted to get married. Then, he got rid of his agent, Arn Tellem, who Sonny Vaccaro had gotten for him. Then, he got rid of his deal with adidas. Then, he started in on getting rid of Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. In the midst of that, he got charged with sexual assault. He was a guy who was tearing apart his world by the numbers. The only thing consistent in all of it was that competitive focus – that unparalleled competitive drive.
There were similarities, though. The first time that I decided I wanted to write about Kobe was just watching him in the post and seeing that he already had all of Jordan’s post moves down. Tex considered Jordan much stronger; he’d say that it was tougher to move Jordan out of the post. But Kobe had studied Jordan so much and had many of his moves down.
What are some things that you learned about Kobe that most fans may not realize? Or what are some misconceptions about him?
RL: I think most people understand what a creative mind he was. But there were a lot of layers to Kobe. And he was so cocky, which only helped feed the assumptions about him. But he had to have all of that confidence [in order to succeed]. His father, Joe, had struggled with inconsistent confidence and it almost became his personal mission to have a confident son. They had their battles. When Kobe finally beat him in one-on-one, Joe would never play him again (laughs).
The one thing that I will say is that before the family split up and had their issues, they lived in a little village outside of Pistoia, Italy. They lived in a beautiful chalet in this little mountain spot. Pam Bryant, Kobe’s mother, would host this beautiful Christmas party every year and all of their friends and family would be there. The Italians loved the Bryants, from the fans to the owner of the Pistoia team. I was talking to the owner of the Pistoia team in 2016 and he knew all about the heartbreak of Kobe and his family splitting up and the lawsuits that followed. He told me, “My dream for them is that we’ll all go back to have one more Christmas in the mountains. Pam’s house will be resplendent and gorgeous and the Bryant family will all be together again.” That was his sincere wish for the Bryants. One of the things that I couldn’t help but think about and it’s only made me even sadder is that they’ll never be able to work past all of those things and have that moment.
Looking back, what was your experience writing the Kobe biography?
RL: Well, that’s hard. The Kobe book came on the heels of the huge success of the Jordan book and these publishers put a lot of pressure on me. Suddenly, they had a very tight deadline: They wanted the Kobe book done, from start to finish, in one year. I had gotten burnt out twice while doing the Jordan book. I had never been burnt out before that. When I started the Kobe book, I was so burnt out. But I worked around the clock. I went to Italy, did all the interviews and just really worked overtime. In March of 2016, it was finally all completed and turned in, and that same day, my sister died. Like any rush job in publishing, it’s not a smart thing to do, especially on a 600-page biography. It was a mistake. I should not have agreed to it. I hadn’t been able to unpack Kobe because I was hurting. Then, in all of my anger and grief, I had to go back into that manuscript [and make changes] because it was a rush job and it shouldn’t have been done that way. I made them go past the deadline. It was a battle to make sure that we could extend the deadline and get it right.