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The never-ending story: Who is the Authentic Kobe?

Standing outside the media room of an arena in New Orleans during his last road trip, Kobe Bryant mused about what an old Mamba would tell a young Mamba if he could–what a 37-year-old, suddenly beloved NBA sage would tell a headstrong, can’t-wait-to-be-great kid of 17, forever the youngest draft prodigy.

I reminded him of Morgan Freeman’s character, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, in “The Shawshank Redemption,” who wishes he could impart his old-head wisdom to the angry youngster who made the mistake of a lifetime. “But I can’t,” Red says. “That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I gotta live with that.”

Bryant snickered. “I don’t think it would matter, because the young version of myself wouldn’t listen anyway.”

The embers of Mamba mania are just beginning to cool, with that 60-point heirloom ending part of a memorable, if complicated mosaic. Call it the Kobe Era–the 20-year career of the NBA’s most scintillating and seminal basketball player after Michael Jordan.

And yet. Two decades later, we know everything about him — and nothing. From the Kobephiles to the critics, the hagiographers to the haters, they still ask:

“Who is Kobe, really?

Shaquille O’Neal bellows over his cellphone, hilariously going into Shaq Proclamation mode: “We will always be the most enigmatic, controversial, dominant one-two, little-man, big-man punch in Laker history and NBA history. There, I said it. I said it. You can tweet it. You can Instagram it. You can Snapchat it.”

Kobe Bryant consoles Shaquille O'Neal late in the fourth quarter as they see their chances to repeat as champions disappear with a Game 6 loss to the Spurs.

Kobe Bryant consoles Shaquille O’Neal late in the fourth quarter as they see their chances to repeat as champions disappear with a Game 6 loss to the Spurs.

Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

But, really, do you know him?

“Uh, I’m not sure,” O’Neal says.

Says Byron Scott, his coach now and his teammate 20 years ago: “I feel I know him as much as he wants me to know him.”

In the beginning

It’s February, 1998, and America’s most famous sixth man, just 19 years old, is days away from playing in his first All-Star Game. After practice, he pulls out of the Great Western Forum parking lot in a jet-black BMW 740iL, driving me to my hotel on the way to his agent’s office in Santa Monica, Calif.

The explicit lyrics of Jay Z, long before he became the POTUS-approved, hip-hop scion, blare through the speakers. Bryant slows down and lowers the volume.

“This stuff is a little harsh, huh?” he says, swapping out the CD after about the eighth n-bomb. “You like the Spice Girls? A lot of people hate them, but the positive image they project, how they make kids feel, I admire that.”

For years I wondered if he was projecting what he wanted people to think he listened to, or whether he had unilaterally decided what the white reporter from the New York Times wanted to hear-the mainstream soundtrack of American tweens.

“I don’t know if it was calculating or just being respectful,” he says now after being reminded of that day.

Kobe Bryant goes up for a reverse slam dunk against the Minnesota Timberwolves during at Staples Center in 1998.

Kobe Bryant goes up for a reverse slam dunk against the Minnesota Timberwolves during at Staples Center in 1998.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Bryant in that moment seemed so … pure. He had taken Brandy to his senior prom. He smiled from baseline to baseline. A 19-year-old going on 35, he seemed to have a genuine appreciation for his station in life, determined not to be a preps-to-pros cautionary tale.

When I ask now why he wasn’t more open with his teammates and coaches (I never believed media and fans should have been as entitled), why so many he worked and played with wished he had let them in, he says, flatly, “I was busy. I was busy studying the game. It wasn’t something I consciously did. I was just so busy studying and perfecting my craft, that’s what I did most of the time.”

The truth is that his maniacal basketball obsession, his perfection of the craft, helped him to emotionally connect with fans in a way Jordan never had to worry about. Each malicious dunk, each defender he made fall down, every dagger at the buzzer, helped the fluent-in-Italian child of the Philadelphia suburbs gain acceptance among African-Americans reluctant to issue him a black card.

And the more Bryant heard he wasn’t “black enough,” the more he began to hate the compartmentalization of the African-American athlete. He believed that down-with-the-cause groupthink short-circuited civil debate and genuine education about nuanced issues. LeBron James wore a hoodie to support Trayvon Martin; Bryant first wanted more facts.

“If we’ve progressed as a society, then you don’t jump to somebody’s defense just because they’re African-American,” he told The New Yorker two years ago. Which didn’t go over well with a certain social-conscience athletic icon.

“He is somewhat confused about culture, because he was brought up in another country,” Jim Brown said at the time, that if he were to convene another historic summit of black athletes like he did in 1967 to support Muhammad Ali over his refusal to enter the military, Bryant wouldn’t get an invite.

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Mike Wise is a former senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.