Kobe Bryant and a business associate have a running bet on the staying power of the pop stars Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. Bryant, who wears self-discipline like a badge, has long favored the more predictable Perry’s odds, and found in Bieber’s recent tabloid episodes hints of a looming implosion: talent spurned. As he and the associate walked into the dining room at the Four Seasons, in downtown Miami, in late January, the associate, a Belieber, mentioned that Bryant had been giving him a hard time about it for years. He seemed almost ready to concede. That morning, elsewhere in Miami, Bieber had been caught drag racing and booked for driving under the influence.
Bryant was a child star, too. In 1996, fourteen years before LeBron James earned infamy by announcing, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” young Kobe stroked his chin theatrically for the cameras in the gymnasium at Lower Merion High School, outside Philadelphia. “I’ve decided to skip college and take my talent to the N.B.A.,” he said, with a pair of shades perched above his brow and a thin mustache sprouting above his upper lip. He had reason to be cocky: Lower Merion’s games attracted ticket scalpers. A few weeks later, he took the singer Brandy to his senior prom. He needed his parents to co-sign his first contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, that summer, and he was still living with them when, the following February, he won the slam-dunk contest at the N.B.A. All-Star weekend.
Bryant is now thirty-five, and staying power is seldom far from his mind. The Lakers, a fading dynasty, were in town to play James’s Miami Heat, ascendant royalty. The night before, Bryant had attended a college game between Duke, a school he once considered attending, and the University of Miami, and had the “very humbling experience,” as he put it, of hearing his name chanted by the student crowd. Bryant has logged more N.B.A. minutes, including the post-season, than all active players, and ranks fifth in the all-time clock punchers’ leaderboard. Very few of those minutes have come lately. Last April, in the fourth quarter of a game against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant ruptured his left Achilles tendon. He told me that the pain was so immediately intense that it was as if someone were holding a blowtorch to the back of his head, but his first instinct was to try yanking the recoiling tendon back down with his fingers. He then insisted on taking his foul shots—both of which he made, in spite of precarious balance, tying the game—before limping to the locker room, acquiescing to surgery, and vowing to rehab more quickly than anyone believed possible. The same Achilles injury ended the career of Isiah Thomas. Only Dominique Wilkins recovered from it well enough to remain an All-Star. Wilkins was two years younger than Bryant at the time of his hobbling, and had pestled the joints in his knees, elbows, and ankles for about half as many minutes. . . .