Kobe Bryant: Hero or villain? Or both?
MIAMI — Kobe Bryant was sitting outside at a posh hotel not long ago, enjoying warm afternoon sun and a soft breeze. He's in the midst of telling a story and stops abruptly mid-sentence.
A fan has caught his eye, and he knows what's coming.
"Excuse me," she begins. "But I'm a big fan of yours. I just want to wish you luck and is there any way I can get a picture with you?"
Bryant politely and quickly declines, saying he needs a few minutes to finish his conversation first. The woman's smile disappears almost in an instant and she heads back into the hotel, not to be seen again.
In that moment, to her, Bryant was simultaneously a hero and a villain.
And to Bryant, that epitomizes his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. He calls it the "HeroVillain" phenomenon, one that he discussed in a letter that was handed out to fans in Los Angeles on Sunday night — not long after he revealed in a letter to basketball on The Players' Tribune that this season will, as many expected, be his last as an NBA player.
"Hero and villain, it's a mixture of both," Bryant said in the interview with The Associated Press. "People are so complicated. It's never one thing or the other. It's always a mixture of both things. Certain moments can define you as one thing. Monday, you may be a villain. Tuesday, you may be a hero. It's always an up-and-down thing."
He was a hero: A five-time champion, a 17-time (and counting) All-Star, and the No. 3 scorer in NBA history.
He was a villain: Revered by Laker fans and reviled by fans of 29 other clubs, Bryant always said he turned their vitriol into fuel.
"If you take the journey of Luke Skywalker, it's a very dark journey. Very, very dark," Bryant said. "He uses those emotions to do greater things."
That's what he tried to do for the Lakers for the last two decades, a philosophy that he loosely describes as "channeling the villain to unleash the hero."
"You gave me confidence to put my anger to good use," Bryant wrote in the letter to fans. "Your doubt gave me determination to prove you wrong. You witnessed my fears morph into strength. Your rejection taught me courage. Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker."
Bryant said he doesn't care which conclusion people reach when contemplating the hero or villain question.
To a longtime friend and opponent like Miami star Dwyane Wade, it isn't possible to declare that Bryant is one or the other.
"I would have two different answers," Wade said. "Obviously, as an opponent, he's a villain. As a fan, he's a hero."
It was fitting and perhaps telling that Bryant chose the written word to break the news, first on The Players' Tribune site — which he recently became affiliated with — and then in the letter that was printed over an image of the five-time NBA champion raising a finger skyward.
The next chapter of his life, he expects, will revolve largely around how to tell stories in various forms.
Bryant said he learned about storytelling from a high school teacher that he remains in contact with, even getting together recently for breakfast. He released a documentary — "Kobe Bryant's Muse" — on Showtime earlier this year, in which he talked about the highs and lows of his career with no subject deemed off-limits, not even his personal struggles off the court.
"I don't go through anything different than other athletes have gone through. It's just that I believe I know how to voice them," Bryant said. "Everybody has a story, as real as my own, as interesting as my own. That's the beauty of storytelling. When it's at its core, what's true for one individual will be true for somebody else."
For 20 years, his game told the stories.
And now he knows it's time to write other ones.
"What's the most important thing is how I got here, the ups and downs of how I got to this place," Bryant said. "That's the beautiful part, the constant learning and the journey that's ahead and whatever experiences come next. I love stories. I love concepts. I will work all day to make sure that we're bringing stories that move the world. I'll be committed to that, 100 percent."