Hunger defines me. I've always been hungry, but now my appetite has risen to a new level. My will is greater than ever. The motivation to succeed runs through me like blood. In this 10th year, my 10th season as an NBA player, the mountain I once climbed to reach the top looms in front of me again. I realize how hard it will be to climb it, how much I will have to sacrifice and overcome to get to the top again, how many people have told me I can't do it. But I savor that challenge. Feed off of it. That challenge helps give me purpose and inspiration. It helps me define life.
At the beginning of this season there was a question floating around in my mind. What is my purpose? On one level I understood the reasons for why I do what I do, but on another level I felt an even greater commitment tugging at my soul. I'm a ballplayer, a teammate. A leader. But is that it? When I look back at my rookie season, I realize that all of the faces that once surrounded me are gone. I was a kid back then, eager to please, eager to find my place in a world that seemed familiar but different. The game was my refuge. I'd been going to it ever since I was six years old, in Italy, playing alone on courts thousands of miles away from kids who shared my same love. In a way, my dedication to basketball defined me. But that definition has grown. The struggles I've encountered over the last few years have made me realize just how much more there is for me to accomplish. I've begun a new phase of my life; I've opened new doors. And with new doors comes a whole new world of challenges.
In my life I have won and accomplished much. I own three NBA championship rings. I've had plenty of endorsement deals and made a lot of money from them. But still, I feel as if I have yet to fulfill the blessing that God has given me in my ability to play this game. I feel as if there is so much more to do, on the court and off it.
I don't know if this is how I am supposed to feel. Did MJ, Magic and the others feel the same way? In our society it seems like athletes are expected to care about winning the game, pleasing the crowd, and signing deals. Period. But am I supposed to obsess myself with winning only to win, retire and wonder if all my sacrifices were worth it? Is it OK for me to sacrifice time away from my children, time watching them grow up, missing Easter, Christmas and other special moments, to win a ring?
What I have come to learn is that my desire to win, the will to pursue my goals with the highest level of intensity and passion, defines me. But I have been careful to keep my motivation pure. The distractions that come with winning, the idea of playing for the money or playing for the fame and prestige — I've watched all of these things consume other players. My thirst for domination is fed only by the game. I refuse to get distracted by outside forces.
This is a new book in my career. Volume 1 has already been written. Everything that I accomplished before is behind me: not forgotten, but placed on the shelf. My past success only serves as a measuring stick for my peers. A whole new crop of players has emerged since I came into the League. All of them want the honor of holding the title of "best all-around player". But I feel as if that quest is behind me now and a new one has taken its place. I am an underdog. A challenge was issued to me by everyone who said I would never succeed again, that I would never win another ring or enjoy another parade. I accepted their challenge. I accepted the doubt of every one who spoke of my downfall and used their words as fuel. I have a franchise to resurrect, a city of fans to uplift.
That mountain, the one that I climbed once and now face again, is huge. I'm looking up at it again. And because I know how hard it was to climb, I sometimes feel drained because I know how difficult it will be to conquer. It's much harder to go from top to bottom to the top again than it is to simply go from the bottom to the top. But desire is the ultimate fuel. Hunger changes any situation. My past experience gives me knowledge that backs up my will. I know what must be done. My team is sometimes unsure because my teammates have never climbed this mountain before.
At times it's frustrating and it tries my patience, but in the beginning years of my career my teammates were patient with me and trusted in the fact that I would figure everything out, so now I must return that favor to this generation of Lakers. This is our challenge, our mountain, and these are my brothers. I must guide them to the point we all want to get to. No matter what.
I have been learning about the ambition inside me since I was a kid. It was there during the hours I would spend on a playground in Italy and a group of my friends would come to me and tell me I would never be an NBA player. It was there during all the time I would practice alone, imitating the moves I'd seen on television and creating new ones to go with them. It was there when nothing else was there, and I learned to incorporate it with the game, to wrap myself in the game and seek my future within it. Whenever someone would say what my Italian friends had said, whenever anyone told me what I couldn't do, I would grab hold of that feeling inside me and realize that it was there for a reason. I have always had a purpose, a need to succeed. People who try to discourage me only add fuel to a fire that has always burned. Every phase of my life has brought me new risks and new rewards; in many ways I have always been the underdog. And through it all, through every struggle, the game has always been there. It has never left me alone.
I love the game. I really do. As a kid, when things were bad for me at school or at home, I would go to the park and envision the dream. You've probably had that same one: I'd be playing for the Lakers, winning championships and hitting the game winning shots. I'd listen to the crowd roar when I put the dagger in the other team's heart, and on the road I'd hear the silence of other teams' arenas. I've actually done these things in my career. But I had done them before, because in my mind and in my heart it felt so real to me. So when I was there I had been there before.
"I take it to the other team on both ends of the floor. I take pride in being able to do that. I HATE being scored on, even by players who some say are 'un-guardable.'"
What thrills me most about the game is the purity of it and the chance to master it. The process, the work, the beauty of it has always inspired me. I remember when I was 15 years old and wanted to be famous and be on TV. That desire didn't motivate me to play or overshadow the essence of the game, but like any kid I thought being a celebrity would be cool.
As I've gotten older and actually become famous I realize that it's not what I thought it would be. But this is a good thing. Because it means that, in my heart, I never played the game for "spotlight" reasons. I played because I loved it. I played because it meant more to me than even I knew. When I needed someone to lean on, a place to vent, a place to celebrate or a place to cry, the game became all of these things for me. And because the game has given me so much I know that I must give it the respect it deserves. I must work hard to master it, to show it my appreciation for all it has done for me as a person, as a man. That's the reason I'm able to play under severe pressure or stress. The game has actually helped me cope with it. It has helped me win. Not in terms of the points scored, but in terms of the struggles that I have overcome. More and more I feel like this is the reason I train so hard, why I push myself past every limit. The more obstacles that are placed between me and my goals, the hungrier I become.
Desire is a double-edged sword. It gives you strength; it gives you motivation and focus. But occasionally, because your ambition is so great, you wonder what will happen if your goals are not fulfilled. My biggest fear is not winning another title. But fear is a great motivator. I'm determined to lead this organization back to the top. The people who once celebrated me are the same people who doubt me now. They say that because I don't have Shaq that I can't win, that it's over. The only thing I truly worry about is that my drive and my will are sometimes too much for my teammates to handle. Do I expect too much from them? How can I elevate them to play with my same passion every night?
What helps me understand and deal with this is the fact that I was once in their shoes. I once played a supporting role on this team. Back then I knew how much pressure Shaquille had on him to win a ring and I also knew I could help. So I studied the game offensively and especially defensively because I knew that if I could harass on the perimeter with him clogging the lane, it would demoralize our opponents more than anything we could do offensively. I also knew that the teams he played on in the past did not have a closer. No one could take the game over down the stretch or hit the game winner or make the key free throws. Those were Shaq's weaknesses, so I had to step up and make them my strengths. I knew how much more I could bring to the battle, but that wasn't my role. I was a scorer who became a facilitator in order to win. But now I worry because I know how hard that was for me to learn, how many sleepless nights I had and how much criticism and trade rumors I had to endure before I mastered my role. This is probably what my current teammates are going through. All I can do is pray that one day we will reach the same level of chemistry and understanding that existed between me, Shaq, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and all the other players I once went to war with.
The fears I have are soothed a little by the presence of Phil Jackson. Simply put, he is the best coach I have ever played for. Everything I have learned about the game can be traced to him and Tex Winter. They teach the game at such a deeper level than X's and O's. The game is a rhythm, a dance. Phil and Tex have taught me to feel the game. To think the game without thinking, to see without seeing. They taught me how to prepare. How to conceptualize the spirit of my opponents and attack them where they are weak. I've seen how prepared PJ gets before games, and as the on-court leader he is trusting me to do the same. So I do all the things he has taught me to do before tip-off and once the ball is in the air my mind is at ease and my body is ready to play. I take it to the other team on both ends of the floor. I take pride in being able to do that. I HATE being scored on, even by players who some say are "un-guardable". I don't believe it when they say "Oh, that player is just hot today." F--- that! Cool his[..] off then.
When we play on the road and the entire crowd is booing me it doesn't bother me at all. What I think about is simple: "When these fans leave this game I want them to remember how hard I fought and the passion and drive with which I played." I have always played this game with passion. And I always worked hard. When I saw the movie Rudy I remember thinking, "What if I worked that hard?" God has blessed me both physically and intellectually to play this game, so what would happen if I push as hard as the character in this film? I would love for people to think of me as a talented overachiever. Even though those fans may chant "Kobe sucks", when they leave that arena I want them to walk out with a different feeling than they came in with. When they leave they'll leave with the understanding that they have just witnessed a player give himself completely to his passion; they have just watched an athlete pour every ounce of his heart and soul out on that floor. And hopefully, when the next volume of my life is all said and done, they will respect and appreciate the years that I spent giving all of me to the game that means everything to me.
Recently I have come to visualize my place as a black athlete within our society. I've always been aware of our history, from Jackie Robinson to Sweetwater Clifton. But I never felt like I deserved to be a part of our tradition because I grew up overseas, in Italy. In that way I am very much different than many of my peers. I never truly believed that my own people wanted to identify with me. But that's the thing about adversity: while you're going through it, you look around yourself and see exactly who it is that's rallying behind you. During my time of struggle I saw the truth. My people held me down. Their love and support became an experience for me and that experience will be with me for the rest of my life. It gave me a completely different understanding of my role. I had been wrong about my impact. Now I see that I can be a force in the lives of our youth. They look up to me for guidance and support. They have shown me that even though I grew up in Italy, I am a part of black America. The color of my skin ain't paint! It is, in fact, more than a color: it's the signifier of my culture.
When I went to visit the victims of Hurricane Katrina and saw how their faces lit up when they saw me, how they embraced me, and how my presence lifted their spirits; I realized how wrong I'd been about everything. I've wasted all these years wanting to do things for our people but thinking I wasn't the one to do them, that I wouldn't be welcomed. But now I see that isn't true. The experience of Katrina and my own personal struggles brought me closer to our people. And through that closeness my motivation has become stronger and my purpose has become even clearer.
Being called a role model has become code for being "able to sell product." But the true essence of a role model lies in influencing our youth to be better, not perfect, not to buy sodas or fast food or whatever; but to be better, no matter the odds or the circumstances. As an athlete I am someone who is in a perfect position to inspire our youth. They look at us as heroes not just because we win, but also because we fail. They witness us overcome obstacles right in front of their eyes. There's no editing, no CGI; everything about it is real. They watch us fall, get back up, fall, get back up, and fall again. In the course of a 48-minute game or an 82-game season they see us climb an entire mountain. It's my duty to help them understand that falling is a part of life and getting up is a way of life. The will to overcome is crucial. And because basketball is a metaphor of life this is a lesson I can give them as I struggle to accomplish my goals. As I help to rebuild my team on the court, I can do the same off of it, helping to rebuild and restore the lives of the people I see in trouble by inspiring them to do what the "experts" say can't be done.
I have been an outcast my entire life. From being the only black kid in my town in Italy all the way to when I was 17 and playing in the NBA. What separated me from others, even more consistently than skin color or age, was my hunger. My mission. I've always been made to feel like there was something wrong with wanting to win so badly and wanting to become the best at what you do. But I have found a place to fit in amongst people with a similar vision, specifically my family at Nike. My[..]ociation with them means much more to me than just an endorsement deal. At Nike I am surrounded by people and athletes who share my will and my commitment to be number one at all costs.
Last summer I had the honor of being invited to the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon for a ceremony honoring the company's co-founder, Phil Knight. We athletes had to wait in the green room before the show began. I found myself sitting amongst athletes that I had never met before but whom I felt right at home with.
Let me explain:
There are certain kinds of people that are purely driven. I can tell who they are simply by looking at them. I have faced so much criticism for my drive that at times it has alienated me from the majority: the people who are comfortable with second place, the people who hate against me because I am not. You know these kinds of people; they are the ones who fear winning, the jealous ones who envy and try to sabotage. They are the people who have been telling me I couldn't win all my life. Many times my drive to succeed has put me on an island all by myself because no one understood me, or they chose to misunderstand me. They chose to portray me as being something that I was not.
So on that day, sitting in the Nike green room with those other athletes, I saw the purity of drive in their eyes and it reassured me that it was OK to be different than others. It's OK to want to be the best. It's OK to feel like a loser if you don't win it all, and it's OK to bounce back with a stronger will, a deeper sense of determination, and a desire to destroy your opposition.
I have learned that it is OK for me to be me, and what being me entails. It means that I will not rest; I will not sleep, relax, relent or be satisfied until my goals have been met, the challenge answered and all my doubters silenced. I will not give in to my foes; I won't let down my teammates. I won't stop inspiring those who look up to me or stop giving motivation to those who motivate me. I will not back off until I'm back on top, back in the place where they said I could never be again. Mountains don't scare me. The LACK of mountains scares me. The climb up, the struggle for every inch of ground and every level of ascension is what feeds me. I welcome that challenge. I welcome that chance to be fed because no matter what — no matter how hard, how far, or how many stand in my way, I remain determined.