Flash forward to the summer following his rookie season, and Bryant is lifting weights at Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, desperate to chisel his adolescent frame into a man-sized body. He’s balancing a barbell on his shoulders when his Nextel cellphone rings midsquat. He almost lets it go to voicemail, but curiosity wins out.
“Hi, it’s Michael,” the voice on the line says.
Bryant is incredulous. Kobe has never spoken to Michael Jackson before. It doesn’t sound like the King of Pop; the voice is lower, subdued, devoid of the childlike whisper Jackson uses onstage. “He’s calling me out of the f—— blue,” Bryant remembers now. “I don’t think it’s a real phone call.”
It is. It turns out Jackson has been studying the young Bryant from afar, and he has called to offer advice, one idiosyncratic phenom to another.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Jackson implores him. “Don’t come back to the pack and be normal for the sake of blending in with others. Don’t dumb it down.”
The conversation lasts no more than 15 minutes, but the two men click. Jackson clearly knows the NBA, rattling off a string of Lakers factoids. Kobe, a fan of Michael’s music, has questions of his own. They come tumbling out: Who were your early influences? How did you make Thriller? What prompted you to buy the catalog of the Beatles’ music? When Jackson invites Bryant to join him at Neverland Ranch so the two can trade notes on how they approach their crafts, the 18-year-old Bryant jumps at the chance.
The Neverland Ranch, outside Los Olivos, California, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bryant’s home in Pacific Palisades through rolling hills and canyons. Bryant misjudges the distance, arriving nearly out of gas. Not to worry, Jackson says, you can fill up at my private gas station. A 2,700-acre cornucopia of childlike delights, Neverland also boasts an amusement park with a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, a petting zoo housing a llama, orangutans, an elephant and giraffes, and a steam engine named after Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine.
Inside the French Normandy residence, the two men share a meal of marinated chicken and organic vegetables.”He told me, ‘This is what you love. This is your obsession,'” Bryant recalls. “He said, ‘I know what it’s like to be different. Embrace it.'”
After dinner, Jackson presents Bryant with a gift, a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a novella about an outcast bird who’s unwilling to conform. Then they drive half a mile to Jackson’s private 5,500-square-foot theater, adorned with billboards for old films, a flowing fountain and a concession stand stocked with boxed treats and cotton candy.
The theater has a state-of-the-art sound system, plush velvet seats and trapdoors for magic shows. Bryant has never heard of Grace Kelly, Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, but during a private film showing of their work, Michael explains how they were the inspiration for Jackson’s 1988 “Smooth Criminal” music video and describes the lineage of his music, breaking down songs note by note, taking Bryant through the process of recording “Billie Jean.” Jackson tells Kobe that he is transfixed by the success of the Beatles, that he initiated friendships with Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono just to learn more. Your curiosity is your greatest gift, Jackson says. Use it to expand your scope. Ordinary people won’t understand your insatiable thirst for excellence. They won’t bother to keep striving because it’s too onerous, too difficult.
“You’ve got to study all the greats,” Jackson tells Kobe. “You’ve got to learn what made them successful and what made them unsuccessful.”
As Bryant drives home through Santa Barbara County — a full tank of Neverland gas in his car — his front seat is cluttered with copies of classic movies Jackson has given him: An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain,Farewell My Concubine. It’s Kobe’s homework, along with an additional reading assignment: Napoleon Hill’s Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude.
Kobe arrives back in Pacific Palisades well after midnight and stays up much of the night devouring Jackson’s offerings. What Jackson has provided Bryant — in the form of old movies, pop psychology and dated self-help books — is an invitation to be like him. An invitation that would shape one of the greatest, and most controversial, careers in NBA history….
Read the full story here.