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You might pity the many NFL veterans listed as "unsigned free agents," or empathize with Giants running back David Wilson, who recently announced through tears that a neck injury was ending his career. But such hard cases come with a slim silver lining. At least the decision is made for those players, and they won't have to confront this central dilemma: When do I retire?

There's no right time for the deeply personal decision of when to power down a career. Some athletes lick the bottom of the bowl, savoring every last drop of the experience. Others have a lower threshold for decline. And then there are the legions—Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, most boxers worth their mouthpieces—who find that retirement isn't working, as it were, and rejoin the fray.

But even the most competitive athlete (that's you, Kobe Bryant) must confront The End, and its attendant changes in earning power, lifestyle, physique and purpose. SI visited with Bryant and four other athletes in their autumn years as they ponder when to say when.

THE THICK-ARMED MAN moves quickly, establishing a perimeter and securing the entryway. This is his seventh year on Kobe Bryant's overseas security team, and he knows how quickly things can go sideways, especially in China. Once, four years ago in Shandong Province, a guy slept overnight on the roof of a gym, curled in the darkness, and then, when Kobe approached, leaped from a low overhang, yelling, "Kohhhh-beeee!" In one fluid motion Attila Portik—for that is the muscle-bound man's name, of Hungarian origin—intercepted the crazed fan and hurled him aside, as if bailing out a boat. Another time the mob breached the perimeter and swarmed in, so close someone ripped out Bryant's earring. Just a year ago teenagers in Shanghai scaled police cars to get a view. The cops didn't stop them; they too were trying to see. Now Attila and his counterpart, a buzz-cut L.A. police officer named Robert Lara, insist on metal barricades and use decoy cars. You have not seen hysteria, Attila explains, until you've seen Kobe in China.

On this late-July afternoon, fans have been massing for hours in the humid air outside Jiangwan Stadium, here in the northeast part of Shanghai, amid the high-rises and the smog and the clamor. They arrive wearing Kobe jerseys and shirts that read RING COLLECTOR and 24 ON THE FLOOR. They carry poster boards and giant banners. One reads PRAY FOR KOBE, above a photo of Bryant holding his cracked kneecap. Another reads FOREVER YOUNG, with the tagline TO THE GREAT FATHER, EXCELLENT PLAYER. Two nearby outdoor basketball courts are polka-dotted with yellow-and-purple number 24 jerseys—short, skinny Kobes driving on chubby Kobes before passing to wiry, bespectacled Kobes. Nearby, vendors hawk homemade KOBE hats and BLACK MAMBA temporary tattoos. Conspicuously, no one wears generic Lakers gear. They do not care about the team, only Kobe. He is like a cross between Justin Bieber and Neo from THE MATRIX.

At 5:45 p.m. the riot cops arrive, wearing helmets and toting shields and long metal poles that end in U-shaped curves wide enough to corral a man's neck. By 6:30 the street is clogged with gold jerseys. Fans climb lampposts and scramble up trees. Some have tickets for tonight's event; others will wait more than five hours just to see Kobe walk into a building.

Just after sundown it happens. A black van with tinted windows pulls through the iron gates. The mob, thousands strong, begins pogoing up and down, emitting a guttural noise. Koohhhh-beeee! Kooohhh-bee! The riot cops tense, ready to hold the line. And now Bryant emerges, wearing a white T-shirt and shorts. This is his ninth visit to China in the last 15 years, but he is still surprised every time he sees the fervor anew. So Bryant waves and moves quickly, striding up the stairs and into the gym, past a row of purple spotlights and two life-sized statues of himself in mid-dunk and into what was once a gymnasium but for the week has been remade by Nike into something that can only be described as a temple, unironically dubbed the House of Mamba. Striding past the wall-sized rack of purple basketballs, down a hall lined with giant inspirational Kobe quotes and trailed by a team of nearly a dozen handlers, Bryant is directed to a room marked VVIP. There he is outfitted with a microphone headset and transponders on each triceps. In the next three hours he will preside over a bizarre basketball TV show, part American Idol, part Hunger Games, part Terry Gilliam fever dream, that is held on an LED-lit court while Chinese emcees scream in Mandarin and young women weep. And then, at night's end, Bryant will, to the shock and dismay of his handlers, go off-script and challenge a Chinese teenager to a full-court game of one-on-one on his rebuilt knee and Achilles, footage of which will later leak onto the Web. Afterward, a young man in a 24 jersey will leap from the stands and literally prostrate himself in front of Bryant, hands clasped together in prayer to a roundball deity.

And this is only Kobe's first day in China.

BACK IN the States, if all goes as planned, Bryant will, a little more than two months from now, jog down a tunnel in Staples Center, acknowledge a cheering crowd and play in his first NBA game since fracturing his left knee last December. It will mark his 19th season in the league, a career during which time he has won five titles and one MVP award, and logged more minutes than all but 12 men in NBA history. Barring any transactional miracles, his most-talented teammates this season will be Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin and Julius Randle. Naturally, Bryant is certain that this makeshift crew is capable of greatness. "I hear people say, 'They don't have a championship team,' " Bryant said a week earlier, while peering out an eighth-floor window at the Beverly Hills Hilton. "Yeah, maybe from your perspective"—and here Bryant pauses, narrows his eyes—"but Boozer does this, Jordan Hill does that, Lin adds that. What's the best way to put all these pieces together and use them to win? That's the puzzle to figure out, and if we can figure out that puzzle, we'll shock a lot of people." Bryant was at the Hilton on this afternoon to promote an upcoming Showtime documentary called Kobe Bryant's Muse, for which he is an executive producer. He'd just finished sitting on a media panel alongside a Showtime exec and the film's director, Gotham Chopra. Almost immediately a reporter veered off topic and asked about the Lakers' future. And then about LeBron. The Showtime guy cut off the question, snapping, "You're not wasting [any more of] our time." But Bryant waved him off. He understands that people only care about the movie because they care about his career. As he put it, "That's part of the entire damn story."

Now, up in a sprawling eighth-floor banquet room with views of the Hollywood hills, Bryant continues to talk optimistically about what's to come. His confidence is as admirable as it is predictable. And yet on paper the Lakers look an awful lot like a lottery team that is overly reliant on one aging star. There is not much hope on the horizon, either. Seven months after he ruptured his left Achilles tendon—and three weeks before he fractured the left knee—Bryant signed a $48.5 million, two-year deal. The contract, widely derided as the worst in the game, makes Bryant nearly impossible to move, even were the Lakers to try. Asked about Kobe's value on the market, one GM answers definitively: "Zero. Look at that number. Who takes him?"

This is by design, of course. It ensures that Bryant accomplishes something very few modern athletes have: playing an entire career with one team. Bryant's plan is to retire in two years, though he says he reserves the right to change his mind. Thus one of the game's greatest players and one of its two fiercest competitors—Michael Jordan being the other—will likely exit the league laboring for an undermanned squad in a stacked conference. It seems wrong. Never the type for farewell tours, Bryant bristles at the idea of parading from arena to arena, receiving parting gifts and teary-eyed salutes. "No, no, no, no, I'm good," he says, waving his hands. "If you booed me for 18, 19 years, boo me for the 20th. That's the game, man."

But most of them won't boo. Much as happens with other sports villains in their later years, fans have warmed to Bryant. It helps that in his latest iteration he has become the truthsayer of the NBA, the closest there is to Charles Barkley among the playing ranks, ready to tell it like it is. Most people hit the f-it stage of life at age 70 or 75. Bryant, who will turn 36 shortly after returning to the States, appears to have arrived there already. ("It's because I'm 70 in basketball years," he jokes.)

Eighteen months is a long time, though. Before his Achilles injury, he was an MVP candidate and the Lakers had Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Now? Now he's teamed with Nick Young and Wesley Johnson while the national conversation centers around KD and LeBron and Kevin Love.

Bryant understands this, even if he won't abide it. This may be "the finale of my career," as he calls it, but he intends to go out as he came in, guns firing. Still, as he prepares for the comeback from his comeback, Bryant has become more introspective. He is interested in his place in the game, in documenting his life. He wants to disseminate what he's learned. To spread the gospel of Kobe. Which helps explain why he has come to China.


AT 8:25 A.M. on Bryant's second day in Shanghai, he walks into the near-empty gym on the fourth floor of the towering Shangri-La hotel in west Shanghai. Seeing a reporter, he smiles, saying, "So you made it out after all." And with that, Bryant begins one of his legendary workouts.

He starts on the stationary bike, which he rides leisurely for 15 minutes, staring out the window through a light drizzle at the morning traffic on the Yan'an Elevated Road. Then it's on to some leg extensions, followed by body-weight exercises. Throughout, Bryant keeps up a running conversation with his good friend and Nike account manager, Nico Harrison, an easygoing former Montana State forward. Some of Kobe's favorite topics of conversation include: what Bryant read on Techcrunch the night before, the latest news on Buzzfeed and whether Katy Perry is a genius businesswoman or just a plain genius. (Bryant has been a longtime admirer of Perry's and was nervous when he met her for the first time recently, when both happened to be dining at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.) At one point Bryant even appears to break a sweat.

This is the dirty little secret that becomes apparent while spending a week around Bryant in Shanghai: He is human. He does not wake at 2 a.m. to run wind sprints through the streets of the city. He does not spend three hours a day doing visualization exercises while chanting samurai mantras. And sometimes his workout in a hotel gym is pretty much the same as the workout you or I would do in a hotel gym. This is the reality of being 35 years old, with the legs of a 45-year-old.

While he retains his superhuman tolerance—"He has the highest pain threshold I've ever seen," says his longtime physical therapist, Judy Seto—even Bryant knows that he can only push so far. He is coming off two significant injuries. His body needs to rest. Recently he saw a top nutritionist, hoping to find some magic diet that would restore his energy to its earlier levels, as if aging is but a matter of changing your carbs-to-protein ratio. "There are certain things that my body can't do that I used to be able to do," Bryant admits. "And you have to be able to deal with those. First you have to be able to figure out what those are. Last year when I came back, I was trying to figure out what changed. And that's a very hard conversation to have." Bryant pauses. "So when I hear the pundits and people talk, saying, 'Well, he won't be what he was.' Know what? You're right! I won't be. But just because something evolves, it doesn't make it any less better than it was before."

Kobe's focus these days is on efficiency. Over the summer he's trained nearly every day, either at the Lakers' facility or at a gym near his house in Orange County. Sometimes he'll have a partner join him for drills—often Johnson, the 27-year-old Lakers small forward. In these instances Bryant takes on a mentoring role, pointing out Johnson's wasted steps and where he can be more effective. Other times Bryant works out by himself, except for two ball boys, shooting and sweating for up to two hours, never talking. His goal is to regain his conditioning—after adding some body fat earlier in the year, he now looks almost frail with his shirt off. The end goal, of course, is to evolve. "I'll be sharper," he says. "Much sharper. Much more efficient in areas. I'll be limited in terms of what you see me do, versus a couple years ago. But very, very methodical, very, very purposeful."

On this morning in Shanghai, his hotel workout is certainly purposeful. He is done within an hour. Bryant heads to his room to get ready. Today is Design Day. Kobe has been to China so many times now that he has done all the tourist stuff. So a young Nike rep was tasked with putting together an itinerary of unusual experiences, broken down by theme. Yesterday was Greatness Day, followed by Design Day, and tomorrow, when Nike has arranged to close down a local museum, is Art Day.

Bryant's black luxury van arrives in the early afternoon in the trendy M50 neighborhood, where he meets an artist-designer named Zhang Zhoujie, who has been given Nikes to wear for the occasion. Zhang, a thin, nervous man in white jeans and wide-frame glasses, uses a computer to individually map each chair he designs so no two are alike. His personal narrative appeals to Bryant: Turned down by studios, Zhang spent four years teaching himself how to produce the chairs. Now he sells them for 10 grand apiece and recently held a show in L.A., from which he returned with bags of official Kobe gear for his friends. Now he is meeting the actual man in the flesh, and he is having a hard time keeping it together. Tentatively, he presents a slide show to Bryant, who appears genuinely curious, putting his finger on his chin and nodding seriously, asking questions throughout. Bryant asks about process, about production scale. Asked to sit on the $10,000 chair, Bryant lowers himself slowly, then says, "This might be the most comfortable chair I've ever sat in. Seriously"—and here he motions at Nico—"you gotta try this."

This side of Kobe, the inquisitive entrepreneur, is a relatively new development. Early in his rehab from the knee injury, he was limited to 45 minutes a day on the exercise bike, which left him 23 hours and 15 minutes to focus on something other than basketball. It was hell. "You get this feeling that you're living without a purpose," says Bryant. "And that's not O.K." So Bryant watched Modern Family with his kids and read business tomes and spent long hours talking with people he admires and filling a series of notebooks. He's on his fourth now. "Just nothing but sketches and drawing and org charts and direction and all this s---. Conversations I've had with muses, how they built their company, notes and all kinds of s---." (One of Bryant's conversational fallbacks is swearing in situations where swearing doesn't necessarily seem warranted. It is a way to soften himself, an attempt to bridge the gap he assumes exists when talking to people unlike himself.)

Of late, Bryant has become obsessed with obsessives, and he devours biographies of iconoclasts. Often he'll divulge some factoid like, "Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci didn't break onto the art scene until he was 46 years old? Forty-six?!?" Bryant recently cold-called Apple exec Jonathan Ive and Oprah Winfrey, among others, asking for business advice. He is curious in a manner most athletes aren't. He wants to know how and why things work. Last year he formed Kobe Inc., hiring away creative talents he admired from companies he'd worked with. (Bryant, who got this killer instinct from his strong-willed mother, hired Andrea Fairchild, formerly of Gatorade, as his CEO.) Among those Bryant idolizes—Steve Jobs and Bruce Lee, for instance—there is often a common theme. They are outsiders. They buck the system. Succeed against the odds. In their lives Bryant sees not just road maps but validation.

Earlier this year Bryant heard a story about Michael Jackson, another of his idols. It was about how, before Thriller came out, Jackson was obsessed with the Bee Gees, and in particular their Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which was then the best-selling album of all time. Determined to eclipse the Bee Gees, Jackson began listening to Saturday Night Fever over and over. Such was his obsession that for two years straight, Jackson told friends, he listened to the album 10 times a day, until he knew every note, every beat. Until he'd internalized it, deciphered its magic and taken it for his own. A year later Thriller came out. It sold more than 60 million copies and became the best-selling album of all time.

When Bryant first heard this anecdote, he was ecstatic. "I f------ love that story," Bryant said. Here, crystallized, was everything Bryant held dear: the value of work ethic and passion and obsessive quests, all doused in mythology. Did Jackson actually listen to Saturday Night Fever 10 times a day, or was it more like five? Did he do it for two years, or two months? These were not questions Bryant asked. Better to build up a myth than tear it down.

THE MAN who told Bryant that story about Michael Jackson was 39-year-old director Gotham Chopra. The son of New Age guru Deepak Chopra, Gotham grew up amid his own surreal media bubble: on TV as a boy, shot by paparazzi as a teen, published author while still in college. His childhood was as surreal as Bryant's, if in a different way. (He met Jackson through his father and became good friends with him as a teen.)

Kobe and Gotham met two years ago, through a mutual friend, and first bonded over comic books. Bryant was interested in documenting his comeback from an Achilles injury. Gotham, a personable man with big brown eyes—and a die-hard Celtics fan, something which Kobe loves to needle him about—signed on, even though the project was nebulous. "Hey, if Kobe wants you to film, you film," he says.

Then Kobe's knee buckled, and the movie had to become about something else. So it became about Kobe's inspiration—his "muses" as Bryant calls them. Gotham has now spent roughly 60 days with Bryant over the course of more than a year. He has reams and reams of footage. The movie is slated to premiere on Nov. 7, soon after Kobe's return.

Like any auteur, Chopra wants to make a revealing film. Which means he is in a difficult position. A lifetime spent in front of cameras—a lifetime of creating personas and reinforcing them, of burnishing his own mythology, just as Michael Jackson once did—makes it hard for Kobe to let down his guard, even when he tries. At one point I ask Bryant why he has yet to sign on for a ghost-written autobiography. He says he's thought about it. That he's read Andre Agassi's book and admires it. But if he did it, Bryant says, he'd want to actually write the book himself. Even so, he says, "I'm not ready yet. Writing carries such a level of transparency. I think if you're going to write a book, you have to be ready to be completely transparent about everything that's taken place. And I'm not at that place yet."

For now Bryant often speaks in parables, all of which have roughly the same moral: Never give up, and if you work hard, you will succeed. In interviews and at basketball camps and in speeches, again and again, he tells the same stories: about that summer in Philly where, as a wiry kid, he failed to score during the entirety of the Sonny Hill summer league. ("Zero points!") And the one about how at four years old he was forced to fight an older, better kid at karate and got his ass kicked only to realize he'd survived and was now stronger for it. Such are his charisma and social skills—dramatizing big moments, enunciating key words—that he makes each story feel new and insightful, the way a skilled politician can. "Somebody told me, When you go to China, you'll see people really respond to his teachings," Chopra says with a laugh. "Kobe has teachings?"

The Kobe Way can be applied to any endeavor. When he spoke recently with one of his various Kobe Inc. partners, a moment caught by Gotham on film, Bryant groused about "this thing where we seem to be O.K. for kids to receive medals for fourth place.... It's bull----." Instead Kobe wants to use his company to foster, as he calls it, "the spirit of competition." At home, Bryant drills his eight-year-old daughter on winning, only he calls it "competing." The lesson remains the same: Sometimes you lose, but when you do, it just reminds you of how much you like to win. Says Chopra, "Sometimes I tell Kobe, You've obviously been successful. Whatever you've done seems to have worked. But this losing/winning mentality you have, where everything is a competition? In basketball, yes. Maybe even in business, yes. But parenting, not so much. Relationships? There's compromise. At least that's my experience. But, you know, he kind of hasn't had to till now." (At one point Gotham introduced his seven-year-old son to Kobe. Afterward, Bryant turned to Gotham and said, "I'm thinking of creating one of those," as if a son were a product.)

At this point, Bryant has institutionalized his mentality. Again and again over the week, he repeats his mantras, telling the Chinese kids to "be strong" and "learn from failure" and "never stop working to get better." Here is the thing: Bryant encourages these kids to grow from weakness, but he never shows any himself. You know how Kobe deals with a torn Achilles? He tries to pull the damn thing up, then stays in the game to take, and make, two free throws. Aging? Kobe has publicly scoffed at the notion that Father Time is undefeated. Armed with a roster of Lins and Boozers, Kobe says he's thinking championship. And he really does buy into this stuff. "First of all, I'm sure he believes they can make the playoffs," says one GM. "And second of all, I'm sure he believes it will be on his shoulders. That's what makes him Kobe. That unnatural confidence."


​NOW IT'S day three of Bryant's visit, and he's back at the House of Mamba, filming. The online reality show is the brainchild of Nike, though it is full of Kobe's input, of course. Everything you see involving Kobe includes his input; hence his line of shoes named after people he admires, including the Bruce Lee, the Beethoven and the Thriller.

The TV show is essentially one long, overt Nike advertisement, part of a concentrated effort by both athletic companies and the NBA to make China the next frontier for basketball. (The league is developing a 130,000-square-foot structure in Beijing, and commissioner Adam Silver recently said he sees the country as a key to the NBA's continued growth.) In Nike's case the company solicited 30-second video clips from teenagers across China, then chose the most interesting. During Week 1, LeBron James came through and narrowed the field down to 30. Now Kobe will narrow that field to 10. Despite the star power and relevancy of James, Attila says there is no comparison when it comes to popularity. He has spent nearly a decade on Asian security detail for NBA stars and watched over LeBron just the week before. "You can tell one is trying to get where the other is," Attila says. Asked if he means there are more fans for Kobe, he nods. "Lots more."

On this afternoon Kobe tutors the players on specific skills. He is exacting but patient, showing a chubby, big-eared kid how to shoot a fadeaway from the right post, a shot that this kid should probably not even consider taking until he's mastered more rudimentary moves. Still, Kobe sticks with him as he flubs shot after shot. "Fake left, shoot it over your right shoulder," Bryant says. "Don't use the dribble." The kid tries again and makes the shot. Kobe is happy. He is clearly a good teacher. Though he says he has no interest in coaching, he would be a good one. If he had the patience for it.

The Chinese teenagers, chosen by Nike as much for their backstories as their skill, need plenty of help. A handful might qualify as D-III players in the U.S. Many wouldn't make a high school JV squad. There are no Yao Ming--esque giants. Most hew closer to the Jeremy Lin model: quick on the dribble, attack the basket, suspect jumper, pass-second.

This last element becomes magnified when Kobe is watching. Over the course of the week, the contestants rotate through half-court five-on-five games. When Bryant is near, whichever kid has the ball invariably backs up and waves away his teammates, then goes one-on-five and attempts a crazy finish. Doing his best to be diplomatic, Bryant offers encouragement. "That's some good D!" he says.

Ostensibly, the hysterical fans who arrive during the week are there to cheer on the reality show, but they couldn't care less about these teenagers. Rather, they wait for Bryant to turn in their direction, at which point they raise their banners and their light-up MVP signs and scream their throats out. Every minute or so they break into spontaneous KOH-BEE! chants. For two hours. It looks exhausting.

In the U.S., or many other places, there would be an acknowledgement of the show's naked marketing, an eye-rolling, snark-soliciting acquiescence by those on hand. Not here. Here they eat it up. Jake Bloch, Gotham's 25-year-old producer, who happens to be half Chinese, refers to it as China's "preironic" mind-set. When Kobe signs basketballs at the end of one taping and throws them to the crowd, scrums break out as dozens of teens grapple and fall and tear at the leather. It is disturbing. Like Lord of the Flies. At one point during the taping of the show, a girl plays the trumpet for Kobe, one-handed, while dribbling a basketball, and the song is Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," the romantic ballad from Titanic.

Amid everything else, it seems totally normal.

WHY DOES China love Kobe? Why does Kobe love China?

The answer on both fronts might be that it's uncomplicated. In an autocratic country, the very idea of Bryant may be liberating. He represents the best of the West, Easternized: the validation of work ethic as the path to success. If he so chose, after his retirement from the NBA, Bryant could easily spend his golden years holding clinics in China. Like David Hasselhoff in Germany, only taller and less cheesy.

As for Kobe, here in China he really is, as the sign reads, FOREVER YOUNG. Here the local media dotes. The fans not only adore him but arrive with no expectations beyond glimpsing the icon. Hang around a Lakers' road hotel in the U.S., and you'll see groupies and autograph hounds awaiting the bus, and if the players don't acknowledge them, angry 40-year-old men will berate them. In Shanghai, I saw one group of nearly a dozen teenagers outside the Shangri-La hotel at 10 in the morning one day; at 11:30 p.m. they were still there, waiting, hopeful, asking any Westerner who entered if they knew when Kobe might return. They carried a succession of handwritten placards, in English, one holding each, that read KOBE CAN WE TAKE PHOTO WITH U? [heart].

This kind of unconditional love is rare. Growing up, Kobe received it, like most kids, from his parents. Now he gets it from Chinese 17-year-olds.

KOBE'S RELATIONSHIP with his father is complicated. Joe Bryant was a good NBA player and an exceptional international one, a power forward who played with panache. But Kobe sees little of his father in himself. "We couldn't be more opposite, frankly," he says.

Told that it seems he has taken more joy in the game of late, as Jellybean once did, Kobe thinks for a moment, then nods. "It's interesting, and you're right—my dad just exuded joy for the game," Kobe says. "But I would say I love the game even more, because I love the game so much I did it every day, nonstop for hours and hours and hours and hours."

It's interesting that he equates joy with hard work, as if it must be earned. In Kobe's world, anything that comes easy is, by its very nature, not worth treasuring. He sees his role on the Lakers in the final third of his career as, in essence, a------ in chief. "You can't afford to placate people," he explains, his voice rising. "You can't afford to do that. You're a leader. You're not here to be a social butterfly. You're here to get them to the promised land. A lot of people shy away from that because a lot of people want to be liked by everybody. I want to be liked too. But I know that years from now they'll appreciate how I pushed them to get us to that end result."

Bryant sits back, letting the thoughts sit in the air for a moment. Then he continues. "It's never easy, man. This s--- is hard. So when players look in the distance and see us winning championships and see us celebrating and having a good time, they think, Oh, this is what leadership is, this is how you win, everyone gets along, we're all buddy-buddy, we all hang out, blah, blah."

Bryant shifts in his seat, leans forward. "No it's not like that. You talk to Lamar [Odom], Adam Morrison. We were at each other's throats every day. Challenging each other, confronting each other. That's how it gets done. But that's hard, because it's uncomfortable, right? It's uncomfortable."

This approach—Bryant likens it to the unpleasant task of telling a dinner mate he has "s--- in his teeth"—does not go over well all the time. Like with Dwight Howard, for example. Others appreciate it. During filming, Chopra interviewed a number of Bryant's teammates, current and former, and he asked them to describe Bryant in three words. After each interview Kobe would text Chopra, eager to hear what people said. Most answered with some variation of "the ultimate competitor" or "killer instinct." But when Chopra asked Steve Nash, he said something different. After thinking for a moment, Nash answered, slowly, in three beats: "Mother ... f------ ... a------."

Kobe thought this was awesome.

IT'S EASY to forget just how much Bryant has changed during his career. He evolved from a brash kid with a baby fro and a killer Michael Jordan impression to a star who won titles with Shaq—even if he was ill-suited to the sidekick role the big man relegated him to. Then came the rape case—ultimately dropped—in Eagle, Colo. All the sponsors fled except Nike, which he'd signed with only a week earlier. Kobe turned inward, became the pure competitor he was destined to be. For roughly the next five years we saw the Mercenary Kobe, and it was glorious. He berated teammates, demeaned opponents, scored 81 points because he could. Finally, in 2009, he won a title on his own terms. The burden lifted. And yet, the image that sticks out from covering that championship is of Bryant, at 2 a.m. during the series, sitting in a hotel lobby with a Corona, among friends but yet still alone, staring off into the distance.

Some people are forced into isolation. Kobe seeks it. He refers to himself as "just a kid from Italy." He speaks with pride of growing up in his backyard, shooting imaginary jumpers, forging his confidence in one-on-none situations. Talk to him now about solitude, and he acknowledges the role it's played in his life. "Being alone, you can't hide, man, you can't fool yourself," he says.

So Kobe found his drive in being different, in being alone. That's why he studies the iconoclasts. It's why he's close to so few people in the NBA. And it's why, while some like Phil Jackson think he will prosper upon leaving the game, others aren't so sure. "You know how it's been hard for Jordan in retirement?" says one GM. "It's going to be way worse to be Kobe. He has fewer friends and the same competitive drive. At least MJ likes to golf and play cards."

NOW IT'S Sunday afternoon, Kobe's fifth full day in Shanghai, and he's burned out. It's been a long week of glad-handing, photo shoots, design summits, late-night dinners and court christenings. Slowly, Bryant lowers himself onto a couch in the VVIP room, his legs sore from a morning workout. Asked how he processes all this—the adulation, the fans, the statues of him—he looks surprised. Statues? He hadn't noticed them, he claims. It's been too crazy. (Later, on the ride home, he will turn to the crew and ask if they saw the statues. Heads will nod. "What do you think of them?" Bryant will ask. "They're cool," Nico will assure him. "Yeah, they're cool," Bryant will say, then pause. "Right?")

All week Kobe has been trying hard. Playing a role. At one event after another he fixes his face into an awkward perma-grin, as he turns and acknowledges one screaming fan section after another. He raises his hands in twin V's. During the player talent evaluations, he is dead set on being a positive influence. In keeping with the spirit of Kobe being a Force for Good, he insists on playing the role of a "mentor," rather than a Simon Cowell figure. So when it's time to cut players, Kobe chooses the ones who move on, rather than singling out those who won't. His commentary as he watches the kids bungle layups and go one-on-four is forcedly diplomatic. "It's going on right now." ... "Oooh, had a good look."

He can only contain himself for so long, though. Which brings us back to the one-on-one game against the Chinese teen, back on Wednesday night, four nights earlier, the one that went viral. The title of the video when it showed up on sports blogs was along the lines of Kobe destroys Chinese fans at one-on-one! It showed Bryant draining deep threes against a lanky kid, and it all fit in perfectly with the Kobe narrative. The Mamba Mythology.

Only that's not what happened. What actually transpired was that Bryant became increasingly geeked as the night went on, watching all these kids chuck up jumpers. First he began dribbling a ball between his legs. Then he bit his lip. Then, when the show was supposed to be wrapping up, he grabbed the mike from the emcee. "They probably haven't seen me play in a while, so we'll do a little one-on-one game," Kobe said, and this was true because no one had seen him play competitively in nearly a year. Not Gotham. Not his handlers. "We used to call the game 'sunrise' in Philly," Bryant continued. "Whoever scores stays on."

The two emcees were surprised but went with it as Kobe extricated himself from his headset and took some practice shots. Then Bryant handpicked the three best opponents among the 30 campers, and they began a rotating game of one-on-one, winner stays on, to five buckets. The crowd, as you can imagine, went bonkers. At first Kobe looked rusty. Really rusty. His jumpers hit the front iron. He threw up an air ball. He ended up backing down the kids and shooting five-foot jump hooks. It looked as if maybe his comeback was not as far along as advertised. Then, slowly, Bryant came alive. He sank deep into a stance on D, he chased down long rebounds, pivoted and fired up high-arcing baseline fadeaways. Against a particularly frenetic guard, he backed him down, then dribbled around the kid's back and spun to score, sending the crowd and emcees into spasms of joy. This is what they came to see. As Kobe will explain later, "They want to know what it's like to actually see it, up close. To have that experience."

There was only one problem with the narrative: Kobe lost. This is the part you don't see on the viral videos. He thought he had the game in hand, with four points tallied in a game to five. Then the tallest of the Chinese kids, wearing a number 10 jersey, sank an impressive 17-foot fadeaway bank shot on Kobe to score his third point. After which number 10 proceeded to score on the other two kids while Kobe watched helplessly from the sideline. Ball game. Some random Chinese kid just beat Kobe in a one-on-one contest.

Clearly, this could not stand. While the kid raised his arms in celebration, Kobe gave him exactly three courtesy claps before grabbing the mike again. He was no longer smiling, no longer jovial. "O.K., we're going to play again," Kobe announced. "First to five and we'll play like I did growing up. Full court." The two emcees looked both surprised and concerned. "Are you sure?" one asked. On the sideline Team Kobe stood up. Full court on a reconstructed knee? When Kobe hadn't played competitively in almost a year? You could just see the headlines: kobe reinjures knee while taping bizarre chinese game show.

There was no dissuading Kobe, though. Similarly, there was no discussion about the other two kids from the previous game. They were shooed off the court. This was personal. So the campers cleared the floor for a showdown between one of the five greatest players in NBA history and a kid from Who-Knows-Where, China. Again Kobe started slow, missing his shot for outs, but it was clear that there was no way he was losing this time. At one point he blocked the kid's shot out-of-bounds and, without pausing—and without regard for the rules—took possession himself. Then it happened. He nailed a 23-footer. Running back down the court, he started moving his shoulders. Feeling it. Then a 22-footer. Now Kobe was firing the finger guns and licking his fingertips. A 26-footer followed and the place erupted. Then a 30-footer. Sure the lanky kid answered with a layup, and answered again with a three, but Kobe wasn't really guarding him and it didn't matter anyway. We all knew what was coming. And so on game point, Bryant pivoted and pivoted again just above the free throw line and then faded that Kobe fade and unleashed that gooseneck follow-through and the ball splashed in and the crowd went berserk and the watching players pumped their fists while Kobe stood, arms outstretched as if he'd just won his sixth ring and not an informal game of one-on-one in Shanghai. Afterward, in true Kobe fashion, he took the mike and explained to the kid that he needed to work on his left hand, making sure the emcees translated it correctly.

It made for great theater. All week Kobe tried to be supportive, to be the good cop. But only on this night did he truly communicate, giving them what they came for, something they could actually learn from. He could have showed up, done the grip-and-grin, and headed back to the hotel. Instead he went nearly an hour over the allotted taping time and ended up at midcourt, arms around four different players, in a sweat-soaked shirt and—since he'd given away his shoes—floppy white socks.

Here was the truth behind the Mamba Mythology. The message behind the message. That in reality it's never easy. That sometimes you gotta challenge some punk teenager to a double-or-nothing game. And then you have to elbow him in the post, and cheat on the out-of-bounds play, and impose your will on the poor sap, because when it comes down to it, sometimes that's what it takes to win, son.

Bryant bristles at the idea of parting gifts and teary-eyed salutes: "If you booed me for 18, 19 years, boo me for the 20th. That's the game, man."

Now more introspective, Bryant wants to disseminate what he has learned, to spread the gospel of Kobe. Which helps explain why he has come to China.

"But Boozer does this, Jordan Hill does that, Lin adds that," Bryant says. "If we can figure out that puzzle, we're going to shock a lot of people."