He slept like hell last night, even for someone who averages about four hours a night. So no one hassles Kobe Bryant when he walks into the airport a few minutes late, considering he was just in the parking lot, napping in his car.

Bryant’s helicopter was scheduled to leave at 8:30 a.m., Orange County to Los Angeles, a route he has taken many times. Years ago, he determined it wasn’t just more convenient to fly from his home 50 miles south of Staples Center for practices and games with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was irresponsible not to, given what hours in gridlock can do to the mind and body of a 6-foot-6 guard.

More than trimming his commute to 15 minutes, the helicopter wound up becoming part of Bryant’s legend, much like his self-assigned nickname, “The Black Mamba.” But eventually, the novelty of merely flying to work faded, so he needed to make the story better. He began calling the four-seat Sikorsky S-76 the “Mamba Chopper,” which to him just sounds right.

“You put the story together; you hear it, you’re editing it. Is it working? Yes,” says Bryant, and when it was time to commute to his final NBA game in April 2016, the standard-issue helicopter was covered in a black wrap to look like the scales of a deadly snake. “Could it be better? Yes.”

Bryant isn’t exactly a rookie at creating stories, but now it’s his job. He believes the reason he cannot sleep is because there’s so much work to do. So many ideas to consider and characters to shape, so many trials and quests to contemplate that he’s often up at 3 a.m., devouring a movie for inspiration, researching history and culture, taking a solitary walk through Paris. One of the best basketball players ever is restless, not because of what he has accomplished — five NBA championships, an MVP and, as of last March, an Academy Award — but because of what he has not.

On this September morning, the 40-year-old has been out of bed since around midnight. After a 30-minute snooze in his Range Rover, he boards the “Mamba Chopper” on his way to the Lakers’ practice facility, where he’ll appear at a news conference for a men’s grooming company he’s an investor in. It’s one of his many projects, though other than his “Detail” game analysis franchise on ESPN, Bryant seems to be distancing himself from the sport that made him a household name. His creative endeavors include a newly released nonfiction book entitled “The Mamba Mentality”; a scripted podcast for children called “The Punies” that’ll eventually become an animated series; a staff of writers and editors turning his ideas into three young adult novels to be released next year with two more coming in 2020; his own animation studio and publishing house; possible movies; and . . .

Two colleagues, in the helicopter’s leather seats across from Bryant, are squirming.

“It scares the hell out of them when we start talking about amusement parks,” Bryant says of what he suggests is a 20-year plan.

The pilot lifts off, banking the chopper north and west. In the literal and metaphorical sense, Bryant is pointed toward Hollywood — an arena of vast possibilities but one that, over the past year, has begun fighting back against a culture of sexual harassment and assault, illuminating the wrongs of the past.

That awakening has renewed the focus on something Bryant has been trying to drown out of his story. More than 15 years ago, he was accused of sexual assault by an employee of a Colorado resort; though charges were eventually dropped, a civil settlement was reached and the reverberations continue today. When Bryant won an Oscar for his animated short, “Dear Basketball,” more than 17,000 people signed a petition asking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to rescind it. Last month, protesters forced Bryant’s removal from the jury of an animation festival.

So with that percolating, Bryant gazes through a window a thousand feet above southern Los Angeles and begins another story.

After a Lakers practice sometime during his final season, he says over the whir of the rotors, Bryant was peering down during a similar flight and thought of all the drama and conflict, actions and emotions that existed in each of the houses below.

“If you look at all the potential stories — how the home is constructed, the family that lives there — there are infinite possibilities,” he says, and the notion struck him so profoundly, so personally, that in that moment he began imagining a fictional world in which his ideas could take shape. He would call that world “Granity,” and existing there would be characters who — like some of Bryant’s favorites: Darth Vader, Severus Snape, Jaime Lannister — are horrifying at times, charming at others.

As this flight begins its descent, he suggests no compelling character is entirely good or bad; that a storyteller’s duty is to draw out the full story and take every belief, emotion and motivation into account.

“You have things within you that are festering,” he says. “We all do.”

Bryant waits in the greenroom before speaking at the Project Play Summit at the Newseum in Washington. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

It’s just another Wednesday at Kobe Inc., and inside Bryant and the rapper Lil Wayne are surrounded by cameras.

On the walls of Bryant’s office are large portraits of creative individuals he views as idols: Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, Michael Jackson, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. The feel is more Silicon Valley coding dungeon than basketball shrine; there are almost no reminders here that Bryant played the sport.

There’s a book about Leonardo da Vinci on a side table, Bryant’s Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award on a bookshelf, works on display by Marcus Aurelius, J.R.R. Tolkien and Malcolm Gladwell. In a corner are head shots of voice actors who appear in “The Punies,” the kids podcast, and in another corner is a storyboard room surrounded by black panels. It’s meant to look and feel like a separate dimension, and as much as anything it’s an intellectual space where Bryant and his writers can bring characters to life.

Affixed to panels are renderings of maps and terms from “Granity,” Bryant’s imagined world that’s not unlike the Marvel Universe or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros. There are sketches and meticulously designed artifacts that seem to make sense only in Bryant’s mind: gods of emotions, stories that blend fantasy and sports, that eternal battle not between good and evil but between love and fear.

He’s used to hearing that his concepts are, well, unusual.

“I tend to think if an idea is something that is completely — I don’t want to say easily understandable — but if it’s an idea where you can see the business model from beginning to end,” Bryant says, “then’s it’s probably not the right idea.”

Here’s a story he has told many times: Bryant was 19, two years after he skipped college to play in the NBA straight out of high school, and one day he received an unexpected call from Michael Jackson. As the years have passed, some of the story’s details have gotten better, more vivid: Bryant was at a Gold’s Gym one morning, and after a phone conversation, Jackson invited him to the Neverland Ranch. Bryant’s car sailed onto the property on fumes; they talked and shared a lunch of chicken and organic vegetables. It’s a good story, and at the end, Jackson always sends the talented but emotionally unsure youngster home with a book about an outcast bird — and a message: “Do not fall in line,” Bryant now recalls.

(Ian Maddox for The Washington Post)

“You put the story together; you hear it, you’re editing it. Is it working? Yes. Could it be better? Yes.”

Kobe Bryant

The experience encouraged Bryant to reach out to, and learn from, others he admired. At first his curiosities were confined to basketball: how Michael Jordan executed his lethal fadeaway and the way Hakeem Olajuwon perfected his “Dream Shake.” But by the time the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals , Bryant’s interests had expanded. So he cold-called John Williams, the legendary film score composer, to invite him to lunch and share how he builds crescendos into his pieces. In Bryant’s mind, an NBA game is a 48-minute story with a beginning, middle and end; the Celtics had taught his fatigued Lakers that the climax should come near the end.

“It can seem a little obtuse, maybe, but he seemed to be interested in all of this,” Williams says, and eventually Bryant would ask actress Hilary Swank about getting into character, Winfrey about how to build a studio, Martin about how to build a universe.

He was a noted perfectionist and a tireless student, and though he had never earned a higher education in the traditional sense, the phones of potential teachers could ring at any time — a restaurant or office becoming his classroom.

“He’s dedicated to being deliberate,” says Shonda Rhimes, the producer and screenwriter.

“Curious and inquisitive,” says Jony Ive, the chief design officer at Apple.

“Brilliant,” says Debbie Allen, the “Fame” and “Grey’s Anatomy” actress.

Bryant’s office itself is NorCal modern, bright white tile and blue-green walls, and it’s clear he’s into the snake thing. There’s a trophy in the shape of a coiled black mamba, and a massive black-and-white print of a snake is on a wall behind Bryant and Lil Wayne, who actually genuflects when calling Bryant an Oscar winner.

“How’s life?” Wayne asks.

“Life is beautiful,” Bryant says, and a producer prompts Wayne to ask about Bryant’s favorite Lakers team, what he thinks of LeBron James coming to Los Angeles, about Golden State and the trend of NBA super teams. Bryant answers the questions, but these days basketball bores him. He looks down, forces laughter, rubs his hands.

“Just basic stuff,” he’ll say later, though when a producer invites Bryant to ask Wayne questions, he straightens his posture.

“The passion for rhyming comes from where?” he begins, and his eyebrows furrow as he looks into Wayne’s eyes.

Did the rapper start by reading or writing? How long does he work on a particular song? How does he know when a line needs revision?

“Something just catches your ear, and it’s off,” Wayne says, going on to describe how his lyrics can say something meaningful about culture and society. By now Bryant’s knee is bouncing, his head nodding.

They keep talking, and Bryant shifts into storytelling mode. His voice lowers, barely above a whisper, and his hands rise. He talks about the time his phone rang at a Gold’s Gym, Jackson’s voice on the other end, and here it comes again. This time he says they talked about the Beatles and how Jackson made “Thriller.” Imagine, he says to Wayne, creating something like that.

“Something timeless,” Bryant suggests.

That right there,” Wayne agrees.

“Only another artist can understand.”

Bryant jokes around with Eli Barlow, 14, before a panel discussion. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

It’s mid-July in Newport Beach, and the air conditioning is broken inside a recording studio between a motel and a liquor store.

Bryant is dressed for the heat — a black V-neck, athletic shorts and untied low-top Mambas — but he hasn’t let it affect his mood. Four voice actors are here to record five episodes of “The Punies,” and Bryant presses a red button to speak into a microphone.

“Let it rip, let it rip — you guys are children playing at the park, just f------ around, man,” he says. “This is what you do; just let that s--- rip!”

Off they go, performing for a podcast whose stories use sports and friendship to address common emotional roadblocks. Bryant bobs his head sometimes, rests it on a table other times. Occasionally he laughs, sighs, shakes his head.

“You know the best way to make friends?” the actor portraying B.B. says.

“Be nice, be a good listener, have a charming sense of humor?” Puny Pete, the awkward and new-in-town main character, replies.

“No: sports.”

“Oh, well I like sports. But to be honest, I don’t think I’m very good at them. They make me anxious.”

Bryant winces and leans to his left to whisper something to a colleague, who then scribbles on a script. Eventually recording stops, and the cast filters into the control room to hear Bryant’s suggestions.

“Yeah, so Pete,” he says. “On that line there, you want to go nice and slow: ‘Oh, well, I like sports,’ but — blah, blah, blah — and then you speed up! ‘They . . . make me anxious!’”

Bryant has a vision for every line, but the truth is, he has been bending narratives and reshaping dialogue — occasionally with some artistic license — for more than two decades.

Remember his first playoff series in 1997, when Bryant’s repeated attempts at a game-winning shot against Utah resulted in four air balls? That was because, even at 18, he was fearless. How about when Bryant refused to work out for Charlotte after the Hornets drafted him in 1996 and even threatened to play in Italy if they couldn’t trade him to Los Angeles? That’s because, he told himself and others, Charlotte gave up on him immediately after the draft; in 2014, Bryant tweeted thanks to the Hornets, a franchise he’d convinced himself “had no use for me.” Or the legend of how a 10-year-old Bryant, living overseas as his father played professional basketball, beat former NBA first-round pick Brian Shaw in a game of HORSE? “As the years went on, the legend grew and the story changed,” Shaw is quoted as saying in the Bryant biography “Showboat.”

(Ian Maddox for The Washington Post)

“I’m just chasing a perfect story, whatever the hell that means.”

Kobe Bryant

For years, Bryant has understood how to direct and star in his own Hollywood epic. Heroes are often misunderstood, and destinies are fulfilled through rugged self-belief, not conformity. When the Lakers hired Phil Jackson in 1999, his top priority was improving team chemistry and convincing Bryant he was part of a team. But the best protagonists travel a solitary journey, so Bryant declined teammates’ dinner invitations in favor of film study and solo workouts, once screamed profanity at Ron Harper when Harper suggested Bryant trust the offensive system instead of forcing shots, met Jordan and immediately declared he could beat His Airness in a game of one-on-one.

“He had one or two spells every night,” Jackson writes in an email, “where he just had to demonstrate his dominance.”

Bryant grew, and though he and Shaquille O’Neal led the Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships, the young guard was capable of suffering neither fools nor Big Aristotles. So Los Angeles traded O’Neal, Jackson went on what he now calls a one-year sabbatical, and Bryant was left to rebuild the Lakers on his own — tension, splintering, the beginning of the hero’s quest for redemption.

“The presence of a system and talented teammates [Shaq] hampered his story line,” writes Jackson, who returned to the Lakers in part because he and Bryant made a pact to support each other and air criticisms only in private; the partnership would yield two more championships

Inside the muggy and dusty-smelling recording studio, the hours pass and so do the episodes. Bryant listens, occasionally massaging the bridge of his nose or clasping his hands. He says almost nothing about basketball or the Lakers; he instead passes time by singing Tom Petty songs, endlessly quoting movies such as “Star Wars” and “The Greatest Showman,” reminding bystanders of his expansive mind: pointing out that he once plowed through “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” reciting a few lines from “The Iliad” in Latin.

At one point, Bryant is following the fourth episode as Puny Pete discovers a cut on his face. “A scar? No!” Pete says. “What am I supposed to tell my mom?”

“Tell her what my mom tells me,” Lilly replies. “Scars tell stories.”

“Then I’m Netflix,” Gordon says.

The actors file in, and Bryant wonders if referring to Netflix might represent a copyright infringement. He needs a revision, and fast. He closes his eyes and drops his head.

“ ‘I’m Netflix’ — or Apple or Hulu, CBS or Facebook,” he mutters. “Well if scars tell stories . . .”

He’s thinking, and if the recording studio had a shot clock, it would be counting down.

“Then I’m Brothers Grimm,” he declares. “That’s public domain. And you have to say it with an affection for the majesty that is Brothers Grimm.”

They retreat to the studio, and Bryant leans forward as his rewrite approaches.

“Scars tell stories,” Lilly says.

Bryant closes his eyes, tilts his head back and, visibly pleased, mouths the words.

“Then I’m Brothers Grimm.”

Bryant talks with Kevin Carroll, author of “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball,” during a panel discussion. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

A little more than 15 years ago, Bryant was a wholesome family man who wore a pager and took courses at UCLA. He had a wife and baby daughter but no tattoos, and in commercials, he guzzled Sprite and chomped McDonald’s burgers — flashing that dazzling smile as he stepped in to save the kids’ championship game or launched a wrapper toward a wastebasket.

“You’ve got these things you need to sell or portray; they want clean-cut, smile-all-the-time type of s---,” he says now. “Which is who I was.”

Then in June 2003, the 24-year-old traveled to Colorado to undergo knee surgery. He checked into the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera and, according to investigators’ accounts, invited a 19-year-old front desk clerk to his room. Later, the young woman would tell authorities that after a brief tour of the property, they returned to Bryant’s room, where she willingly kissed him. But when she attempted to leave, the detective who took the woman’s account testified during a preliminary hearing, Bryant began groping her and put both hands around her neck. He later lifted her skirt, according to the detective’s testimony, before bending her over a chair and raping her as she repeatedly protested.

Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault. He adamantly proclaimed his innocence. He’d eventually admit to having sex with the woman but insisted it was consensual. A criminal trial was scheduled, and a conviction meant Bryant could face four years to life in prison.

The woman, meanwhile, received death threats and endless investigation and media speculation, prompting her mother to plead with a judge to set a swift court date. “I would like to thank my daughter,” the accuser’s mother said at a victims’ advocates rally in April 2004, “for teaching me about courage.”

Shortly before jury selection, prosecutors suggested crucial DNA evidence had been contaminated; a week before the trial was set to begin, the case was dismissed, and charges against Bryant were dropped because his accuser refused to testify.

In a statement read by his attorney, Bryant apologized: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

At a news conference with his wife Vanessa in July 2003, Bryant addressed a Colorado woman’s accusations of sexual assault. (J. Emilio Flores/Getty Images)

Bryant and the woman settled a civil case for an undisclosed sum in March 2005. Citing their client’s agreement with Bryant, attorneys for the accuser told The Washington Post that she is not permitted to comment for this article. In multiple interviews with The Post over several months, Bryant also refused to discuss the woman or the specific incident.

In the case’s aftermath, a landmark sexual assault scandal during the emerging 24-hour news cycle, Bryant’s jersey sales plummeted and McDonald’s and Coca-Cola cut ties.

“They didn’t want the gritty s---,” he says now. “And most people still don’t.”

He apologized to his wife, Vanessa, and famously bought her a $4 million purple diamond ring. Bryant considered sitting out the 2004-05 season but says now that Vanessa urged him to play. “‘It’s not going to take you down; it’s not going to take us down,’” Bryant says his wife told him.

Bryant withdrew from friends, got his first tattoos, fired his agent. Vanessa, Bryant would say much later, had a miscarriage. His popularity cratered, and media members shut him out of MVP voting following the 2004-05 season. Bryant’s friendship with Michael Jackson dissolved, the iconic musician battling his own sex scandal around the same time, and Bryant’s coaches and teammates felt his distance more than ever.

“He was an angry man,” former Lakers Coach Jackson says.

Then one night at home, Bryant couldn’t sleep. He scrolled through movies around 2 a.m. and hit play on the Quentin Tarantino revenge film “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.” He was hooked from the opening — a fantastical director telling a fantastical story — but a later scene affected Bryant profoundly: A character named Budd is removing cash from a suitcase when, beneath one of the stacks, a mysterious and deadly snake strikes him and he proceeds to suffer an excruciating death. “Budd,” Daryl Hannah’s character says, “I’d like to introduce my friend: the black mamba.”

Bryant says he was almost hypnotized.

“The length, the snake, the bite, the strike, the temperament,” he says, and it wasn’t lost on him that snakes can also shed their skin. “ ‘Let me look this s--- up.’ I looked it up — yeah, that’s me. That’s me!’ ”

Bryant was known as both a fierce competitor and a demanding teammate. (Harry How/Getty Images)

When Bryant returned to the court, the wholesome young athlete was gone. In his place was a man who could no longer convincingly portray innocence, and Bryant says he felt free to reveal the darkness that had always lurked inside him.

Creating an alternate persona, he says now, was the only way he could mentally move beyond the events of Colorado.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened had I not figured it out,” he says. “Because the whole process for me was trying to figure out how to cope with this. I wasn’t going to be passive and let this thing just swallow me up. You’ve got a responsibility: family, baby, organization, whole city, yourself — how do you figure out how to overcome this? Or just deal with it and not drown from this thing? And so it was this constant quest: to figure out how do you do that, how do you do that, how do you do that? So I was bound to figure something out because I was so obsessively concerned about it.”

Though he says this wasn’t his intention, “The Black Mamba” would become the first character Bryant introduced to the world. Nike, the only major company to stand by Bryant, introduced a snake-inspired logo and signature sneaker — complete with a video ad, Bryant leaping over a speeding Aston Martin, that was too good to be true.

“Nobody knew,” Nike CEO Mark Parker said in a recent email, “if it was real or if it was fake.”

But it moved the discussion past Colorado, and so did the way Bryant behaved. If Kobe once forced smiles, “The Black Mamba” scowled. He hurled profanities across the court, was fined in 2011 for calling an official a gay slur, told GQ in 2015 that he had little interest in being anyone’s friend. He cursed at Lakers staff, ridiculed teammates by name, effectively refused to pass the ball. In the top 10 list for most shots taken in an NBA game, six of the spots belong to Bryant, who didn’t just break the record of most missed shots in NBA history: He has over 1,000 more misses than second-place John Havlicek.

He had always done some of those things. He just stopped apologizing for them.

“During the Colorado situation, I said: ‘You know what? I’m just going to be me. I’m just going to be me.’ F--- it. If I don’t like a question from a reporter, I’m going to say it,” he says. “If they ask me a question about this thing, I’m just going to tell them the truth.”

His fist strikes the desk.

“Like me or don’t like me for me.”

Bryant and Glen Keane accept the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in March. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Early last March, Bryant and Vanessa dressed in formal attire and made their way to the Dolby Theatre.

A few weeks earlier, Bryant’s phone rang: “Dear Basketball,” a five-minute film based on a poem he wrote in November 2015 to announce his retirement, had been nominated for best animated short. Now here they were, Vanessa documenting the evening on social media as the couple walked a massive red carpet and Bryant made small talk with celebrities.

“A new world,” Bryant says. “It was like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts, you know? Well, what is this place?”

They took their seats, and if there were judgmental eyes following him, he did not feel them, he would say later. If anyone believed he didn’t belong at the Academy Awards, whose theme following a series of high-profile sexual harassment allegations in Hollywood was the rise of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, he neither heard nor sensed that.

“I didn’t feel out of place at all,” he says. “. . . I was just trying to enjoy it.”

Among the influences pictured on the wall of Kobe Inc., Steve Jobs might be the one with whom Bryant has the most in common. Jobs, as charismatic and imaginative as he was unrelenting and aloof, was said to have led Apple with a “reality distortion field” — the refusal to accept the boundaries of time, emotion and society that might intimidate more ordinary people.

Those who know Bryant believe a similar instinct pushed him, at 18, to take those ill-advised shots against Utah; to convince himself, in the name of motivation, that Charlotte didn’t want him in 1996; to dare comparing himself with Jordan on the court and Jobs and Rowling and Winfrey off it. With that in mind, some within Bryant’s circle suggest he has convinced himself that Colorado either never happened or that, if he continues flooding his résumé with accomplishments, the public will neither remember nor care.

But Bryant has three daughters and coaches the 12-year-old’s basketball team. He argues for higher pay for women professional athletes and attends WNBA games. He follows the women’s basketball team at Connecticut and takes his daughters to Huskies games. Many of the main characters in his stories are strong women and girls. Of the 21 staffers at Kobe Inc., 15 are women.


“We just find the best for the job,” he says, though during the recent increase in awareness, he realized his reality field had perhaps been too distorted. “I never really bothered to ask them how they felt about taking this job in the first place. It never even dawned on me to ask it, like — listen, we’ve all done our homework; we’ve all done our research. But during that time, I realized, it was like: holy s---.”

Nearly eight months ago, Bryant and his entourage left the Dolby Theatre, statuette in hand, and retreated to Orange County. To him, the Academy Award represented validation — not just that he can produce meaningful work, but by winning at these Oscars, Colorado was behind him. He got home, and eventually he carried the Oscar into his walk-in closet. Inside a safe in the closet are his three most prized possessions: a first-edition Harry Potter signed by J.K. Rowling, a series of autographed books by George R.R. Martin, the “Dear Basketball” original score signed by John Williams.

On top of the safe, Bryant placed his Oscar, so he can see it every day.

“You have things within you that are festering,” he says. “We all do.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

It's mid-October in downtown Washington, and Bryant is in town to moderate a panel of four young athletes at the Project Play Summit. Talking in the greenroom beforehand with Eli and Zoe Barlow, siblings from outside Tulsa, Bryant hears Eli confess to spray-painting a foul line on his family’s driveway without permission. It’s a solid anecdote, but Bryant, not to be outdone by a 14-year-old, launches his own tale.

“Only time I got in trouble,” he begins.

He grew up in Philadelphia, and on a snowy day, his mother asked him to clear the driveway. The whole driveway. But he shoveled only the section where he usually shot hoops, leaving the family’s cars stuck. Then, the story getting better every moment, his mother needed to leave. That meant he was in real trouble.

Kobe!” he says, mimicking his frustrated mom, and Eli and Zoe laugh alongside their mother.

As Bryant embarks on his latest quest, he realizes this — kids and their parents — is now his target audience. They’ll read books to explore the world of Granity; listen to episodes of “The Punies”; consider the good that surely exists within Metus, the god of fear, and the darkness that lurks within Cora, the goddess of love. It’ll give Bryant a sprawling project to distract himself with for years, and during those sleepless nights he can fill the hours with new characters and narrative arcs.

“I’m just chasing a perfect story, whatever the hell that means,” he says, though his masterpiece — the story that can never be quite good enough — is his own. It’s also the one Bryant, who obsesses over the slightest syllable in “The Punies,” can only partially shape considering the vibration that hums beneath everything he accomplishes. So he keeps adding, keeps editing, keeps trying to make a good story better, and though a story can be endlessly rewritten, is the same true for a life?

And it’s not even a question he has to answer. Bryant, who enters every room these days unsure if a crowd will find him horrifying or charming, could simply gear down and once again mimic Jordan. He could play golf every day, explore NBA ownership, sample cigars and kick back — accepting that his life’s crescendo occurred in his first 40 years.

He could become a recluse, emerging only for his Hall of Fame induction, or focus on the investments that have pushed his net worth to roughly $500 million. He could buy a yacht, watch his daughters play in the surf at Newport Beach, purchase a villa in Tuscany and allow his imagination to take him anywhere but Colorado.

But that would be unsatisfying to him. For when the world someday thinks of the Kobe Bryant story, it must be about more than just basketball — even if pressing forward gives his audience as many reasons to remember the darkness in his past as to forget it. And so he is, for the first time, not solely a hero or a villain. He is both, and whether he is indeed chasing something or in fact running from it, he is compelled to keep creating and tinkering and revising. Could it be better? Yes.

On this cloudy Tuesday in Washington, part of a three-day stretch in which he’ll fly to Chicago and then Minneapolis to meet with book distributors, Bryant follows the children into a kitchen before their panel. Zoe hasn’t said much since the greenroom.

“Do you get nervous?” Bryant gently asks her.

“A little,” she says, smiling. “Some butterflies, maybe.”

“Completely normal. Same thing you get before you play or perform.”

This leads him to tell one last story: When Bryant was a basketball player, he’d wait in the arena tunnel and listen to the crowd — ready to embrace the role, to earn his cheers or boos, whichever character he needed to be. Just before jogging onto the floor, if Kobe felt anxious or exposed, he’d mentally transform into “The Black Mamba,” emotionless and untouchable. A war ritual, he says, like Maximus rubbing dirt on his hands in “Gladiator,” and neither opponent nor circumstance could intimidate him.

“That’s why superheroes work so well,” Bryant says. “It’s representative of us.”

Back then, at least he knew what he was walking into. Now the reception is unpredictable, though to him this isn’t a risk but an opportunity: one more chance to add to his story. So Bryant waits in the kitchen as the kids are introduced, a wall separating him from a crowd and its variety of opinions, and when the door opens he pauses before walking forward, straight into the noise to face his audience.

Design and development by Virginia Singarayar