"I know who I am," is among the first things Kobe Bryant tells me, which is the kind of statement made only by people who are very, very right or very, very wrong. He tells me this in a breakfast café called Haute Cakes, tucked inside a strip mall in Newport Beach, California. We're fifteen minutes from his house, but I nonetheless mention that this is not the kind of place I expected to meet him. "What did you expect," he asks, "A dungeon?"

It's the first Monday of January. Last night, Bryant hit a floater with 12 seconds on the clock to beat the struggling Indiana Pacers; tonight his team is in Portland, but he's not traveling in order to rest his aging bones. Two days from today, he'll go 2 of 12 against the Clippers as the Lakers fall 18 ½ games out of first place in the Western Conference; two weeks after that, he'll suffer a rotator-cuff injury that will end his season completely. This will be the most disheartening campaign of his 19-year career—he just doesn't know it yet. I mentally prepare myself for a justifiably surly, potentially uncommunicative sociopath.

My assumptions are wrong.

He walks through the door at 8:40 am. Bryant, who has already been awake for three hours, is a few minutes late for our meeting (broadcaster Stuart Scott had died the day before, so Bryant needed to provide a eulogistic response for ESPN Radio). He sits with his back to the wall, wholly expressionless. My first question is unrelated to sports: On behest of GQ, I'm supposed to get Bryant's feelings on the attention rivals like Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade receive for their fashion choices. Mildly amused, he notes that he now tries to be "less fashion forward" (he's wearing camouflage pants as he says this) and that if he dressed like Westbrook ("skinny peddle pushers and low-cut sneakers with a polka-dotted shirt with glasses and a backpack") it would be received as a practical joke. This spills into a banal discussion over branding, which is not a subject I want to talk about. Knowing that Bryant has to leave the café by 10 o'clock, I decide to take a calculated risk: I tell him that there is no point in pretending we're about to have a normal conversation, because nothing about this meeting is remotely normal. I just want to directly ask him all the things I've always wondered about his life. And from the moment I say this, I can tell that this is what he wants, too.

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Let's start in the middle: Bryant won five titles with Phil Jackson as his coach and three with Shaquille O'Neal as his teammate. Despite that success, both relationships are largely defined by their complexity. It is widely assumed Shaq and Bryant are not friends, particularly after a 2008 incident in a New York nightclub when O'Neal performed an impromptu freestyle rap requesting that Kobe describe the flavor of his anus. Bryant's trajectory with Jackson has been more nuanced, but deeper and (at times) more painful. Though Jackson has said he views Bryant "like my son," he's also written damaging things about Kobe in multiple books, once classifying him as "uncoachable" and expressing a curious lack of surprise when Bryant was accused of rape in 2003.