"It's kind of an escapism." That's what Kobe Bryant, who retires from basketball tonight, told 60 Minutes at age 22 when asked why he loved the sport. "You know, when I would get really upset, and I would get really down, I could always pick up a basketball and go to the playground and just shoot and just put myself in the scenario of being in a finals game. I would just completely get away from everything that's around me."
The interview with Charlie Rose, conducted in 2001, captures a young Kobe Bryant before his career was rocked in 2003 by allegations of sexual assault. The case was eventually dropped and a later civil suit filed against Bryant by the same accuser was settled out of court. This interview also pre-dates a high-profile 2013 legal dispute with his parents over sports memorabilia.
When Bryant spoke to 60 Minutes, he was just four-and-a-half years into his NBA career, and told Rose he had been passionate about basketball for as long as he could remember. At age 3, he watched his father, Joe Bryant, then an NBA player for the San Diego Clippers, on TV. "When he would play, I would play, too," he told Charlie. "I had a little hoop, you know, in the living room, and I'd play. Then they'd take a time out, then I'd take a time out, you know, sit down, have some water."
When Bryant was six, his family moved to Italy, where his dad continued to play professional ball. Bryant said the experience helped him mature and bond with his family. But when he returned to the U.S. and moved to Philadelphia at age 14, he had a big adjustment to make.
"Kids weren't speaking English. Everybody was speaking slang and I didn't understand one word," he told Rose. Fortunately, he had another way to make friends. "We played basketball during lunch and after school, and basketball's a universal language. So I was able to communicate that way," he said.
Bryant's passion for the game runs deep. When Rose asked him what he loves about basketball, he sounded rapturous about every aspect of the game - even the smell.
"The ball when it bounces, the sound that it makes, the smell of the basketball -- not one that's completely brand new or one that's too old. But one that's right in the middle. It's kind of worn down a little bit. It just smells -- it smells like NBA," he said. And that's not all. "The nets -- when you shoot the ball and it goes right through the net. That noise that it makes when it pops the net up -- the sneakers as they squeak on the wood. The strategies -- the competition, the camaraderie, the fans - and you can just go on and on and on."
Rose also asked Bryant about comparisons between him and legendary NBA star Michael Jordan. Bryant said he aspired to that level of greatness, but didn't take it for granted that he'd get there. "Michael to me was -- you know, what he was to a lot of kids," he explained. "He was Michael Jordan. You know, he was the NBA."
At 34, Kobe would become the youngest player in league history to reach 30,000 career points, and now, retiring at age 37, he's the lead scorer in Lakers franchise history. But at age 22, he was still a rising star with something to prove. "That one thing that you can expect from me is to go all out at all times," he told Rose. "Long as I can strap my [own] sneakers up and I can go out there and play, I'm going to give you guys 110 percent always, you know, till the day I retire."