Leaning forward in his chair, Kobe Bryant widens his smile as he graciously accepts a bag of UCSB souvenirs from professor Jon Spaventa in a Rec Cen classroom.

“I really appreciate this,” Bryant said as he put on a UCSB hat, before turning to the students while holding  his new UCSB hooded sweater. “You guys don’t believe me, but I’m gonna rock this.”

On a rainy Wednesday morning, roughly 80 students from two Exercise and Sports Studies (ESS) department lecture classes awaited the arrival of a secret, unknown guest speaker. Whispers flew across the classroom as students wondered who the lecturer would be.

“I handled the situation discreetly because I was nervous it wouldn’t actually happen,” Spaventa, Director of  UCSB’s ESS program, said. “We had it set up for last year, but unfortunately it fell through. Part of the agreement was that it would be a small classroom environment … no big crowds, more intimate.”

For over an hour, Bryant — who holds his annual Kobe Bryant Basketball Academy camp at UCSB during summer — sat at the head of the class and participated in an interview conversation with Spaventa, providing those present with unparalleled insight into his life and career. The small classroom offered an intimate setting that allowed students to explore behind the curtains of the greatest athletes ever.

“This was really a special opportunity to thank our students for their continued support of the ESS program, as well as an enrichment experience for some of our ESS students,” Spaventa explained.

Despite ongoing advocacy for the program from students, UCSB’s minor in ESS was discontinued effective June 30 of this year. To a large extent, students’ advocacy for the courses resulted in the continuation for the sport management emphasis and a host of health and wellness related courses.

The small college classroom represented an unfamiliar territory for Bryant. Fresh off a publicity trip in Italy, Bryant is accustomed to looking out at hundreds — if not thousands — of eager listeners when he speaks. Not this time.

Just before walking in, he asked Spaventa, “Is this like a classroom? I’ve never been in a college classroom before. I’m nervous.”

Bryant, one of the few people on this planet whose first name alone is recognizable to billions, was scared of a few ESS students from Isla Vista. Bryant never attended college, opting instead to enter the 1996 NBA Draft as a 17-year-old out of Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania. Drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers on draft day, Bryant has spent his entire career with the Lakers, where he is now the all-time leading scorer.

From ages six to 12, Bryant grew up in Italy while his father Joe “Jellybean” played basketball professionally. Although Bryant adored the game of soccer growing up (by far the most popular sport in Europe) he always knew he wanted to be a professional basketball player.

“I didn’t ever really seriously consider going to college,” Bryant said of his decision to not even go on any college visits during the recruitment period. “I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.”

As if the Hollywood lights weren’t bright enough, Bryant — still a young kid — found himself growing into an adult under the international spotlight. In contrast to the endless hours spent by traditional college-aged kids at lecture, the library and parties with friends, Bryant spent the waning years of his young adulthood adapting to the NBA alongside men twice his age. As expected, there was a learning curve.

“It was tough at times, especially early on,” Bryant said. “Especially around March Madness time.”

From a basketball standpoint, Bryant’s early career had its ups and downs. Before his rookie year, Bryant suffered a broken wrist, and missed time in training camp. During that season, the teenager averaged only 7.6 points per game in 15.5 minutes — both career lows. However, throughout his year, Bryant improved, becoming the youngest player at the time to ever play in an NBA game, and was named the 1996 All-Star Slam Dunk Champion.

Always in the limelight, Bryant was the subject of much criticism earlier in his career. His confidence and passion was often mistaken for cockiness, as he had a tendency to dominate the ball. However, the tough patches only motivated Bryant in his quest to be the best, and ultimately aided his development as a player.

“Coming into the league, it helped that I didn’t have to be [Allen] Iverson and carry a team right away,” Bryant said. “I learned how to play within a championship system.”

Since his rookie year, Bryant has started in 13 consecutive All-Star games, won four All-Star game MVPs, five NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, NBA MVP, two NBA scoring titles, is a thirteen-time member of the All-NBA team, eleven-time member of All-Defense Team and is an Olympic Gold Medalist. That is a resume that garners “best player of all-time” discussion. His explanation is really quite simple.

“It’s just the work I put in,” Bryant said. “I believe in preparation. Whether it’s working out or putting up shots or getting treatment, I’m always thinking about the game, man.”

It most definitely shows. Bryant is regarded as not only one of the greatest players ever, but also one of the hardest working. It takes more than raw talent to succeed at the highest level: it is the work ethic and insatiable desire to improve that separates the all-stars from the all-time greats. Michael Jordan knew it, and now Kobe Bryant understands it.

A glimpse into the motivation and work ethic of Bryant is certainly of particular interest and significance to those students in the Sport and Exercise Psychology class. The unique opportunity to delve into the mindset of one of the best ever, and analyze the concepts of motivation, drive and work ethic, was an academic treat.

“If you are doing something, you might as well win; somebody has to win,” Bryant explained. “It’s fun to play and enjoy the game, but it’s even more fun to win.”

Even for something as spectacular as his NBA record-setting 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors in 2006 (second in NBA history to only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100), Bryant’s explanation comes down to effort.

“It’s just the work I put in,” Bryant explained. “I put so many shots in that summer … Kind of like this offseason, it’s gonna get crazy again this season.”

That is, if there is a season. As of now, at least the first two weeks of the NBA season has been cancelled, as the situation is looking more and more bleak. The NBA Players’ Association and owners continue to negotiate and disagree on several principle issues of a new collective bargaining agreement, including disputes over a 50-50 revenue split. Of particular relevance to the Current Issues in Sports Management class, Bryant also touched on the players’ view of the current NBA lockout.

“It sounds cliché to say, but it’s just business,” Bryant said. “As members of the players’ association, we have to realize that we are also fighting for generations of players to come.”

With rumors flying about Bryant heading overseas to China or Italy to play professionally, he remains optimistic about the NBA’s near future.

“We will come up with something,” Bryant said. “I don’t think we will have an entire season lost.”

Last season, Bryant and the Lakers fell short in their quest to win a third straight championship. Although he played in all 82 games for just the fourth time in his 15-year career, Bryant didn’t practice all season while slowly rehabilitating a knee injury.

“I’m healthy,” Bryant said of his many lingering injuries. “And if I am hurt I will find a way to play and make it happen anyways … always do.”

Bryant’s absence at practice showed throughout the year, as the Lakers’ lack of chemistry gave way to inconsistent play. The preseason favorite to win it all, Los Angeles struggled, and was swept by eventual NBA champions the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the playoffs.

“Especially in practice, I found myself doing lots of coaching,” Bryant said of last season. “I saw too much buddy-buddy stuff going on … our mean streak was gone.”

Whenever the next NBA season starts, the outlook appears much better for Bryant and the Lakers.

“We’re gonna win another one,” Bryant confidently said. “I will be able to practice every day, and this time off will do a lot for our guys.”

Transformed from the outwardly flamboyant teenager donning a No. 8 and an afro, Bryant now reflects the persona of a professor — a professor of the game, if you will. The high-flying, dunking and largely misunderstood No. 8 Bryant has become the No. 24 Bryant. This Bryant is a teacher and facilitator on the court, and a thoughtful, funny, charismatic man off of it. Now, Bryant wins games — and championships — with his head, not his legs. And a pretty nice fadeaway jumper.

Bryant’s great passion, expertise and phenomenal understanding of the game of basketball would seem to lend to coaching in the future.

“No way,” Bryant said, immediately dispelling any chance of coaching in his future. “I love running camps and working with kids and will continue to do that, but I don’t have the patience for coaching. Plus if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop until I caught Phil [Jackson’s 11 rings].”

So what is left for Bryant to accomplish? The man who claims he has three or four more good years left, although always hungry for more, seems content with the way things have gone so far.

“I am most proud of the fact that I squeezed every ounce out of it,” Bryant said. “I gave everything I had.”

Asked where he sees himself in 10 years, Bryant responded, “Fat in a rocking chair smoking a cigar in South Carolina.”

“South Carolina. Why?” posed Spaventa.

“Why not?”

And why not is right. After 1,311 total games played, Bryant deserves to get as fat as he would like when he finally does hang up his jersey. After the interview, Bryant happily answered any and all questions from eager students, took the time to take pictures and even called one student’s grandmother — a die-hard fan — on the student’s cell phone.

When prompted for a few parting words before his departure, Bryant’s message was perfectly appropriate.

“Just go get it,” Bryant urged to the room full of students. “If you want something, you got nobody to blame but yourself if you don’t get there … Just have fun, and go kick ass.”

Suitable parting words from a man who understands the value of hard work, to several men and women, ready to leave college and enter the real world, who will certainly need to know it.