He never forgot.
This was years into Kobe Bryant’s soon to be Hall of Fame career, after he’d won some of his five NBA titles, but not all, when his status as one of the greatest players ever was already assured. This night, he had probably scored 30 again; it’s hard to remember. The salient point was that the Lakers had won the game and he’d been great in it. So the assembled media waited for him at his locker.
I was there for whatever reason I was there, and asked him a question, which he answered. And then, in the next breath, came the stiletto -- “I should have gone to college, huh?”
It was a reminder of one of my less than prescient moments, when I’d taken the word of a scout that I trusted, who said that Bryant had made a terrible mistake coming straight out of high school for the NBA in 1996, and should have gone to Duke, his college of choice. That Bryant had averaged a pedestrian 7.6 points on 42 percent shooting his rookie season with the Lakers made the scout’s opinion seem, at the time, somewhat valid. I parroted that opinion on national television.
Bryant waited. Years. Like the Count of Monte Cristo. But he finally got the last word.
His obsession with greatness allowed him to use slights like that as fuel, to propel him to fantastic feats. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone scored more points in NBA history; only Wilt Chamberlain scored more points in a single game than Bryant’s 81 against the Raptors in 2006. His career was winding down when the arguments that he was wholly inefficient as a player were gaining traction; the end of Bryant’s career, slowed already by injuries, was further stalled by the notion that he wasn’t “clutch” and shot way too much.
Well, I’d just say not too many people get their jerseys retired by their former teams. And none that I can recall are getting both of their jerseys retired, as the Lakers will do for Bryant’s number 8 and 24 tonight at Staples Center, at halftime of L.A.’s game with the Warriors (10:30 ET, NBA TV).
Perhaps only Magic Johnson was as beloved a Laker in Los Angeles as Bryant was. There was no competition during those years: fans liked Shaq’s shtick and marveled at his ferocious dunks. But they revered Bryant, bought his jerseys in bulk. They roared when he came down the lane and dunked on someone’s head. And when Jerry Buss had to choose between the two, in 2004 … Well, there wasn’t a choice. Bryant was younger, more dedicated -- and there was no way in hell Buss was going to let Bryant walk to the Clippers.
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So Bryant stayed, led the Lakers to two more rings, and retired as the franchise’s all-time leader in games and minutes played, points and steals, and remains second to Johnson in triple-doubles.
Tickets for tonight’s game against the Warriors are reportedly the most expensive in the league for a regular season tilt since Bryant’s final game, at the end of the 2015-16 season, when he scored 60 against Utah. His impact on the generation that came after him is undeniable, unassailable -- he was beloved by the millennials that now have sway.
“For me, Kobe was a big part of The Process,” the 76ers’ emerging star center Joel Embiid said earlier this month.
“I think, actually, he was the main part. I’m 23, and I started playing basketball when I was 16. And the first time I watched basketball was, I think it was 2009 or 2010. And I was watching the Finals, and it was Kobe and the Lakers against, I think it was Orlando. And they won that series. And that’s how I became, I started liking basketball and I became a Kobe fan. And that’s why I wanted to start playing basketball, but my dad didn’t let me start until 2011. So I feel like Kobe is like the main part. Because just watching that Finals, he just made me want to play basketball. He just made me want to reach this level. So I’m really thankful for him.”
Bryant was a sponge. He soaked in information and processed it, seemingly overnight. If he desperately wanted to be Michael Jordan when he first came into the league -- down to the mannerisms, voice patterns and game -- he quickly evolved into his own man on the floor, a killer among killers.
“Whatever you think of this kid -- you love him, you hate him -- there’s five things you absolutely cannot take away from Kobe Bryant,” said the Lakers’ longtime head athletic trainer, Gary Vitti.
“The first one is talent. He had a lot of talent. He was not the most talented. And I’ve had this conversation with him. He would agree with me. There were other players who were more talented than him. So what was it about him that he had five rings, and some other players who were more talented ended up with none? Well, those other four things, beyond talent were, two, he worked harder than anybody else. And there’s a lot of players who work hard. But he worked hard, and equally with purpose. So he worked hard with purpose. He was smart about it.
“The third thing was how competitive he was. He’s absolutely, hands down, the most competitive human being that I’ve been around. And if he lost, he used the loss to come back even stronger. The fourth thing is, tough. Tough as nails. Tougher than anybody I’ve been around. Basically removed the words ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon, and replaced them with ‘can’ and ‘will.’ And the last thing was, Kobe was intellectually brilliant at basketball. He studied the game. He could tell you players way back in history, when he was a little kid, maybe before he was born, that he studied their game. And he studied the game right up until his last game.”
His offseason workouts, his pre-practice habits, his desire not just to win, but to dominate and obliterate -- all of it made him, if not Jordan, the closest thing we’ve seen to Jordan, and that is remarkable on its own terms.
“There was a lot of tough guys in their own right,” said Pelicans guard Tony Allen, a three-time all-NBA first team defense selection. “More likely, it was him, though. I can’t think of nobody else. Because there wasn’t nothing you could really take away. If you sag off him, he can hit two threes in a row, which makes you respect him on the perimeter. If you get close to him, now he’s driving to the basket. Now you’re putting the pressure on your big. He done got your big in foul trouble.”
Allen is an all-time trash talker. He quickly realized he was out of his league where Bryant was concerned.
“I learned my lesson my rookie year (2004, in Boston), when I was talking to him,” Allen said. “He fouled me out in like seven or eight minutes. From that point on, I knew I couldn’t talk to him. He was kind of buttering me up. He’s asking me where am I from, how you doing young fella, where you from, I like your heart, young fella. Before you know it he’s head faked you three times and got the and one off the backboard, came off the pick and roll and dunked on you.”
When Allen was in Boston, the Celtics had their version of the “Jordan Rules” for Bryant.
“Kobe was so difficult,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who tried to devise ways to slow Bryant down while in Boston with then-lead assistant Tom Thibodeau.
“I always tell the story when I was playing for the Knicks, and (Pat) Riley came in and read us Jordan’s statistics,” Rivers said. “We thought they were made up, because back then, we don’t know how he could know this … And he said Jordan shot 54 (percent) going right, and 52 going left. And I remember (John) Starks saying ‘What the hell -- why would you tell us that?’ And Kobe was similar to that; his stats were similar going both ways.”
As with all great scorers, the Celtics wanted to try and force Bryant baseline. “We did not want him in the middle of the floor, because he could pass, he could shoot -- and he was going to shoot, most likely,” Rivers said. “But middle of the floor Kobe was more dangerous than on the sides. So that’s what we would try to do. And then we would trap him out of timeouts, on any catch out of timeouts.”
Allen would start his prep work for Bryant days in advance.
“I’d get the edit before and I would always ask for his moves in transition,” Allen said. “I’d get about 10, 12 clips of him in transition, 10, 12 clips of him on the post, 10, 12 clips of him going left, 10, 12 clips of him going right. And just trying to cut off space when he gets in those areas. Not let him do those herky-jerk moves. And if he do make one of those herky-jerk moves and fades away, don’t get discouraged. Later in the fourth quarter, that’s going to become a tough shot. Early on, when he was fresh, I knew for sure he was going to hit those shots. He’s got plenty of highlights when he’s hit shots like that. He hit ‘em late, too, but you could live with those type of tough shots at the end. Just finding out his tendencies. And that was all a part of watching film.”
Bryant could will himself as few others could. A lot of players would not have overcome waiving off Malone in an All-Star Game. A lot of players would never have recovered from shooting airball after airball in the deciding game of a playoff series in their rookie season, as Bryant did against the Jazz in 1997.
“I kept shaking my head like, he’s going to shoot another one,” said Bucks assistant coach Greg Foster, who was a Utah reserve. “I remember in my mind thinking ‘This kid’s got some big balls.’”
Foster later was Bryant’s teammate in Los Angeles, and witnessed the feud between Bryant and O’Neal develop and fester in real time. It was a mark of both men that the Lakers won three straight championships in the midst of their squabbling, yet rarely showed any signs of it on the floor.
“Most teams, because we were older, I wouldn’t say we scoffed at it, but we shook our head about it,” Foster said. “Being an older group, you try to remain neutral with respect to that stuff. But it was real. It was very real. It was happening. I think if it was a younger team, that kind of thing could have created a huge problem … We could absorb that (bleep), and police it. It couldn’t stop the common goal we all had to win a championship. We could freeze the BS. Those guys had voices. If you put them on another team, guys are gonna clique up, guys are gonna pick a side. I think Brian Shaw was definitely instrumental in that.”
And, of course, Bryant’s will was the stuff of legend.
He badly sprained his ankle after Game 2 of the 2000 Finals, an injury that normally would have kept him out two or three weeks; he was back five days later, for Game 4, and stepped in after O’Neal fouled out, dominating the overtime and giving the Lakers a breakthrough win that led to the group’s first title together.
He was, in Vitti’s famous phrase, “doubled over like a cooked shrimp” after suffering food poisoning before Game 2 of the Western Conference finals in 2002 against Sacramento; he played that night and scored 22 points.
And, finally (well, not finally; he played parts of three more seasons after that), there was April 12, 2013, when the Lakers played the Warriors just before the start of the playoffs. After 45 minutes that night, and the more than 45,000 minutes that preceded it, Bryant’s Achilles’ gave out.
“You know what he said to me when I got out there?,” Vitti recalled. “He said, ‘I think I ruptured my Achilles.’ I said ‘Yeah, that’s what it looked like.’ I said ‘Let me ask you this: did it feel like somebody kicked you in the back of the leg, and you turned around and there was nobody there?’ He said ‘Exactly.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what you did.’ And he says, ‘I tried to pull it back down.’ The guy’s (bleeped) up. ‘What do you mean, you tried to pull it down -- and, what, try to weld it back on? What were you going to do, staple it back on? I said, that’s not going to work, man.’ And then he said to me, ‘Can we go in the back, and tape it up?’ And I said, no, that’s not going to work, either.”
Vitti told Bryant he’d let him shoot the free throws, but afterward, the Lakers would take a deliberate foul and take Bryant out. Vitti asked if he wanted to come out and let someone else shoot the free throws. Of course, Bryant declined. He limped to the bench, and after the timeout, he limped back on the floor.
“I think Mark Jackson was the coach, and I told Mark what we were going to do,” Vitti said. “I told the officials what we were going to do. As soon as we fouled, I walked out on the court to get him. And I said, ‘You want a chair?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m walking off.’ And he walked all the way back to the training room on his own power. That was a message to Paul Pierce. ‘Cause you remember in the (2008) Finals, Pierce looked like he got shot by a sniper, rolling around, writhing in pain?
They take him off on a chair and he comes back and plays and they beat us? That was Kobe’s (bleep) you to Paul Pierce.”
He said that a lot, literally and figuratively, to enemies real and perceived. For two decades, he made the Lakers must see TV, and gave them a chance to win championships. That is not a job for the squeamish, or the humble. Kobe Bean Bryant was the right man for the right role, brash enough to give himself his own nickname, and secure enough in his abilities to want two jerseys.
He dominated in both. As ever, he never forgot what made him great, no matter what number he was wearing at the moment.
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