Jordan Clarkson won’t forget the advice he received as he waited at the scorer’s table to check in for his first taste of NBA action. He’ll never forget it. His morning had started with a lesson from a legend, a shootaround with Kobe Bryant. That night, as Clarkson prepared to enter his first preseason game, Bryant approached with a few final words.
“We don’t take those [practice] shots for no reason,” Clarkson recalls Bryant saying. “Go out there and shoot ’em.”
The box score from that night shows that Bryant attempted 12 field goals.
Clarkson took 13.
“I got up eight shots in a matter of like 3 minutes,” Clarkson says with a smile. “That’s kind of been my M.O. for real since I’ve been in the league.”
It’s that fearless scorer’s mentality that has made Clarkson a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, an invaluable member of the Utah Jazz. It is that fearless scorer’s mentality that has helped Clarkson play arguably the best basketball of his career over the past 12 months.
But they have also been some of the hardest months of Clarkson’s life. One year after Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles, Clarkson is still grieving, still processing the loss of a basketball icon—but he is more determined than ever to make his mentor proud.
“That’s a big motivator to be honest with you,” Clarkson said. “He’s had hands on my career since I came into the league as a rookie. I didn’t really know much about preparing for a game, the details of what really goes into this. He really kind of taught me everything.”
Clarkson was getting a haircut the first time Bryant reached out to the young shooting guard, who had just recently been selected No. 46 overall in the 2014 draft. At first, Clarkson thought the text message was a joke. There was no way Bryant wanted to talk to him.
“I thought somebody was playing on the phone,” Clarkson said. “Me and my friends always prank and stuff like that. I told him to stop playing. This ain’t Kobe texting my phone.”
It was Bryant after all.
“Welcome to the family,” the legendary guard said.
A bond was formed.
Bryant would become a teammate, a friend, a mentor, a big brother.
“He was everything to me,” Clarkson said.
Bryant was tough on the young guard. Clarkson was at practice the day Bryant infamously walked off the court, yelling at his teammates for being “soft like Charmin.”
“We saw his competitiveness, how he worked, every detail of everything,” Clarkson said.
Clarkson smiles now as he thinks about Bryant calling him and some other young Lakers — D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Larry Nance — out after an ugly loss in Portland. Clarkson believes that helped shape him and his former teammates into the players they are today.
“He was just pushing us to be who we are,” Clarkson said. “All of those guys, we all got a piece of him that I know we’ll never forget. Especially now.”
On Jan. 26, 2020, Clarkson had just finished practice and was lying on a training table when he saw the first reports of a helicopter crash in southern California. Days later, speaking to reporters after scoring 37 points against Denver, Clarkson was still in disbelief.
“That dude was like Superman to me,” Clarkson said. “I still expect to come across something on the news where he’s taking all of those people off the helicopter and coming down that hill. … But I know he would want us to keep going, keep hooping and keep pushing.”
A year later, Clarkson is still coming to terms with Bryant’s death.
“It’s still surreal to be honest with you,” Clarkson said. “Processing this is a situation life has thrown at us. But we’re going to keep staying strong, keep his name alive. He’s always remembered.”
The last time Clarkson talked with Bryant was at the Mamba Academy in Los Angeles. He’d attended an invitational with Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jamal Murray, and other NBA stars. After, he stayed and spoke with Bryant.
“Hey bro, I’m pulling for you,” Clarkson recalls him saying. “Keep going. You know I’m always here if you need me.”
Clarkson won’t forget those words, either, every time he walks to the scorer’s table to check in.
“I’m trying to make him proud,” Clarkson said.