An Inside View at Kobe the Competitor
It was Thanksgiving of 2013. The Lakers were on a road trip in Detroit, and I found myself squared up against Kobe Bryant.
Fortunately for me, it was on a ping-pong table, not a basketball court.
You see, Kobe had heard that the team wasn’t doing anything for Turkey Day, so he decided to rent out a ball room, purchase a huge spread of food and invite his teammates, coaches and the rest of us on the Lakers traveling staff. There were televisions around the hotel ballroom with football on, as well as a ping-pong table.
Kobe was looking on while I played two games against forward Shawne Williams, a great guy who wasn’t terrific with a paddle, and yet wasn’t thrilled to be losing. Bryant took the opportunity to trash talk Williams, which resulted in Shawne’s frustration, and my saying this:
“Do you want some too, Kobe?”
I grew up with a ping-pong table. My father was excellent, and never let me win, but I figured Bryant was a stud at most sporting endeavors. My intonation was mostly facetious, and I didn’t think he’d want to play.
Instead, Kobe grabbed a paddle.
It didn’t take more than two rallies for me to realize that I was better. Kobe – if pretty decent – hadn’t played much pong. Yet, being Kobe Bryant, he had the quick reflexes and dexterity to be fully respected.
I won the first game rather handily.
Bryant let out several choice words throughout the game, mostly to himself when he made mistakes, and occasionally at me, but it was less trash talk than matter-of-fact, like, “Nice shot, bleep-hole,” or a word that rhymes with fit.
What jumped out: Kobe was adjusting to the game by the shot. I was overplaying his main weakness, his backhand, until he shifted over to the left side of the table and used his length to chase shots to his forehand. His eyes rarely left the table, and he seemed to be observing my service angles and my shot placement.
The way these things usually work: winner stays and whomever called next steps in. But Kobe wanted a rematch, and, obviously, nobody tried to argue with him.
I won the second game as well, but he continued to literally improve by the point and took a few more off me. I’ve probably played 500 people in ping-pong over the years, and nobody got better from one game to the next more quickly than Bryant.
This should not be a surprise. This is what greatness is, right? It almost fits the Kobe narrative too well … until you remember that the narrative is there for a reason.
Most people – including the other professional athletes in the room – were playing ping-pong for fun that night*. One of the 10 best basketball players in history was playing ping-pong to win.
*Pau Gasol, incidentally, is the best ping-pong player I’ve ever seen in person. Ridiculous reach, soft touch, perfect hand-eye coordination … apparently he went to some Spanish national ping-pong camp when he was a teenager. He is the truth.
It was also telling that Kobe didn’t care about losing to the sideline reporter. He said “Good game,” sat down, and resumed trash-talking his teammates.
Later that night, one of Kobe’s security guys told me that Bryant had decided to buy a ping-pong table. He didn’t care about whom he lost to so much as losing in general, and probably didn’t plan on losing much the next time he played.
I never asked Bryant if he ended up with a table, or mentioned our two games, but chuckled a bit when – on the radio with Steve Mason and John Ireland on 710 ESPN in early April – he described how competitive his daughters were, and how he played a lot of ping-pong with his youngest, Gianna.
I guess he bought a table, after all!
So, if Kobe got better at ping-pong in 10 minutes, it’s a bit easier to understand how he so completely mastered basketball, a game he’s studied intensely since his earliest memories of following his professional-hooper father around NBA arenas and Italian courts. Footwork, shooting, passing, ballhandling offensive schemes, defensive schemes, out-of-bounds plays … there isn’t a single part of the game he didn’t conquer, regardless of what he chose to deploy at varying stages of his career.
What were the best of his best moments? Well, at Lakers.com, we’ve documented the soon-to-be Hall of Famer’s greatest moments throughout the season in our “This Day In Kobe History” series.
BRYANT’S BEST 10
- Won his fifth title to tie Magic and Kareem against bitter Lakers rival Boston in Game 7, the moment he has identified as his favorite and most important (June 17, 2010).
- Walked off the court for a final time with 60 points (his sixth 60+ point game ever, of the 64 in NBA history), scoring 13 straight in the final two minutes to lead L.A. to one last win.
- Hit two free throws after tearing his Achilles tendon and walked off under his own power, showcasing his incredible will (April 12, 2013).
- Scored 81 points against Toronto, the second-highest total in NBA history (Jan. 22, 2006).
- Closed out Indiana in Finals Game 4 on a badly sprained ankle with 28 points and five assists and (June 14, 2000).
- Won his first Finals MVP award by beating Orlando 4-1 in dominant 2009 Finals (June, 2009).
- Outscored Dallas through three quarters with 62 points on 31 shots (Dec. 20, 2005).
- Went off for a Madison Square Garden scoring record 61 points, earns “MVP” chants from Knicks crowd (Feb. 9, 2009).
- Beat Portland with 37 points and two uber-difficult, dagger three pointers to win the Pacific Division (April 14, 2004).
- Western Finals Road Close Outs: Destroyed Denver with 35 points and 10 assists in the closeout Game 6 (May 29, 2009) and Phoenix with multiple late-game dagger jumpers, a pat on Coach Gentry’s backside and 37 points in Game 6 at Phoenix (May 29, 2010).
Now, what I wasn’t expecting to see in Bryant’s 20th NBA season was ten more moments worthy of his greatness, not after serious injuries took the majority of his previous two campaigns. Instead, the guy that’s seen his combined playoff and regular season minutes total climb to 57,217 (by far the most for a wing player and third overall behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone) played in 67 games.
He managed all of this:
BRYANT’S BEST IN 10 2015-16
- Stepped on the court for one final time, and, again, dropped SIXTY POINTS. (April 13).
- Scored 35 points on 10 of 22 FG’s in 27 minutes at Houston (April 10).
- Dropped 35 points against Boston, plus three steals in a spirited final effort against the Celtics (April 3).
- Went head-to-head with LeBron James, scoring 26 points on an efficient 11 of 16 from the field (three for four from three), pulling out all the old tricks (March 12).
- Scored a team-high 25 points in his final game at San Antonio, his fourth straight game with at least four three-pointers made, leading to a gushing Gregg Popovich discussing Bryant’s greatness postgame.
- Lead L.A. to consecutive wins against Minnesota (season-high 38 points, five assists, five boards, two steals) and at New Orleans (27 points, 12 boards, 2 steals, dagger three-pointer) on Feb. 2nd and 4th.
- Hit two three-pointers in the final six minutes to lead the Lakers to a 112-104 win at Boston, totaling 15 points, 11 rebounds and three assists (Dec. 30).
- Scored 11 of his 31 points in the final six minutes of a 111-107 win at Denver, adding five dimes (Dec. 22).
- Went for 31 points in a late win at Washington, capped by back-to-back go-ahead jumpers in the final minute – including a 26-foot 3-pointer (Dec. 2).
- Nearly amassed a triple-double in leading L.A. to its first win of a brutal start to the season, scoring 17 points with 9 assists and 8 rebounds in a 97-85 win over Detroit (Nov. 15).
It’s been a week, and it’s still hard to comprehend how Bryant finished his career by scoring 60 points. Sure, he’d done so five previous times in his career, more than anybody not named Wilt (who did it 24 times), including Michael Jordan (five times including one playoff game).
But to do it in year 20, at age 37, playing 42 minutes and taking 50 shots through contested defense, to total 57,278 combined regular season and playoff minutes, third only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone and way more than any two-way wing has come close to?
Bryant did it by ripping off an individual 13-0 scoring streak in the final two minutes against Utah, capped by five straight made shots and two particularly vicious jumpers he hoisted with his arms, given how little he had left in his legs after taking 50 shots in 42 minutes.
When the final two shots splashed the net, Jack Nicholson, Jay-Z, Snoop and everybody else at Staples Center could either barely believe it, or believed it so much that it was hilarious, given the guy getting it done.
Now, when I came to Los Angeles to work for the Lakers in October of 2008, I was determined to carry in as few preconceived notions about Kobe Bryant as possible. I wanted to figure him out for myself. For somebody who’d been widely covered since his teenage years in Philadelphia, that was easier said than done.
But on the final night of his career, he put a huge, glorious bow on everything. His skill and his will were on full display for a final time, as he got his body to listen to his brain for 42 more minutes, as if summoning every remaining ounce to lay one final, massive brick on his legacy.
After witnessing the final 602 of Bryant’s games (preseason and playoffs included) over eight years, conducting a number of 1-on-1 interviews and sitting in for hundreds of press conferences, one thing stands out:
Bryant is every bit the maniacal worker and competitor that he’s built his reputation upon; good luck finding someone with as much passion and dedication to their craft.
"I gave my soul to the game," Bryant said after the grandest of finales. "There’s nothing more I can give. Nothing.”
Of course there’s a healthy dose of self-described bleep-hole in Bryant that’s long driven his competitive nature. He didn’t need teammates, media members or fans to be his best friends, but he was going to earn your respect.
And I witnessed too many moments in which he made a Make-A-Wish kid’s year, asked me about my infant twin sons in relation to his favorite topic, his daughters, or provided that team Thanksgiving dinner to buy that he’s the Black Mamba all the time.
After what Kevin Durant deemed Kobe’s “60 piece,” Bryant’s competitive nature still wouldn’t allow him to call it a “perfect” conclusion, as suggested by a reporter in his postgame presser.
60 piece. Mamba out.— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) April 14, 2016
“The perfect ending would have been a championship,” he replied. “That’s a perfect ending to me. Tonight was trying to go out playing hard and try to put on a show as much as I possibly could. It felt good to be able to do that one last time.”
Put on a show, to say the least.
I asked Kobe both before and after the game what his plans were for the following day.
“I’ve got to work out in the morning — have to,” he said. “If I don’t start immediately, I’ll get kind of into this process like, ‘OK, I’ll start the next day, the next day’ … and on and on until it’s an issue. The first thing I’ll do is get up and train. I’ll work out and then get to the office and get to work on some of these stories.
“So I think the important thing is to get into a routine, to maintain discipline, to find a new routine. I have been in a certain routine my entire career. I think the worst thing I can possibly do is not have one because then you wake up without a sense of purpose or a sense of direction.”
All of that purpose and direction has for 20 years been directed towards being the best in the world with an orange ball.
Whatever happens in Kobe’s next chapter, it’s been a privilege spending the last eight years watching this one.
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