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Kevin Durant and the Lessons and Legacy of Kobe Bryant

"As somebody that admired him, you just loved being in his presence," says Durant

When Kevin Durant entered the NBA in 2007 at 19 years old, the second pick in the NBA Draft after an epic single college season at the University of Texas, Kobe Bryant was beginning his 12th NBA season with three NBA championships to his credit. When Bryant had made his own NBA debut in 1996 at just 18 years old, Durant was eight.

That made Durant part of the first generation of young stars who had truly grown up watching Bryant blossom into one of the biggest sports starts in the world, relentlessly pursuing his place in hoops history. It made him part of the first generation that would chase Bryant’s greatness themselves, see his legacy as something to emulate.

“As a young basketball player, someone you looked up to as a high schooler not knowing much outside of playing basketball and then getting to the league and getting to know the person and the man and everything that comes with it, Kobe Bryant was just a joy to be around,” said Durant. “You displayed every emotion when you were with him. As a competitor, you hate to play against him. As somebody that admired him, you just love being in his presence. It was one of those things where as a young hooper, he meant the world to us.”

Durant and so many others are feeling the loss after Bryant died on Sunday, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, in a helicopter crash. Three years after retiring from the NBA, Bryant is gone, and with him a presence that has been integral and unmissable for those who have devoted themselves to the game.

“Kobe’s one of those guys that, a lot of people said they didn’t know him,” said Durant. “I’m like, ‘You’ve seen Kobe in every situation from rapping to winning championships to having kids to getting married to getting injured on the floor to crying on TV.’ You’ve seen everything from Kobe Bryant. He’s lived his life to the fullest.”

Bryant was many of those things to Durant; a fierce opponent, an Olympic teammate, a mentor. The lessons Durant drew? Well, they were short and sweet and what you would expect from Bryant — be yourself and put in the work. That’s how you mastered your craft, whatever if might be.

“Just being around somebody who’s been through so much in his life, who’s invited everybody into his life as well along that journey, and just to see the lessons that Kobe learned through a game and how he was so eager to give it off to the younger players. Not just myself and guys that were No.1 options on their team, but even role-playing guys, guys that were in and out the league, he always had his arm around them,” said Durant. “Just a huge, huge ambassador for us all, but also had us dreaming about what life is like outside of the game and how we can all tie it together. His lessons were small and short. He didn’t say much when you were around him he was closed-off and reserved, but when you broke that down, it was phenomenal to see the human he is, human he was, and just the curiosity he had for the game, for life in general. I heard that a lot these last couple days, his curiosity, and that’s what stands out to me. I remember he asked me about a pindown I came off of one time, and I’m like, you’re Kobe. You know? I could talk about the memories and the small interactions I had that he probably didn’t know touched me, but I could go on and on.”

As Durant began his own journey, he found Bryant waiting for him in the NBA Playoffs in 2010. The Thunder were ascendant, winning 52 games in Durant’s third season as he led the NBA in scoring with 30.1 points per game. They were playoff bound for the first time. And then they ran into Bryant and the defending champion Lakers in the first round.

“Just when you were in his way to get to somewhere he wanted to get — our team in 2010 of getting the championship, his back-to-back year,” said Durant. “You go from being a young player that he might talk to a bit in the game to an enemy almost. And to see that switch from the greatest player in the game at that time — and I believe one of the greatest players ever to touch the floor — it was different knowing he was coming at us. And that made us all better. It elevated everybody from the training staff to the coaches to the whole organization just knowing we had to be on point playing against him. Incredible, incredible talent like that.”

Durant and the Thunder lost that series, four games to two, with Bryant on the road to his fifth and final NBA championship. They met again in the playoffs two years later, a 4-1 Oklahoma City win, with Durant going on to his first NBA Finals appearance. That summer, they teamed up to take the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Four years later, Bryant retired as the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer (LeBron James passed him just last weekend), with his five championships and 15 All-NBA selections. Is there a way to honor that legacy, Durant was asked? The answer lay in the lessons he’d already learned.

“I tried to write, think about what I would say or what I would write. It was like nothing was big enough, you know? That’s how I feel when it comes to Kobe Bryant,” said Durant. “That’s his mark he left on the earth. It’s like, it feels like nothing will ever be big enough to truly honor Kobe Bryant. But how we approach everyday life as people, me as a disciple of Kobe, who studied him and learned from him, I think it’s just to go out there and be the best that I can be every single day. Not just in basketball, in everything. I feel like everybody who loved Kobe is going to take that approach in their lives.”

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