Hijacking Italian Basketball League warmups as an 11 year old. Destroying a teammate so badly in one-on-one that it nearly caused a riot. Waking up at 5 a.m. to practice while his teammates slept. Rapping The Blueprint in the back of the bus. These are the stories that define Kobe Bryant to those who know him best.
As Kobe’s 20-year NBA career comes to an end this week, many tributes are pouring in. But this isn’t one of those tributes. This is a snapshot of Kobe during the Lakers’ historic three-peat in the early 2000s by players who were around him every day. We sat down with Brian Shaw, Horace Grant, Ron Harper and Devean George to answer a simple question: How will you remember Kobe?
I played against Kobe’s father, Joe Bryant, in Italy in ’89. Kobe was about 11 years old at the time. Joe played in a small city, and whenever the other teams would come play us in Rome, all the American players would go to this big McDonald’s in the center of the city. This place was enormous. It was different than any of the McDonald’s we have in the States. It was the spot — it would almost be like a family trip. Everybody would meet-up there. So I vividly remember Kobe sitting around eating french fries and talking basketball as a little kid.
Kobe was obsessed with the game even back then. When we would be at the shootaround before the game, Kobe would be trying to warm up with us. I’m not talking like, you know, shagging rebounds, like a ball boy or whatever. I’m talking, this kid was in the layup line like he was on the team. He was out there shooting Js with the players.
So one day I must have told him to get out of the way, and he challenged me to a game of H-O-R-S-E. To be honest, I can’t even remember what happened in the game. But the story grew and grew over the years. It started as him beating me in H-O-R-S-E, to him beating me in a game of one-on-one. It took on a life of its own.
By the time Kobe got to the league and we were in the NBA Finals that first time in L.A., I had reporters coming up to me asking, with a straight face, “Did Kobe really take it to you in a game of one-on-one back in Italy?” I’m like, “What? He was 11. I was 22. Are you serious?”
But that was the power of Kobe.
I think he might have beaten me in H-O-R-S-E. I’ll give him that.
After Italy, I didn’t see Kobe for a while. I met him again his junior year of high school. His father brought him to a game when I was playing for Orlando. By this time, he was 16, and he was the same height as me. We had a nice chat, and as I’m turning to leave, Kobe says, “I’ll see you after my senior year. I’ll be playing against you.”
I kind of shook my head, thinking, This kid must be a little mixed up. He didn’t mention college. A year and a half later, I saw it come up on the news: Kobe Bryant declares for the NBA draft.
In terms of pure competitiveness, it’s Jordan 1A and Kobe 1B. I played with both guys and I can tell you that for certain.
You know when the captains go to center court with the referees before a game, and everybody shakes hands for the cameras?
MJ would look you right in the eye when he was shaking your hand. Sometimes he would even smile. But while you were smiling, MJ would be thinking about how he’s going to put his foot on your neck. He was diabolical like that.
Kobe was different. He would come right up to you during the handshake and tell you he didn’t like you and that he was going to destroy you. Seriously, he wouldn’t just say it in the pregame, he would say it in the heat of battle. He didn’t care who you were. He’d say, “I can’t believe they’re putting you on me. Are you serious? You think you can guard me?” And he wasn’t joking. He meant it. And the defender knew he meant it. That’s the difference. He would plant that seed of doubt in their mind. And when you had that seed of doubt against Kobe, it was over.
Kobe’s relentlessness wasn’t just about games. Basketball was a 24/7 obsession for him. When they rolled the ball out at practice, there was no need for him to warm up. He was already warmed up at 7 a.m. He was ready to get it in. He would go at guys so hard in practice that I started to think to myself,Okay, this guy is really trying to be MJ. He’s trying to be the greatest of all-time.
If you scored on Kobe in practice, or even if you just made a nice play with him guarding you, he would not let you leave the gym unless you played him one-on-one. Who wants to play Kobe one-on-one? Nobody. But he would bug you until you finally gave in.
If you crossed him over or scored on him, the rest of the team would gas it up because everybody knew how competitive he was. So they made a big deal out of it. Those early 2000s Lakers teams were full of instigators.
So this guy J.R. Rider gets to the team in 2000, and things got really interesting.
Oh. Em. Gee. J.R. Rider.
Oh. Em. Gee. J.R. Rider. He was an interesting guy. He was so talented, so gifted. He was the first NBA player I ever met in person. I’m from Minnesota, where he started his career with the Timberwolves, and my dad managed a bar in North Minneapolis. So one day when I was in high school, my dad called me up and said, “Hey, J.R. Rider is down here at the bar.”
I was like, “Why in the hell would J.R. Rider be at a bar in North Minneapolis?”
My dad’s like, “He’s hanging out. Come on down and get a picture.”
So I did. I got a Polaroid with him. My neighborhood was not exactly a prime hangout spot for NBA players. But that was just J.R. He was a real dude. A very real dude.
J.R. was brash. He was an Oakland guy. Oakland guys are a different breed. He had this swagger about him. Kobe was just coming off winning the championship in 2000. We traded for J.R., and he wasn’t a threat to Kobe’s position or anything, but it didn’t matter.
J.R. would shit-talk Kobe. Every practice, it was MF this, MF that. He would say to Kobe, “Get your ass back in the kitchen.”
You don’t say that to Kobe. You’re asking for it. We knew Kobe was going to wear him down. Once Kobe found his weakness, he was going to let him have it. Then one day, I guess he found it …
J.R. had been a star in Minnesota and Portland. He was the go-to scorer. He also had played some really good games against the Lakers. So he came in with a lot of confidence.
So one day in practice, J.R. says to Kobe, “Don’t get it twisted. I’m a star too, and I used to give youbuckets.”
So Kobe says, “Man, you really think you could take me? Alright, after practice, me and you. One-on-one.”
J.R. says, “O.K., I ain’t no punk. Let’s go.”
Phil Jackson loved this stuff. He didn’t even wait for practice to end. He says, “Alright, you want to go? Everybody off the court.”
I’m a vet at this point. You don’t have to tell me twice. Get me a Gatorade and an ice pack and some popcorn. I pulled up a chair and waited for the show to start.
The older players were always woofin’. If somebody scored on somebody in our practices, it was like we were at Rucker Park. “Ooooohhhhhhh! He got you! He got you, boy!”
You got Shaq out there instigating stuff, “Oh! Don’t let him get you like that! Don’t let him cross you!”
It was a show every day. Now you got Kobe vs. J.R. in front of everybody? Oh, my gosh. Nobody went to the showers. Everybody pulled up chairs on the sideline. It was like a heavyweight fight.
They played to 10 by ones. Kobe just absolutely demolished him.
Kobe destroyed him.
This is 22-year-old Kobe. Crazy athletic. Unlimited stamina. I mean, he kicked his ass. He pulled out everything in his bag — dunk, up-and-under, pull-up, crossover.
Fadeaway. Left hand. Right hand. Blowing by him.
We were on the sidelines gassing it up. People are laughing, yelling, “Hey J.R., be careful what you wish for.”
Guys were waving white towels, yelling, “Stop the beatdown, please! Please stop!”
J.R. wanted to fight everybody in the gym.
When Kobe finished him off, it was almost like, Man, why did you have to do him like that?
The sideline was in disbelief. You have to understand, this was a guy who put up numbers in the league. This wasn’t a benchwarmer. J.R. was a super-talented player. But Kobe got into some kind of zone and just went crazy. No, he went berserk on J.R.
It got to a point where J.R. basically said, No más. No más.
J.R. had his tail between his legs for the first time in his life.
I remember thinking, Oh, my God. This kid is on another level.
The thing is, we won the championship again that year, and J.R. was a contributor to that team. That’s just how those guys worked. It was a very competitive environment.
It got to a point where J.R. basically said, No más. No más.
Kobe wanted to be the best. Most guys, they want to be in the NBA. Maybe they want to be an All-Star. Maybe they want to be a max player. But most guys don’t have the passion and drive to really want to be the best. Kobe wanted it from Day One. He was going after MJ. That was his goal.
I remember when I got to the Lakers in ’99, I went to a TGI Fridays with Kobe in New Mexico. We had a long conversation, and he wanted to pick my brain about what MJ was like. “How much did he practice? How did he work out? How did he evolve his game?” I told him, MJ brought a new thing every year. One year, pull-up jump shot. The next year, fadeaway. “How did he carry himself?” I told him MJ was always in a suit and tie. When MJ went to work, he went to work. Kobe was really intrigued about all that.
Kobe was obsessed. During the season, he worked extremely hard. But the off-season? An animal. He would get up at 5 a.m., head to the gym for four hours of shooting and working on his post-up, then after that he would hit the weights for two hours. Then he would go home for a bit and come back later in the evening and shoot some more. That’s truth. That’s every day. Every. Day.
Kobe isn’t a loud competitor. He’s a quiet, psycho competitor. I believe he’s talking to himself inside, drilling himself. He’s at home watching film 24 hours a day when the cameras aren’t on him.
People know he works hard, but I think it’s almost underrated in a way. I don’t think the average person fully understands how psycho competitive he was, because it didn’t end when the game was over and the lights went down. Seriously — I would go to the gym at 6 a.m., and Kobe would already be there dripping wet, ready to leave.
He has the highest threshold for pain of anybody I’ve ever met. LeBron got cramps and they carried him off the floor. Paul Pierce hurt his knee and they took him out in a wheelchair. Dwyane Wade got wheeled off after he separated his shoulder.
Kobe ruptured his achilles and wouldn’t come out of the game until the trainer let him shoot his two free throws. Then he walked all the way to the locker room. He wasn’t going to let anybody wheel him off.
That was the most amazing thing about him that I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve seen a lot. If you know what it feels like to have that injury — I mean, the toughness to do that is indescribable.
Kobe giving up those two free throws would’ve been like a little kid giving up his ice-cream cone. Forget it.
His ability to play through injury was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. On those championship teams, he was playing with so many injuries that people didn’t even know about. And he would never complain about it.
I always tell people this story when they ask me about Kobe. We would always freestyle on the back of the bus. Whenever a new Jay-Z album came out, it was a big deal. Guys would get it Day One and be rapping their favorite songs. Maybe they knew the first few bars or the hook. Well, Kobe would be on the back of the bus rapping every single line of every single song the day after the album came out. I’m talking every lyric. It was genuinely amazing. Nobody could figure out how it was possible.
It was incredible. It didn’t make sense. I was always wondering, How in the world is this guy learning the lyrics so quickly? We’re all buying this stuff right when it comes out. We’re all listening to it. I don’t know the lyrics yet. How do you? It just came out 24 hours ago, bro!
I would picture him sitting up all night with his headphones on, scribbling the lyrics over and over in a notebook like my kids do when they study for an English test. The damn album just came out yesterday, and he knows it front to back.
That’s when I realized, maybe this guy is a genius. Either that, or he was getting Jay to send him advance copies. Either way, that’s a little window into Kobe. He was obsessed with greatness.
There is never gonna be another Michael Jordan again. But there may never be another Kobe Bryant again, either. He’s as close as we’re ever going to see to MJ. Kobe could put it on the floor, he could shoot it from anywhere on the court, he could pass it. And it was every day. Every day. That’s the difference. If Shaq and him would have stayed together, I truly believe they would have won six or seven titles. I really do.
Kobe’s legacy is how long he sustained greatness. There’s so many levels of respect in the NBA. To be dominant for 20 years? That’s ultimate respect. That’s why you see all these great players now just in awe of him as he goes out the door. The NBA is great at figuring people out, but there’s a select few that you just can’t. Nobody ever really got at Kobe. The only person who was ever able to stop Kobe Bryant was father time.
It’s definitely weird to watch him on TV for this farewell tour, smiling and enjoying himself. But I love it, because you can tell he’s at peace with it. The run is over, but damn, it was a great run.
This article originally appeared on The Player’s Tribune.