Jerry West Recalls How 'Rare' Kobe Bryant Was, Gets Emotional Over Vanessa's 2020 Christmas Card

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Karen Mizoguchi
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Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

To Jerry West, Kobe Bryant was a surrogate son.

Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Bryant's tragic death on Jan. 26, 2020, the Lakers legend, 82, reflected on his close bond with Bryant and the late athlete's loved ones, including widow Vanessa Bryant.

For her first holiday season without her husband and daughter Gianna, the mother of four mailed West her family's Christmas card. "As soon as I saw it, I said, 'Oh, my God!' And then my wife immediately ran out of the room just crying like crazy," West told the Los Angeles Times.

Last January, Kobe, 41, and Gianna, 13, were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, along with Sports Academy coach Christina Mauser; Gianna's teammates and their parents, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Payton Chester, Sarah Chester; as well as pilot Ara Zobayan.

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West's relationship with Bryant first began when he acquired the then-17-year-old to the Lakers and helped the straight-out-of-high-school prospect adjust to life as a professional baller.

"When I saw that Christmas card, the first thing said was, 'When is the anniversary coming up?' " said then-Lakers exec West, who was instrumental in bringing Bryant to Los Angeles, where he spent his entire 20-year career.

"The effect [his death] had on this city, and really because of his enormous popularity, I just think it takes something out of you. You see some people who can do anything they want to and never contribute anything to society. You would think with the enormous success that he had in his life, and he was willing to give back," West told the Times. "But he was willing to continue to grow into a different iconic person in another different field. It's rare that an athlete can do that. LeBron James has certainly done it. And I admire those players that do it, I really admire them."

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James, 36, has continued to voice his admiration for Bryant's work, both in basketball and outside of sports — an accomplishment West has also praised.

After retiring in April 2016, Bryant focused on his second act: building his multi-media empire, even winning an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for Dear Basketball, and advocating for women's sports. His daughter Gianna, who was nicknamed "Mambacita" and inherited his love of basketball, inspired his passion to advocate for women's sports, especially the WNBA.

"You always worry about people and what they are going to do after their career. One of the things that I was so happy for was that he was going to be bigger than when he played. He was just making a difference with young kids. His messaging to women, to young women of all races, of all colors," West told the Times.

"Not only did he talk about it, but he also participated. That, to me, is when you know somebody is really committed to making a difference," he said. "Honestly, I felt he was presidential. I really did. ... He had charisma that was completely different than the charisma some of these other big stars have. Completely different. His appeal was just ridiculous. Ridiculous."

Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Last January, days after the tragic accident, West tearfully remembered his early years with Bryant.

"I think the thing that is the hardest for me, is the times I spent with him when he was 17 years old at my house. Constantly wanting me to go to the gym, watching him play in the Summer League and everyone was excited to see a young kid like that," he said during an emotional appearance on NBA on TNT. "There was just so many things we would talk about as he was just seeking information. I felt like his father for two years. I don't know if I can get over this, I really don't."

A year later, Bryant's death is just as hard to think about for West. "To think that all of them are gone. All of them. That's what to me is the most difficult thing I try to get my head around," he told the Times.