In the wake of Kobe Bryant‘s tragic death less than a week ago, friends and former colleagues within the National Basketball Association are remembering how the star once transformed as a player and a person.
Bryant, who first joined the league and the Los Angeles Lakers as a 17-year-old basketball prodigy in 1996, quickly gained a reputation as a “relentless” player on the court.
“In the beginning, he reminded everyone of Jordan, just the way he would carry himself,” recalls retired NBA referee Derrick Stafford, who officiated over more than 60 of Bryant’s games. “He was a hard-nosed player but he was fair. You had to respect him. Kobe was no-nonsense.”
In his early years and heyday, the star player could also be “really tough to deal with,” at times, says another NBA source. “He would really challenge the officials and his teammates and the people he was playing against. For those on the court at the time, it was really a contentious relationship.”
This came from Bryant’s intense drive and overwhelming desire to win. “He was really just a one-of-a-kind athlete and man,” says another NBA insider. “I think what made him different was that he was able to sense and smell other people’s weaknesses. That made him a step above.”
For years, Bryant — who became the youngest player to score 30,000 points and led the Lakers to win five championships over his 20-year career — would use his talent and stealth, snake-like sensibilities to render his opponents and others on the court defenseless. “He was a stone-cold killer on the court, truly believed he was the best player in the game every night and he played that way,” the insider says.
The insider continues, “I think when he was younger, there really was only one side to him. He had this Mamba approach all the time, and being honest, I think that’s part of why he had some turmoil in his own life and in the locker room. He just didn’t have respect for anyone who didn’t work as hard as he did.”
But as Bryant aged and faced the latter part of his career, says the NBA source, “He transitioned. He became more like a big brother to everyone around him. He took on a teaching role.”
The insider adds, “With the younger players, they were able to know the gentler Kobe, that was softer and willing to share knowledge with other players. Some of the younger players who are really taking this hard saw him as a teacher.”
On Jan. 26, Bryant died at age 41 alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a horrific helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. His family including wife Vanessa, his legion of fans and those within the NBA community, have since been in deep mourning.
“For him to go so soon after he retired,” says Stafford, of the star who exited the league in 2016 after scoring an impressive 60 points during his final game, “That and knowing the love he had for his kids and that his daughter was there with him, that’s what’s tearing me up more than anything.”
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