The message could come at any time.
For a heartbroken Isaiah Thomas, it came following a second straight loss to open a first-round series against the Chicago Bulls in 2017, when the former Boston Celtics point guard was still reeling from the death of his sister three days earlier. Kobe Bryant was on the line, and he wanted to help the best way he knew how. He asked for film, Thomas emailed it, and they broke it down over the phone for half an hour.
They had stayed in regular contact ever since. It was a rite of passage for a generation of NBA players who grew up idolizing Bryant — the phone call, the text message, the Twitter challenge that meant everything.
For a wide-eyed Devin Booker, it came in March 2016 after their only head-to-head matchup. Bryant autographed his game-worn shoes for veteran opponents throughout his farewell tour, but this time he chose the Phoenix Suns rookie. “To Book,” Bryant wrote on the vamp of his right sneaker, “be legendary.”
Booker credited Bryant for inspiring his 70-point outburst a year later. When a teary-eyed Booker played in a pair of signature Kobes soon after news broke that Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in Sunday’s Southern California helicopter accident, “be legendary” lined his right shoe.
“I think the most important thing about my career is being able to pass it on and have the next generation of athletes embody the same spirit and learn some of the same techniques and have that same mindset,” Bryant told reporters after facing Booker. “That’s the coolest thing to me. Playing against Booker tonight, I mean he went straight to my move the first time he caught it. ‘You don’t have to beat me on my move man!’ But it was great to see, it was absolutely great to see because I remember I did the same thing with MJ.”
Vince Carter is the only player left who faced Jordan. Anyone shy of 26 years old would have no memory of the Chicago Bulls winning the last of their six titles in 1998. For countless current NBA players, Bryant’s pursuit of five championships in the years that followed marked their childhoods. As Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal said in the wake of Sunday’s tragedy, via The Athletic’s Fred Katz, "He was our Jordan so to speak. Hell, half of us got the chance to play with him and play against him, so I know it hits home with everybody around the league.” Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie said the same to Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill.
Bryant’s outreach did not discriminate. The message could come for anyone on any team at any time.
It came in search of advice from Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade on how best to split a double team. It came via text to Draymond Green once the Golden State Warriors fell into a hole against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals. It came for Denver Nuggets guard Malik Beasley as an invite to join Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and other stars at an exclusive Mamba Sports Academy camp.
"I was the whole nine," George told Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding soon after he broke out as an NBA star. "Anything you can think of. I had the Kobe jersey. I would do the Kobe walk. I would walk around the house doing the Kobe stare-down face. Anything you can name, I was idolizing him, trying to be like him. ...
“I feel like Kobe will go down as a top-five player who ever played in this league,” George said in his 2014 homage. “He's been that great to this league. He's been iconic in the same way that Jordan touched it."
Conversations with Kobe were so impactful that his disciples even called their moms to tell them about it.
“I idolized Michael Jordan my whole life, but Michael Jordan was like a ghost to me,” Wade said upon news of Bryant’s 2016 retirement. “I never played against him. So Kobe was the realest thing for me because, as a fan growing up in high school and college, that was my favorite player. And then when I got in the NBA, that was the bar for me. Even though I only played him twice a year, he was my toughest competition. And my bar that I wanted to be on his playing field, I wanted to look him eye-to-eye. So he pushed me.”
Bryant’s inspiration has spanned two decades of NBA greatness and counting. Among his last acts in an NBA arena were last month’s cross-country trip with Gianna to see her favorite player, Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young, and Saturday’s congratulatory message to LeBron James on the night the King unseated his predecessor for third on the all-time scoring list. On Sunday, Young switched to No. 8 in honor of Bryant, and an emotional James was seen wiping tears from his eyes as he exited the team plane in Los Angeles.
In between mentoring the entire Banana Boat crew as the unquestioned leader of the 2008 Redeem Team and introducing his daughter to the next generation of NBA stars, Bryant’s prized protégé was Kyrie Irving. A precocious Kyrie challenged Kobe to a game of one-on-one for $50,000 at a 2012 USA Basketball practice. Irving earned Bryant’s respect, and the two were in touch at the most crucial moments of Kyrie’s career.
Irving FaceTimed Kobe and Gianna during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ champagne celebration of his title-winning shot in 2016. He sought Bryant’s advice before asking for the trade that sent him to the Celtics. Kyrie once told The Athletic’s Joe Vardon that he endorsed the Kobe ethos that great teams need conflict — “someone who makes his teammates uncomfortable when things might otherwise be easy and quiet.”
“The best thing I learned from him is you don’t necessarily have to blend in,” Irving told Tim Bontemps, then of The Washington Post, in the months before his unceremonious exit from Boston. “You can stand out.”
Irving’s career has been molded by Bryant, probably more than any other player. The weight of it all was too much to bear as a distraught Irving left Madison Square Garden prior to his Brooklyn Nets game on Sunday.
Ask almost any young player in the NBA how he got there, and the conversation will inevitably turn to Kobe. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are two budding Boston stars respectively from Atlanta and St. Louis. That is a cross section that could not be further from Los Angeles. Yet, Kobe was their god — their Jordan.
They modeled their games and their mindsets after him. So, when Bryant dedicated a pair of his “Detail” vignettes for ESPN to Tatum and Brown during the 2018 playoffs, they listened, perhaps to a fault. The highest compliment two Celtics prodigies could receive came from a Laker, and they were unafraid to bask in the glow of his purple and gold. Tatum watched Bryant’s breakdown 25 times in less than 24 hours.
I asked Brown once what he envisioned for his career. His response: “I think a lot of it is just up to me. How bad do you really want it? Everybody wants to be Kobe Bryant, but nobody wants to wake up at 4 a.m., so how bad do you really want it?” Mamba Mentality lives because Kobe passed it on before he passed on.
“Heartbroken,” Tatum wrote on Instagram below a photo series of his long history with Bryant. “My Hero. My idol. The reason I started to play this game, the reason I fell in love with this game. Growing up wanting to be just like you, to you becoming a mentor, beyond thankful for everything you’ve done for me. ‘I didn’t have a plan B. I put all my eggs in one basket, and I knew I was going to make it happen.’ Hearing you say that stuck with me every day of my life. You inspired me, and I am forever grateful more than you know.”
Kobe’s influence had no borders. Bryant’s 2008 U.S. Olympic teammate Tayshaun Prince once told me, “Out of anybody on our team, those international guys, no matter who we played against, all them dudes wanted to guard Kobe. That was their guy. They looked up to him, and every time he got the ball, there were two or three guys around him.” And Bryant still dominated. Likewise, Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid recently shared with Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, “The first player I fell in love with was Kobe.”
The messages Bryant sent to players in recent years ranged from the succinct directive he offered Booker to this philosophical question he posed to Tatum, via GQ: “If you told yourself that your life, your family’s life, your kid’s life depended on it, how would you go about practice? How much does this game mean to you for you to be the best?” A glimpse behind the Mamba curtain was an honor extended to a chosen few.
“He told me this story about how a lion seeks food, whatever he’s gonna kill and eat,” Thomas told The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach of one in a long line of conversations they shared. “And you know how many bugs are on the lion’s eyes and gnats on his body? He’s so locked in on that zebra that he doesn’t get distracted by anything else. He said if you get distracted by little things, then you’re not as locked in as you think you are. He said for me to be a lion, and that’s gonna stick with me the rest of my life.”
The messages NBA players received on Sunday now came from peers. They will come from Bryant no more. News of his death shook the league to its core, because he never ceased inspiring this generation.
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