No American athlete in the 21st century, regardless of sport, better fused sublime physical gifts with sheer audacity than Kobe Bryant. Some wish to be great. Others wish to become legendary. Kobe ridiculed the notion of wishing.
Wishing is too abstract, more concept than reality. It gets in the way of learning. Of achieving. One wishing for a fabulous meal is wasting time if unwilling to prepare it.
Young Kobe sprinted directly to preparation, as if he were appointed to be superior. He stayed there until 2016, when he retired after a magnificent 20-year NBA career. Bryant’s tragic death, at age 41, in a helicopter accident, occurred one year ago this month.
Few outside Bryant’s family had a clearer and more detailed view than Brian Shaw, who was introduced to boy Kobe, then played against him in the NBA, later becoming his teammate and his coach with the Lakers and, through it all, his friend.
“I met Kobe when he was a young gym rat, jumping in everybody's lay-up lines and stuff when they were playing against his dad’s team,” Shaw tells NBC Sports in “Sports Uncovered: My favorite Kobe story,” premiering Thursday.
This was in 1989, when Kobe 11 years old. Shaw, in the midst of a contract dispute after his rookie season with the Boston Celtics, signed with Il Messaggero Roma and fled to Italy. One of his teammates was Joe Bryant, Kobe’s father.
It’s not unusual for kids to hang with their athlete dads. Ken Griffey Jr. was a frequent presence in baseball clubhouses of teams employing his father, Ken Sr. Stephen and Seth Curry set romped about dozens of basketball courts in the 16 seasons their father, Dell, spent in the NBA. Kobe, however, seemed to visualize his destiny. He was going to be beyond great, do things people remembered for the rest of their lives. What may have seemed like an irrational fantasy was, for him, a realistic expectation. A presumption.
“He said the craziest thing to me,” Shaw, then back in the NBA, recalls of teenage Kobe. “He said – and I hadn’t seen him since Italy, since he was about 10 or 11. He said, ‘I’m thinking about skipping my senior year of high school and coming straight into the league.’
"And I laughed and I was like ‘this kid is crazy.’ I talked to his dad, his dad was like, ‘Yeah if he finishes next year, he’ll be playing against you.’ I’m like ‘yeah, whatever, whatever.’”
Though he was recruited by every college basketball powerhouse, and probably would have surrendered to the incessant pitches of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Kobe decided to skip college altogether and enter the 1996 NBA Draft. He went 13th overall, selected by the Charlotte Hornets, who flipped him – with reservations – to the Lakers in exchange for veteran center Vlade Divac.
The masterminds behind the deal were Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, and then-Lakers general manager Jerry West, who had seen two of Kobe’s workouts against stellar defender Michael Cooper and was determined to acquire him. Knowing West’s desires, Tellem discouraged other teams from taking the impetuous 17-year-old.
Kobe didn’t know if he was ready for the NBA, but he absolutely knew he wanted to compete with and against the best. Everything related to basketball was a competition, including competing for the unofficial title of “most prepared.”
“Ultimately, the key factor for me wasn't whether or not I was ready,” Bryant told “The Corp” on a 2018 podcast. “It was the fact that if I wasn't ready, I was determined to figure out how to get ready. And ultimately, even if I was ready, I still need to improve anyway, right?
“So, the work's not going to stop. So, it was just a matter of: 'Do you want to (go to) the league and learn from the best?’”
The next time Shaw saw Kobe was in the summer of 1996, when both participated in the annual celebrity game hosted by Lakers legend Magic Johnson. Kobe studied several NBA players, including Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway, a teammate of Shaw’s with the Orlando Magic.
Kobe decided he wanted a piece of Penny, who had finished his third season and already had two All-Star games on his resumé.
“And so, here’s Kobe getting a chance to play against Penny, who he idolized, and it’s the summertime and those charity games, everybody just kind of letting everybody dunk and what have you,” Shaw recalls. “But here’s Kobe, going super hard, pestering Penny, who know, challenging him 94 feet up the court. And he kind of did Penny in that day, and that’s when you kind of said, ‘This kid can really play.’
“You could see the athleticism, the skill set and what have you. But what it did, is it pissed off Penny because Kobe kind of stole the show and really went at him.”
That was Kobe, whose career was defined as much by effort as skill, as much by his grit as his gifts. “Mamba Mentality” is a real thing seldom seen, and it made Kobe Bryant that rarest of beings, someone with a reservoir of ability resolved to using every fraction of every ounce.