To know their back story is to understand why even now, a full day after receiving the awful news and for the foreseeable future, Brian Shaw grapples with the loss of Kobe Bryant.
“I might have known him longer than anybody else still involved in the NBA,” Shaw told NBC Sports Bay Area on Monday, 27 hours after Kobe, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others perished in a helicopter crash in Southern California.
“He was a special, special player,” Shaw added. “And not many people got to have the access to him that I had over such a long period of time, from a young boy to a young man, to a mature man.”
The Shaw-Bryant relationship began after Shaw’s rookie year with the Celtics. Though he was Boston’s first-round draft pick in 1988 and started 54 games, salary-cap restrictions limited his salary to the league minimum $75,000. So, he signed a contract with Messaggero Roma of the Italian League, where Joe Bryant, Kobe’s father, played for Reggio Emilia.
Kobe was 10 years old and Shaw remembers him as a “little gym rat,” always dribbling and shooting as teams were warming up. Shaw spent one year in Italy, returned to the Celtics, with whom he played one more year and part of another before being dealt to Miami.
Upon becoming an unrestricted free agent in 1994, Shaw signed with Orlando. A few months later, when the Magic were playing the 76ers – the Bryants had moved back Philadelphia – Kobe, then a junior at suburban Lower Merion High School, made a prediction.
“He said to me, ‘I’m going to be playing with you after my senior year of high school,’” Shaw recalled. “He said, ‘I was thinking about maybe forgoing my senior year of high school and coming to play after this year.’ I just kind of laughed. I hadn’t seen him since he was a little kid, and now he was about the same height as I was.
“But I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. OK. Sure. Whatever.’ I just laughed it off.”
Kobe remained at Lower Merion for his senior season, during which he and Shaw crossed paths again. It was during the NBA playoffs and Joe Bryant took his son to Orlando to meet Penny Hardaway, one of Kobe’s favorite players. By then, with Kobe collecting numerous national awards, Shaw was becoming a believer.
Not long after, Kobe was standing before dozens of cameras and microphones announcing his decision to skip college and declare for the NBA draft. He was the sixth prep – and first guard – to completely bypass college for the pros.
“I instantly remembered what he had said,” Shaw said.
Selected by the Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded to the Lakers in a prearranged deal, Bryant didn’t play much as a rookie but cracked the rotation in his second season. Shaw, who had moved on to the Warriors, began to see the development of a legend.
“We were playing at The Forum,” he recalled. “Looking down the court, a bunch of guys were playing. They had one of the Cotton brothers, I think it was Schea, on the team. Mario Bennett, who went to Arizona State, was there. There were maybe five guys playing o
ne-on-one, King of the Court, where you beat somebody, keep the ball, and the next person would try and beat you. And Kobe was just going through the line killing guys. All of them.
“I was at the other end, warming up and watching but I was thinking, ‘Damn, he can really play.’ But he wasn’t playing much because they had Eddie Jones, who was damn good at that time.”
Two years later, in October 1999, Shaw signed a free-agent contract with the Lakers, for which he can thank Kobe.
Though Shaw had impressed during a couple summer workouts for the Lakers, he was informed by new coach Phil Jackson that the team had no guaranteed contracts available. Shaw returned home to Oakland, stayed in shape and waited for a call from any team that might be interested.
The Lakers opened camp and shortly afterward and in the preseason opener in Jacksonville, Kobe sustained a hand injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season. Within hours, Jackson phoned Shaw and invited him to join the Lakers.
“He said, ‘We fly back tomorrow. Meet us at the facility at LA Southwest College to take a physical and get the paperwork done,” Shaw recalled. “He also said, ‘You have eight weeks to make me cut somebody with a guaranteed contract.’”
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Shaw played well. When Kobe was ready to return in November, Jackson kept his word, waiving Sam Jacobson, the team’s 1998 first-round draft pick.
Ten years after meeting, Shaw and Bryant were teammates. The bond was strengthened over the years, as Shaw transitioned from player to assistant coach on Jackson’s staff.
“I met him when he was a little boy,” Shaw said. "I knew him in high school. I played against him. I played with him. I coached him. And we continued the relationship all the way up until now.”