On Monday, the world will bid the late Kobe and Gigi Bryant a final farewell in the form of a public memorial service. Bryant and Gigi’s specters have been omnipresent throughout the NBA and sports world at large since their passing, along with seven others, in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, CA on Jan. 26.
But even gone from this earth, Bryant’s memory has and will continue to live on in the legacy he leaves behind. That legacy is sustained by memories and reminiscences from those who knew him and were impacted by him, whether it be as a basketball player, father or person.
Former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau first encountered Bryant while serving as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-90s. At the time, Bryant was still enrolled at Lower Merion High School in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
“Whenever they would have a day off from high school — we practiced at St. Joes — [Bryant] would come over and he’d be there the whole day, he'd be the first one there,” Thibodeau told Tom Haberstroh during a live taping of The Habershow podcast over All-Star weekend in Chicago. “And that's how I got to know him. He would ask, 'Can you work me out?' then he'd want to play against the players, then he'd watch practice, then he'd lift, then he'd want to play against more players.
“He'd watch guys work out, then he'd go and ask them questions, so you could see how his mind was working.”
Bryant eventually parlayed that experience and work ethic into a fruitful 20-year NBA career that saw him win five championships and stack countless other accolades, including an MVP award, 15 All-NBA selections and 12 All-Defense selections. Ask Thibodeau, and that’s no surprise.
“The thing about Kobe, the way his mind worked, he was a planner, he was so well-organized, every step of everything he did was well planned out,” Thibodeau said. “He developed a plan and then he would just work the plan. He had a plan for what he was gonna do in high school and what he was gonna do in the pros.”
That quality carried over after Bryant's retirement from basketball, as well.
“And even, we were texting a month ago about, he was coaching his daughter's team and he was asking questions about that,” Thibodeau said. “We maintained our relationship all the way through. And he was always talking about his daughters, he loved everything about his daughters. Everything with what he was doing with them.
“And it was amazing what he was accomplishing in his post-playing career: To win an Oscar, to have the book series he was doing, everything was planned out. I went to New York with him to do a promotion for his book and I was just amazed by how at peace he was with being done playing. And I think for him he knew there was nothing left to give. He gave all that he had, he was already on to the next phase of his life.”
Sarah Kustok of the YES Network didn’t first meet Bryant until well after his playing days had ended, but picked up on a number of the same traits Thibodeau enumerated. The date was Dec. 21 and the Hawks were in Brooklyn to face the Nets. Gigi’s favorite player was Trae Young, so naturally, Bryant and her were in attendance.
In fact, the prospect of meeting Gigi (“she’s a stud,” Kustok said) is what drew Kustok to introduce herself to both in the first place.
“We went over, said hi, talked to [Gigi], talked to [Kobe], got to watch them during the game and I will say… There was so many times during the game that I couldn't even necessarily focus on the game because I'm watching their interactions,” Kustok said at a live taping of the Bulls Outsiders podcast over All-Star weekend. “And I know we've seen so many pictures, videos and — but I'm like, no, this was happening the entire game. And just the engagement between the two of them and the realness and the genuine, like, love and interest was something that was such a beautiful sight to see.”
Bryant still had much wisdom to impart and will be missed dearly. Whether you knew him from the beginning or caught a glimpse of him towards the end, that much is evident.
The shots are starting to fall for Coby White. In seven February games, the Bulls freshly-turned 20-year-old is averaging 17.7 points, 4.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 35.7% from 3-point range (eight attempts per). That’s good news for the Bulls.
And better is that’s not all that’s going right for White. Yes, consecutive career-high 33-point games — something no rookie reserve has ever done — on cumulative 55% field goal shooting (12-for-22 from deep) will grab eyes, especially on the heels of a frigid stretch between the beginning of February and the All-Star break. But after Sunday’s losing-streak-snapping 126-117 win over Washington, Bulls coach Jim Boylen peeled back the layers of White’s growth.
“I think he's been aggressive in transition, I think his finishing has been terrific, he's had the ball up and out, he's got it out of his stomach, something he's working on,” Boylen said. “I think his work pre-practice, post-practice is paying off.”
And of White’s defense: “We make a defensive (film) edit on Coby after every game. And him and I watch it together… (Early in the season) he had, of his 14 plays on the tape, you know, seven of them were good and seven of them were bad. Now it's like 10 are good and four are bad. He's climbing in that way.
“What he's finding out is: If you get into the game defensively and you follow your assignment and all that, good things happen for you at the other end. It just does. And I think he's locked in that way.”
White’s restricted area finishing has steadily improved over the season (59.3% in February) — he’s getting to the rim and finishing through contact better than ever before (White’s seven free throw attempts versus the Wizards ties a season-high). In transition, he’s a blur running off live rebounds and steals, which could prove a boon for a Bulls team that lives in the fastbreak. His decision-making and ability to change speeds in the halfcourt stand out. Defensively, though not yet perfect, he’s staying more and more connected off-ball, rotating sharply and hunting loose ball recoveries.
If the jumpers are falling, gravy. But the game slowing down for White, and his confidence growing as a result, should excite the Bulls and their fans the most. White, for his part, has learned over the course of a curious rookie campaign to control what he can control.
“It feels good,” White said of his recent red-hot shooting. “But I think now I look at the game differently than I did at the beginning of the year. Now, I just look at the games like I'm gonna go in and play hard on both ends of the court, that's all I'm gonna do. And then control what I can control — I can't control whether I miss or make shots, so. I'm just going out there and playing hard.”
That comes from Boylen, who White lauded for pushing him to continue improving, especially defensively.
“Coach Boylen was preaching to me, you gotta play defense you gotta play defense, so I took it as a challenge. And I feel like I'm continuing to get better at it. I still can get better at it,” White said. “But he pushes me, he pushes me to be a good player, so I can't knock him for that and that's the type of coach I want.”
None of the above (nor Boylen’s unconditional trust in White) has culminated in his first career start, despite clamoring from some media and fans. But perhaps that’s OK. Boylen has often preached White’s increasing comfortability leading the Bulls’ second unit — even injury-ravaged — and that comfort is starting to show up on the floor and in the stat sheet. It speaks to the labeless approach the Bulls have taken to White’s development.
“We got a second group that's playing pretty good again, and we're also melding Coby into that first group at times in the game,” Boylen said when asked if starting White could be a possibility. “So, coming off two 33-point games, I don't know if it makes sense to [start him].”
To that point: White is still getting his fair share of minutes — he played 34 tonight and is averaging 30.6 in February — and a healthy amount of time on the floor staggered alongside Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky. White has also played valuable minutes down the stretch of games recently and his usage rate is up to 24.1% over his last seven games. Opportunity comes in many forms.
“I feel like I'm in a good position,” White said. “This year for me wasn't about starting, it wasn't about being this being that, it was just about me getting better over the season. That's the main thing in this league, you just keep getting better. You don't want to be a guy that just stays the same the whole time.”
White certainly hasn't. The overarching point is that nights like tonight (and Saturday against Phoenix) further emphasize how crucial his continued progression will be down the 25-game stretch of this ill-fated Bulls season — whatever form it takes. Talk of a playoff push has noticeably tempered around the United and Advocate Centers, but White’s been the center of plenty of conversations.
“You see how explosive he is,” said LaVine, who’s been highly complimentary of White all year. “Trying to figure out some nicknames for him. Either like propane or gasoline or something like that. His scoring is special. He can do it in a variety of ways. He's finding his rhythm. Kid's good. He's real good.”
If we land on a pseudonym by mid-April, it’d be a welcome sign.