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.
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