Playing professional basketball is more than a job. It’s a brotherhood.
For Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony, there are few moments that he holds as tightly to his heart as the savage battles he had on the court with his dear friend, NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
At just 19 years and 151 days old, Anthony took the court in a game between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers. The date was Dec. 19, 2003, the first time Melo and Kobe would face off in an epic battle.
But Anthony wasn’t nervous to take on the five-time NBA champion, he was hungry to earn his respect.
“I remember like damn, I’m on a court with Kobe, OK let’s get after it,” Melo told reporters on Thursday. “I was just young and that was my mentality, and I knew, kind of just watching him and hearing stories about him coming to the league that I guess I wanted to gain his respect so much at that moment. He was one of the guys that I really wanted to gain their respect and their trust. So, I just went out there and I just played. Once we got him in between those lines, it was me vs. him. It was Lakers vs. Denver. That was my mentality.”
Carmelo recorded 24 points, five rebounds and two assists in the Nuggets loss, but he gained something so much more: A lifelong friend in Bryant.
You could never rule out a heated duel between the two NBA legends during those first couple of years. Melo and Kobe would often have pushing and shoving matches on the court, fueling one another’s rise to the top. Kobe was a ruthless opponent.
That kindred relationship began to flourish in 2008 and 2012 when Anthony and Bryant made two Olympic gold medal runs. Anthony, team U.S.A.’s all-time leading scorer, began to develop a relationship with Bryant that became much greater than basketball.
“The ’08 thing was something that I think we really like solidified and validated our relationship,” Anthony said.
Over the years, Melo noticed Kobe had a different aura about him. He had an unquenchable thirst to be the best in every way. Whether it was his intense focus or relentless approach to the game, Kobe lived and breathed Mamba Mentality.
Anthony followed the 18-time NBA All-Star’s insightful approach.
“I think the most important thing about Kobe for me was his approach, his mentality, his game speaks for itself,” Melo said. “I just think the way he approached the game, the type of mentality that he had, you know he called it the Mamba Mentality. That’s something that’s going to be here for a long, long time. I don’t think that’s something – that mentality is never going anywhere. It’s a mindset.
“And I think that’s what I took from him. How to change your mindset, how to approach it, how to become self-motivated, how things make you tick, what made you tick. For me, it’s all about the approach. Figuring out what works best for you and what doesn’t.”
We’re coming up on 365 days since the passing of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a Southern California helicopter crash. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t feel any easier than the moment we all heard the news, captivated by our TVs and shouting the words, “this can’t be real.”
For Anthony, he chooses to remember Kobe the only way he knows how: As one of the best trash talkers and most brilliant players to ever step foot on the court.
“He used to always say ‘don’t wake me up,’” Melo said. “It was things like that, ‘don’t wake me up tonight.’ If he missed a couple of shots, don’t wake me up. That’s what he used to tell me. … I think that mentality and those dialogues and those conversations that we had back then—I got up for him. I took the challenge; he took the challenge. That really created a different type of bond between the both of us.”