Throughout Kobe Bryant’s NBA
career, he was obsessed with winning championships and cementing
himself as the greatest player of all-time. He was known for his
maniacal work ethic and drive. Even after he became the best player
in the NBA, he continued to outwork everyone – determined to
maximize every ounce of his potential.
He prioritized winning over
“I focus on one thing and one
thing only – that’s trying to win as many championships as I can,”
Bryant once said.
However, as Bryant got older and
became a father, that started to change. He realized that there’s
more to life – more to his legacy – than how many times he hoisted
the Larry O’Brien trophy.
He started prioritizing his
family. He also went from being notoriously guarded and cagey with
fellow players to mentoring some fellow stars and taking them under
“It’s not something that you
think about when you’re playing, but as you get older, you become a
little more conscious of that kind of stuff; you start looking at
the next generation and how you can help in some kind of way,”
Bryant told me in
2018. “Because at some
point, it has to become about something more than just winning
championships, right? It has to become about something more – about
how you’ve helped the next generation and how you’ve given back to
the game. So to hear [how I’ve impacted] players who are playing
today, it means a lot, man.”
Bryant made it his mission to
help these young players. Suddenly, he was holding invite-only
camps in the offseason, breaking down film with them, passing along
advice and words of encouragement, and more.
“It’s almost like a big-brother
type of thing,” Bryant explained to me in
2018. “They know I was
in the league for so long and I’ve seen so many things, so there’s
hardly any scenario they can throw at me that I haven’t come
across; either I’ve been through it myself or I’ve seen one of my
teammates or close friends go through a similar situation, so I can
help. I get called a lot, and it’s not just from NBA players; I get
calls from athletes in a bunch of other sports, as well. It’s fun
to play that role. I really enjoy it.”
Now, it’s clear those lessons
Many of the players who have
shined during the 2021 NBA Playoffs were influenced by Bryant. Some
were mentored by Kobe directly, while others just grew up idolizing
him and emulating his game. A few even said that Bryant is the
reason they fell in love with basketball.
It's been almost a
year-and-a-half since Bryant tragically passed away, but his
fingerprints are all over this postseason.
Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker
idolized Bryant as a kid, trying to emulate his game and "Mamba
Mentality." That’s why it meant so much to him when he eventually
developed a relationship with Bryant.
“[He’s the reason for] a lot of
what I do, man, mentality-wise, approach-wise, everything,”
Booker said. “Before I even knew him personally, he had
shaped my life, my basketball career, my approach to everything...
The biggest thing for me was earning his respect.”
When Booker was a rookie, he got
the chance to play against Bryant during his retirement tour,
finishing with 28 points and 7 assists in the Suns' win. After the
game, Bryant gave Booker his game-worn shoes and autographed them,
with the message "Be Legendary." After Bryant passed away, Booker
decided to get this phrase tattooed on his forearm in Kobe's
"I got 'Be Legendary' tatted on
my arm,” Booker said of his very first tattoo. “That's something
that Kob' left me with after our final game against each other.
That still keeps me motivated, and will always keep me
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis
Antetokounmpo also grew up rooting for Bryant.
"Kobe influenced my life,
looking up to him,” Giannis said. “[He’s] one of the reasons I started playing
basketball, one of the reasons that I am here today… Growing up, he
was my idol. Not just my idol, probably the whole generation's idol. For
us, he was the Michael Jordan of our generation.”
In 2017, Bryant challenged
Antetokounmpo to win the NBA's Most Valuable Player award (as one
of his ‘Mamba Mentality’ Challenges). In 2018, Giannis got the
chance to work out with Bryant and pick his brain. Then, he
achieved the goal that Bryant set for him, winning back-to-back MVP
awards in 2019 and 2020.
“He was one of those guys that
gave back to the game so much, gave back to the players,”
Antetokounmpo said. “A lot of people when they're so great, they
don't do that. There was a quote that said, ‘Talent is worthless if
you're not willing to share it.’ He was one of those guys that was
sharing his talent with us… When I'm gone, if I can impact people's
lives the way Kobe impacted mine and people's lives around the
world, that'd be a blessing."
Los Angeles Clippers star Paul
George made very similar comments to Antetokounmpo's about Kobe.
Growing up in California, he was a huge fan from a very young
“He’s the reason all of us
played the game… He was our MJ, he was our hero, he was our GOAT,”
George said. “Growing up as a SoCal kid, he was what every
kid wanted to be here. I started playing basketball because of
Kobe. I attacked the game the way he played both ends. I took so
many things away from him, and he made a big impression on me as a
kid, just about how to go about playing the game. Aside from
God-given talent, I credit everything else to him… If there was no
Kobe Bryant, I don't know who I would've looked at and idolized...
I picked this ball up because of this man."
Later, Bryant and George became
close and trained together. After Bryant passed away, George wrote
a lengthy post on
Instagram that concluded
with, “Thank you for taking me under your wing and being in my
"From idolizing him as a kid to
developing a friendship and brotherhood to now having conversations
with him this summer at his Mamba Academy and talking about
fatherhood, it's just some sh*t you can't get over,” George
George’s teammate, Kawhi
Leonard, also grew up in California and had a ton of respect for
Bryant. And, like Antetokounmpo and George, he worked out with Kobe
on several occasions.
“I had a relationship with him,”
Leonard said. “He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a
lot for me… I want to thank Kobe for everything he’s done for me.
All the long talks and workouts; thank you.”
Leonard spoke to Kobe throughout
the Toronto Raptors’ championship run, and he was one of the first
people Leonard talked to after they won the title in
"I talked to Kobe last year
before the season and right after we won in the locker room,"
Leonard said. "Me and [Raptors assistant coach] Phil Handy
worked out with him before I went to Toronto, and then he was
probably the first or second guy we talked to – other than our
teammates or family – after we won."
Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young
and Bryant also had a relationship. Young was his daughter Gigi’s
favorite player, which brought Young and the Bryant family closer
together. Gigi even started working out with Young’s trainer, Alex
Bazzell, in hopes of playing more like Trae.
“Me and Kobe got to talk pretty
frequently, and he just gave me a lot of advice,” Young
said. “I was just blessed that I was able to meet
him and have that sort of relationship with him."
Young actually spoke with Kobe
and Gianna the day before they passed away; they called to
congratulate Young on becoming an All-Star.
“One of the last conversations
we had, man, he was just telling me how he’s seen my game
progress,” Young said. “He was just happy for me. He was saying how
proud he was of me and how he wants to continue seeing me be a role
model for kids growing up and just for Gigi and all of the kids
looking up to me and continue to inspire these kids and continue to
play my heart out. That was one of the last things he said to
Gigi was also a big fan of
Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who credits his love of
basketball at least in part to Bryant.
“He and LeBron were, for
guys; that [is why] I
play basketball,” Doncic said. “I looked up to them and that’s why I got
motivated to play basketball.”
In 2018, Doncic worked out with
Bryant, posting a
photo of the two of them
In December of 2019, Kobe and
Gianna attended a Lakers-Mavericks game so that they could watch
Luka play in person. Bryant jokingly talked trash to Doncic in Slovenian, which caught him off guard. Once he
turned around and saw it was Bryant, Luka laughed and dapped
him. After the game, Kobe
and Gianna each took a
“That day was amazing and I’ll
never forget this,” Luka said. “He was one of the guys I looked up
Embiid said that watching Bryant
during the 2010 NBA Finals changed his life.
"Back in 2010 watching the
Finals, Lakers against Celtics, that was the turning point in my
life," Embiid said. "Watching that Finals, watching Kobe. After
watching, I just wanted to be like him. I just wanted to play
basketball... If it wasn't for that moment, I wouldn't be here. [I]
probably would have been playing volleyball or something ... [Kobe]
meant a lot to me."
After Bryant passed away, Embiid
temporarily wore No. 24 to honor him.
“He was my favorite player, and
even when you watch the way I play basketball and the moves that
I’ve added -- especially when it comes to fadeaways over both
shoulders -- that comes from a lot of tapes on Kobe’s game,”
Embiid said. “I miss him a lot. I wish he was still here
"The first player I fell in love
with was Kobe,” he added.
Irving idolized Bryant growing
up, and they eventually connected in 2013 thanks to then-Cleveland
Cavaliers assistant Phil Handy, who coached Irving in Cleveland and
Bryant in Los Angeles.
“Kyrie really respected Kobe,
and Kobe was a big fan of Kyrie,” Handy recalled to
“When I got to Cleveland, I asked Kobe, ‘If you don’t mind
mentoring this kid and helping, that would be tremendous.’ … And
Kobe played a huge part in helping [Kyrie] from a peer standpoint,
getting him to understand what his mindset needs to be.”
Of all the players currently in
the NBA, Irving may have been the closest with Bryant. They worked
out together in the offseason and spoke regularly.
"His words of encouragement
throughout the year, just checking up on me and making sure I'm
okay and seeing where I was health-wise, just giving me advice
constantly throughout the year, it's helped me tremendously
throughout my career,” Irving said in 2015. “I try to emulate [him] and take
things from his game and turn it into my own. But he's Kobe Bryant.
There's not going to be anybody like him."
When Irving found out that
Bryant was retiring, he sent a heartfelt text: "I was like, 'Man, you've allowed me to grow
in my own space, but having guys like you that I can idolize and
look up to, I'm going to try to take your legacy even further and
be on the same greatness wavelength as you,'” Irving
Since Bryant’s death, Irving has
pushed for the NBA to change its logo to a silhouette of Kobe.
"He was the standard for our
generation, and he will continue on," Irving said. "He’s the guy, for me. A mentor. He’s more than just an
inspiration. I took a lot of knowledge and wisdom from that guy.
He’s always around me. Gigi is always around me.”
Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum
also modeled his game after Kobe and trained with him at one point.
He even named his dog “Bean” after Bryant.
"[Training with Kobe] was just a
surreal moment,” Tatum said. “Just looking at him, remembering myself when
I was a toddler, just a young kid watching him on TV and being
like, 'That's who I want to be like. This is why I love
basketball.' He inspired me. Fast-forward, now I'm 20 and I'm
having a one-on-one interaction with him…
“Besides my son being born,
that's like the best day of my life, just to be in that gym with
him and work out with him and learn some tips. I'll never forget
that day, how I felt going into the workout, how I felt afterward.
I just felt like that was the coolest thing ever for me. I'll never
After Bryant passed away, Tatum
detailed Bryant’s impact on him in an IG
post: “My hero. My idol.
The reason I started to play this game, the reason I fell in love
with this game. Growing up, wanting to be just like you, to you
becoming a mentor, [I’m] beyond thankful for everything you’ve done
for me. ‘I didn’t have a Plan B. I put all my eggs in one basket,
and I knew I was going to make it happen.’ Hearing you say that
stuck with me every day of my life. You inspired me, and I am
forever grateful – more than you know.”
Lillard also made the transition
from rooting for Bryant to competing against him to eventually
developing a bond with him.
“I grew up idolizing Kobe, I
grew up a huge fan of Kobe and cheering for Kobe and eventually
becoming a peer of his and playing against him and getting cool
with him and being in contact with him,” Lillard said.
During Lillard’s first All-Star
Game, in 2014, Bryant kept telling him, “You
fu**ing belong here. You’re right where you’re supposed to be with
everyone here. You’re an All-Star. Just keep working, young
Lillard really appreciated the
“For me, I’ve never sought out
validation and I’ve never needed it... but when it came from him,
it was just different,” Lillard added. “It hit different to me. I appreciated that
more because of just the history of growing up a fan, idolizing him
and then becoming a peer. When you hear it from him, you know it’s
certified. So, that just meant a lot to me.”
While performing during NBA
All-Star Weekend in 2020, Lillard wore a "Mamba Forever"
Back in 2015, while defending
Bryant from the media’s criticism, Durant talked about Kobe’s
impact on him and the game as a whole.
"I did idolize Kobe Bryant. I
studied him, wanted to be like him," Durant said. "He was our Michael Jordan. I've been
disappointed this year because you guys treated him like sh*t. He's
a legend, and all I hear is about how bad he's playing, how bad
he's shooting and it's time for him to hang it up. You guys treated
one of our legends like sh*t, and I didn't really like it. So
hopefully now you can start being nice to him now that he decided
to retire after this year...
“He had an amazing career, a guy
who changed the game for me as a player mentally, physically. Means
so much to the game of basketball. Somebody I'm always going to
look to for advice, for help, anything. Just a brilliant,
brilliant, intelligent man."
Durant and Bryant were teammates
on Team USA, and KD has
also talked about how
seeing Kobe's work ethic up close motivated him.
Like George and Leonard,
Westbrook is from California, so he also became a Kobe fan at a
young age. As a teenager, he actually met Bryant and played against
“I met Kobe when I was 16 at
UCLA playing against him in a pick-up game,” Westbrook wrote
Instagram. “He played
like it was the NBA Finals. From that point on, I decided that I
wanted to emulate his Mamba Mentality. At the time, there was no
name for it, but I recognized in him what I always felt in
Years later, Westbrook also
developed a relationship with Bryant and trained with
“He became a friend, a brother,
a mentor, a teacher, he defended me, he believed in me, and he
taught me how to weather the storm,” Westbrook said. “I can go on and on, but I want to thank you
for being my idol and inspiration.”
Harden, who is also from
California, has always said that he looked up to Bryant.
"Anytime somebody asked me who
my idol is, who I grew up watching and idolizing, it’s Kobe,”
Harden said. “I have so many memories."
Eventually, the two became
close, with Harden saying that Kobe was “like a big brother to me."
“I think of him a lot, man,”
Harden said. “Obviously, we all miss him. He was like a
[role] model to me. I looked up to him as a role model when I was
younger, growing up in L.A. Then, as he got older, on his way out
of the league, he became a real mentor outside of basketball, in
the business world. That's kind of where our relationship really
In fact, Harden and Bryant even
worked together on some business projects.
“We had some investments
together. We had a couple business plans together we were actually
working on,” Harden said. “Off the court, business savvy, that’s a side
nobody really knows about our communication."
Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant
also grew up watching Bryant, and he has talked about how he's
always loved Kobe’s mentality and approach to the
“Growing up, AAU, 8 years old,
that’s who I watched: Lakers vs. Celtics to watch Kobe,”
Morant said. “I used to shoot... like every kid when you
were young, if you had anything you had to throw in the trash,
you’d shoot it and say, ‘Kobe!’ That’s all I grew up watching.
That’s my guy.”
After Bryant passed away, Morant
was visibly upset and displayed an autographed Kobe jersey in his
locker. Morant has worn a ton of Nike Kobe sneakers throughout his
career, even vowing in January to only wear high-top
Kobes for the rest of the year.
It’s remarkable just how many
people Bryant impacted, including many of today’s NBA biggest
After Devin Booker's 47-point,
11-rebound performance at Staples Center to knock the Lakers out of
this year’s playoffs, he was asked what was going through his head
during the game.
“Honestly, I was thinking about
Kob' and the conversations that we had,” Booker said. “About what we just went through – the
postseason and being legendary and taking the steps to get there.
So seeing that 8 and that 24 up there, with the way the lighting
Staples has here, it feels like it’s shining down on you. And I
know he was here tonight.
“I know he was here tonight. I
know he was in the building, and I know he was proud.”