The Morning Column: August 24, 2021
It's 8/24, which means it's Kobe Bryant Day. I was lucky enough to cover him for most of his career in L.A. and put together 8 of my favorite quotes from him or about him.
I’m still on the road and will be on WWE NXT tonight at 8 p.m. ET on the USA Network so we’re going to skip the normal format again today and focus on Kobe Bryant as Los Angeles celebrates Kobe Bryant Day on 8/24. Please subscribe below if you haven’t already. Thanks!
It’s 8/24, which means it is Kobe Bryant Day in Los Angeles. It isn’t just a day celebrated by fans on the one day of the year that includes the two numbers he wore during his hall of fame career. The city of Los Angeles actually declared 8/24 as “Kobe Bryant Day” in 2016 after his final season with the Lakers. On this day where we celebrate the life and career of Bryant, I wanted to share eight of my favorite quotes from Bryant or about Bryant during my time covering him in Los Angeles.
1. “I’ll get it when it really matters.”
Whenever someone talks about Kobe Bryant’s greatest games, the one that obviously sticks out for most is the night he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006. My favorite game of Bryant’s career actually took place one month earlier on Dec. 20, 2005. On that night, Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks, who would go on to play in the NBA Finals that season, by himself through three quarters, 62-61. The Lakers were blowing out Dallas 95-61 and with the game in hand, Bryant took a seat on the bench after playing just 33 minutes.
Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who was Bryant’s teammate from 1999-2003, told me that he asked Bryant if he wanted to stay in the game to score 70 points. Only three players in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and David Robinson) had ever scored 70 points in a game. Bryant declined and sat out the entire fourth quarter.
“After the third quarter, the players were on the bench and the coaches went out and huddled on the court. Phil (Jackson) asked me to go ask Kobe if he wanted to stay in the game and try to get 70 and then come out. So, I went up to Kobe and said, ‘Hey, Coach wants to know if you want to stay in for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, get 70 and then come out.’ He looked up at the scoreboard, and he said, ‘Nah, I'll get it another time.’ I looked at him and I kind of got mad. I said: ‘What?! You have a chance to get 70 points. How many people can say they scored 70 points? Just stay in the first few minutes and get another eight points, get 70 and then come out of the game.’ He said: ‘I'll do it when we really need it. I'll get it when it really matters.’
Kobe laughed when I relayed that story to him a few days later.
“Brian was mad. He was like: ‘Man, are you crazy? You know what you could score tonight?’ I just said, ‘I'll do it when we really need it.’ Brian was like, ‘What?!’ It was something that just rolled off my tongue because I trained extremely hard and the physical tools were there. I just felt like I could have a game like that again.”
One month later he did.
2. “Genetics are a real thing, man!”
The only magazine cover displayed in the lobby of Bryant’s office in Costa Mesa was the cover of SLAM he appeared on with his daughter, Gianna, and her teammates. Highlights of Gigi playing had started to pop up online the last time I talked to Bryant in his office and I asked him about the similarities they had on the court.
“It’s a trip to see her move and some of the expressions she makes. It’s a trip how genetics work. Genetics are a real thing, man! What I love about Gigi is her curiosity about the game. She’s very curious. Even in a heated situation in a game where it’s going back and forth, she can detach herself and come to me and ask a very specific question, which is not common. She’ll come over and say, ‘OK, on this particular trap when I’m trying to close the gap but she’s getting on the outside do I need to change my angle?’ It’s a very specific question. That’s pretty damn cool.”
3. “I always thought 80 was possible.”
I sat down with Bryant in the film room of the Lakers’ training facility in El Segundo to do an story for ESPN.com on the 10th anniversary of the night he scored 81 points. Bryant showed up to the interview with Gianna, who was just as interested in hearing her father break down that game as I was. Towards the end of the interview, I asked him what that night meant to him. He smiled and looked at Gigi before answering.
"It's really a testament to the power of imagination, honestly. There's a lot of players who come up now who don't think 80 points is possible. You think 50, and if you're really hot -- 60. I never had that limit. Ever. I never, ever thought that way. I always thought 80 was possible. I thought 90 was possible. I thought 100 was possible. Always. I think that game is a testament to what happens when you put no ceiling to what you're capable of doing."
4. “I’d rather be with them than doing anything else.”
The last time I sat down with Bryant was in his office in Costa Mesa on Oct. 21, 2019, before the opening game of the 2019-20 season between the Lakers and Clippers. I asked him if he would be at the game at Staples Center. He said he wouldn’t. He was going to Natalia’s volleyball game and he wasn’t sure when he would be at his next Lakers game. After a 20-year NBA career, he said he was focused on spending more time with his wife, Vanessa, and their daughters, Natalia, Gianna, Bianka, and Capri.
“To be honest, I have a life and I have my routine at home. It’s not that I don’t want to go (to Lakers games) but I’d rather be giving B.B. a shower and sing Barney songs to her. I played 20 years and I missed those moments before. For me to make the trip up to Staples Center that means I’m missing an opportunity to spend another night with my kids when I know how fast it goes. Natalia is 16 and Gianna is 13 so that time came and went so I want to make sure the days that I’m away from them are days that I absolutely have to be. I’d rather be with them than doing anything else.”
5. “I should have had 90 points or more.”
Ever the perfectionist, Bryant was still critical of himself whenever he talked about the 81-point game. In fact, his missed shots and missed minutes are the only thing he thought about when he watched the game back years later.
“I should have had 90 points or more. I missed two free throws after making 62 straight. I had some open looks. I had some really open looks that I missed. I could have had more. There's a lot of easy opportunities I missed. I think 100 is possible. I absolutely do. If I hadn't sat out those six minutes in the first half, maybe I would have had it.”
6. “If I can play as hard as Rudy with the talent I have, anything's possible.”
Perhaps the only time I ever saw Bryant star-struck was when he saw Rudy Ruettiger, the former Notre Dame football player whose life story was the inspiration for the 1993 film Rudy. Ruettiger’s daughter, Jessica, was singing the national anthem in Sacramento before the Lakers-Kings game and they wanted a picture with Bryant after he was done shooting around on the court at Arco Arena.
"Rudy?!" Bryant said after Rudy introduced himself. "The movie?"
"Yeah," Ruettiger said.
"That movie changed my life," Bryant said.
Bryant said he saw the movie at least five times in the movie theaters when it came out during his sophomore year at Lower Merion High School and had seen it “a hundred” times since then and it motived him.
"When I saw it I told myself if I can play as hard as Rudy with the talent I have, anything's possible. I've met a lot of people in my life but that one there, man, that one fucked me up."
7. “I realized 5:30 a.m. meant 4:45 a.m. with Kobe.”
Bryant’s training regime and early morning workouts are legendary and I once asked longtime Lakers scout and coach, Rasheed Hazzard to describe it for me.
“I got a phone call from a blocked number the day after Labor Day [in 2005]. It's 11 p.m., and it's Kobe, and he wanted to know if I would help him on the court at 5:30 a.m. I told him I'll be there, and I show up at 5:20 a.m. thinking I'm early, and he's already in a full sweat. He had hired a guy just to stretch him that year and to show him different ways to do active warm-ups, so he had already done that and lifted weights. He's in a full sweat 10 minutes before we're supposed to meet and ready to go. That's when I realized 5:30 a.m. meant 4:45 a.m. with Kobe. When we were done, he went and had a track workout. When he was done at the track, he had a core workout, and then I met him that night at UC Irvine to get some more shots in. I've never seen anyone work like that. His hunger to be the best is unmatched.
8. “[The 81-point game] was the first game and only game my grandmother has ever been to in the NBA.”
One of the craziest things about Bryant’s 81-point game that I didn’t know until talking to him 10 years after it had happened was that it was the only game of Bryant’s career that his grandmother attended and it took place on his grandfather’s birthday.
“It didn't dawn on me until later on, when I was talking to my sister about it and she pointed it out, but that was the first game and only game my grandmother has ever been to in the NBA, and it was on my grandfather's birthday who had passed away. Going to games makes her nervous, so she just doesn't like going. It's always hard for her to come and watch, but she came to this one after Natalia's birthday party. I don't know if it was my grandfather up above making sure the ball goes through the basket every time or whatever the case may be, but it's just interesting. In sports, things like that always seem to happen, and you just have to wonder. My grandfather was the one who used to send me all of these basketball tapes overseas. He used to tape the games for me and send me the NBA Entertainment videos when I was a kid. It was pretty cool to have that happen on his birthday.”