I was fortunate enough to play with some great players in college, in the NBA, and around the world. As could be expected, there is one guy that I get asked about the most, and with good reason. He is the best, or at least one of the best, to ever play the game. He’s a living legend; an icon.
I’m talking about Kobe Bryant.
I was lucky enough to be on the roster in LA with Kobe when the Lakers won the NBA Finals for the 2001-02 season. But that wasn’t the only time I got to play ball with Kobe.
Back in the day when I was at UCLA, we used to have these pick-up games. It wasn’t just the guys on the team that played—although UCLA was fresh off winning a national title in 1995 so we had some pretty good players on the squad. But NBA guys would come in and play, too.
I’m talking guys like Shawn Kemp, Anfernee Hardaway, Shaquille O’ Neal, Baron Davis, Jalen Rose — some of the best in the game back in the mid-90s. We had some of the best basketball talents in the world playing in that gym.
We had games that rivaled the ones the NBA had going on in the playoffs at the time. If you had guy mic’d up for sound, the trash talk, and bravado on display was a sight to behold— and be censored.
In comes this 17-year old from Philly. Most kids would feel a little intimidated walking into that kind of environment, but not Kobe. I’m not a big fan of using the word ‘swagger,’ but he had swagger before the word even existed.
He walked in with the mindset that he was going to dominate this gym and establish himself as the best basketball player in the city—and he did. It didn’t matter to him if you were a college superstar, on the AAU circuit, or an NBA All-Star. He owned you in those pickup games.
Even then, you could see what an incredible talent he was. I’m not just talking the physical aspect of playing the game but the mental side as well. He could watch you attempt to put your best moves on him or someone else, and then a few trips later down the court he uses them against you.
Even at that young age, it was clear he was destined for greatness. I can’t say that I ever saw another player with as much talent as he had, especially at such a young age.
Those games are something I look back on and can’t help but smile. It was a closed and controlled setting—no cameras, no social media. It was basketball for the sake of playing basketball and nothing else.