LOS ANGELES — It seemed too overwhelming to handle the grief as tears flowed among the speakers and the nearly 20,000 people that watched them.
So whenever it became too depressing to process Kobe and Gianna Bryant dying nearly a month ago from a helicopter crash, those speakers relied on an effective coping mechanism: They shared amusing stories about Kobe Bryant that captured his maniacal competitiveness.
Bryant admired Michael Jordan for winning six NBA championships with a demanding leadership style. So, Bryant could not wait to show his similar personality when former Bulls and Lakers coach Phil Jackson invited Jordan to the team’s practice facility.
“The first thing Kobe said, 'Did you bring your shoes?’ ” Jordan recalled, laughing. “No, I wasn’t thinking about playing.”
Opinion: Michael Jordan makes rare appearance to share story of rare friendship with Kobe Bryant
Bryant clashed with Shaquille O’Neal during their eight years together with the Lakers over shots, work ethic and personalities, even when they won three NBA titles out of four Finals appearances. So when O’Neal and his teammates became frustrated with Bryant for not passing the ball, O’Neal concluded he needed to stage an intervention.
“Kobe, there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,” O’Neal recalled saying, likely more than once. “He said, ‘I know, but there’s an ‘M-E’ in that (expletive).' ”
Bryant respected Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma for how he recruited the country’s best talent and developed them well enough to win 11 NCAA championships. So it only seemed natural for Bryant to ask Auriemma for advice on how to coach 13-year-old Gianna and her AAU team, “Team Mamba.”
“Probably the most uncoachable player in the NBA during his career wants to know about coaching,” Auriemma cracked. “I wanted to know why. He said, ‘I’m coaching my daughter’s team.’ I said, ‘Oh my God. That poor kid.’ So when I watched the highlights of her playing, on about the third or fourth time she touched the ball, Gianna passed it when she was open. I thought, ‘She’s not listening to her father.’ ”
When Bryant hired Rob Pelinka as his agent in 2003, the two became so close that Pelinka eventually became Gianna’s godfather. Pelinka also considered Bryant to be his best friend. But when Pelinka beat Bryant in tennis shortly into his retirement, Bryant did not allow that to happen the next time they met on the court.
“There he was waiting for me already with a full sweat,” Pelinka said. “As his tennis skills exploded, I learned that he had secretly reached out to the clubs pro for private lessons and then share any of them with me. Typical Mamba mentality.”
Those stories prompted laughter. But these various anecdotes also revealed a larger story. They explained how Bryant won five NBA championships, how he finished No. 3 on the league’s all-time scoring list and how he overcame too many injuries to count. They captured how Bryant’s obsessive approach occasionally became too much for others to handle. And they revealed how Bryant constantly sought self improvement, while those around him eventually appreciated his tactics.
“He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be,” Jordan said.
Nearly two decades after contacting Jordan at odd hours about post-up moves, footwork and training, Bryant peppered Jordan on how he worked on his game at the age of 12 so he could give some tips to Gianna. Jordan replied, “I was trying to play baseball.” At other times, though, Jordan gave Bryant plenty of insight both about hoops and business.
“He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. As I got to know him. I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be,” Jordan said. “To do that, you have to put up with the aggravation, the late night calls or the dumb questions. I took great pride as I got to know Kobe Bryant that he was just trying to be a better person and a better basketball player.”
O’Neal and Bryant conceded that they left NBA championships on the table. Yet, they believe their on-court tension became necessary. It sparked their teammates to match their intensity. It motivated Bryant and O’Neal to master their play in hopes of eventually winning the hierarchical fight. And it prompted Bryant and O’Neal to put those differences aside in games that mattered.
“Kobe and I have a very complex relationship throughout the years. But it’s like another leadership duo in John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose creative rivalry led to some of the greatest music of all time,” O’Neal said. “Kobe and I pushed one another to play some of the greatest basketball of all time and I am proud that no other team has accomplished what the three-peat Lakers have done since the Shaq and Kobe Lakers did it. Sometimes like immature kids, we argued, we fought.. Folks thought we were on bad terms. But when the cameras are turned off, he and I would throw a wink at each other and say, ‘Let’s go whoop some…' ”
Shaquille O'Neal speaks to the audience during the memorial to celebrate the life of Kobe and Gianna Bryant at Staples Center. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)
Bryant peppered Auriemma with questions on what schemes he should teach Gianna and her young teammates. He soon relented and kept the lessons simple, while occasionally adding in elements of Jackson’s triangle offense. Bryant, who often yelled at teammates for making a mistake, adopted a more patient approach with the young basketball players. And when Bryant and Gianna attended a recent Huskies game, the former Lakers’ star did not care about having the spotlight.
“He was being dad then; he wasn’t being Kobe Bryant,” Auriemma said. “And he was allowing Gigi to be Gigi and not Kobe Bryant’s daughter. In today’s day and age, that’s a hell of a thing for parents to be able to do.”
Pelinka said Bryant learned to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in hopes to further capture Vanessa’s heart. After retiring from his 20-year NBA career in 2016, Bryant rectified being late to pick up Natalia and Gianna from school by arriving over an hour early. While Bryant oversaw a story-telling production company and a sports training facility, Pelinka said Bryant also hoped “to create the best youth girls basketball team on the planet.” Yet, Bryant also spent plenty of his time mentoring NBA and WNBA players.
Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka remembered his best friend Kobe Bryant and goddaughter Gianna Bryant at their Staples Center memorial service.
That is why it was fitting that Bryant texted Pelinka on the morning of Jan. 26 asking if he could help Lexi Altobelli, daughter of Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, secure a baseball agency internship. Moments later, Bryant, Gianna and John Altobelli were among the nine people that died in a helicopter crash.
“Kobe’s last human act was heroic,” Pelinka said. “He wanted to use his platform to bless and shape a young girl’s future. Hasn’t Kobe done that for all of us?”
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