Jerry West, the man who brought Kobe Bryant to the Lakers, is having a tough time watching him leave.
West almost doesn’t recognize the once-fearsome superstar who, on his final lap of the league, is shooting just over 30 percent while posing for selfies, exchanging pleasantries before jump balls and making self-deprecating comments during news conferences. So on Thursday morning, the day after the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour was launched with the Lakers losing to the previously winless (0-15) Philadelphia 76ers, West saluted Bryant in his own private way. The former Lakers general manager popped in a highlight tape of Bryant’s first three championship seasons and sat back in awe.
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“I was like, ‘My God, he was great,’ ” West said in a phone interview. “This was when he still had hair and played well above the rim. He was just one of those extraordinary players that come along every once in awhile. You don’t see the same Kobe today. You just don’t. When he was playing at his best, there was no one better.”
It is Bryant in his prime, not Bryant the 37-year-old in his current decline, whom West hopes everyone will remember and honor as the 17-time All-Star limps his way to the finish line.
Bryant, who announced his retirement — effective at the end of this season — last Sunday via a poem to fans on Derek Jeter’s website, is a shell of the great player he once was, and is playing for a dreadful team. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying to make the most of his final moments on court. Bryant has hired a film crew to document his final season, filed for a trademark application for special logos created for his “hero/villain” retirement marketing campaign and is selling a $32 hat commemorating his final season on his personal website.
Yes, Bryant’s five-month goodbye is shaping up to be the most surreal of farewell tours. What did you expect? It only seems right to be waving a complicated and messy goodbye to a player who leaves a complicated and messy legacy that includes being arrested for sexual assault in 2003 at the height of his career.
Though the sexual assault charges were dropped against Bryant, some fans permanently soured on him. Others were never in his camp in the first place because of his fiercely competitive nature that struck some as arrogant.
“If you look at his life in general, it’s pretty complex,” said Lakers coach Byron Scott, who is also a former teammate of Bryant’s. “He’s one of those guys who has dedicated his life and 20 years to this game. He wasn’t one of those guys who went out and tried to make friends and all that stuff. He was a guy who dedicated his life to basketball and to being a great basketball player.”
Making friends was never Bryant’s priority. In fact, he wasn’t even terribly friendly with his own teammates, most notably bickering with center Shaquille O’Neal on their way to winning three straight titles with the Lakers. This is why it’s almost jarring for many to see him laughing and joking with just about everyone, including opponents and reporters, since announcing his decision.
Bryant opened his news conference in Philadelphia with a joke about being “an old man” and needing a chair to sit down behind the podium. The next night, during a throwback effort in Washington, he scored 31 points while exchanging friendly jabs on the court with John Wall about being too old to chase him.
“A lot of people say he’s a (jerk),” Wall told reporters. “When he’s stepped on the court, you should want to rip someone’s head off, that’s been his mindset. But you’ve got to think, it’s over. It’s his last time playing guys. He’s enjoying his last ride.”
Yet, Bryant’s killer mindset was part of the work ethic that helped make him one of the game’s all-time great players, according to West.
West, a Hall of Famer, has been sold on Bryant since one summer day in 1996 when the Lakers brought him to Inglewood High School in Los Angeles for a pre-draft workout. Bryant, then 17, went head to head with the recently retired Michael Cooper and West instructed Cooper to go hard at him. After 30 minutes, Cooper was spent and West had seen all needed to see. He later called Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
“I told our owner, I think he’s the best player in the draft and he could be a mega star,” West recalled. “You can never predict greatness, but I thought he had the talent and skill to be great.”
West, now 77 and an executive board member of the Golden State Warriors, famously engineered one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history when he got the Charlotte Hornets to agree take Bryant with the No. 13 pick and trade him to the Lakers for center Vlade Divac.
Bryant would go on to win five NBA titles, one MVP award and two Olympic gold medals.
“From the beginning, it was eat, drink and sleep basketball for KB,” says Scott, whose final season with the Lakers was Bryant’s first.
West called Bryant’s work ethic unparalleled, adding that he did everything a team could ask including playing through injuries.
“He wanted to be the best, and he became, well, he got right there in the class of the very best,” West said. “We’ve had a lot of great players in the league, and he’s in the upper echelon. Somebody who plays the game at that level, it’s more than just skill. His skill was enormous, but he was also efficient and he played the game with flair. There’s not many good players that do that.”
West said he still sees glimmers of the old Bryant on the court, but knows it has to be hard for him to be out on the court every night. Indeed, there is something strangely compelling, and maybe even noble, about Bryant trying to eek out one last season, as messy as it is.
Said West: “I would prefer he had a great team around him which would let him play a little different type of a game. But he still cares about the game. You can see that. Mentally, I wonder when he goes back into the room at night and things were not what they were in the past, I wonder what his thought process is.”
It is a question that opponents, teammates and fans have been asking about Bryant for years.