CHARLOTTE, N.C. — RJ Barrett grew up in basketball royalty, from his father’s professional career overseas and then heading up the Canadian national team to his godfather, Steve Nash. But he never got the chance to meet Kobe Bryant. But that didn’t stop fans from giving him a nickname modeled after Bryant.
Bryant was referred to as “The Black Mamba” and made his Mamba Mentality a cornerstone of a leadership style he taught to professional athletes and kids alike. While at Duke University last season fans started referring to Barrett, in a nod to his Canadian upbringing, as “Maple Mamba.”
But Barrett had a request Tuesday, to put that nickname away.
“Nah, I don’t want to get called that anymore,” Barrett said. “Somebody great like that, to lose him in that way is really sad. Even to this day you just think about it and it keeps replaying in my mind. It’s tough.
“I’ve never met him. Growing up watching him play, especially for me, the big thing was seeing him with his daughters, especially after he retired was great. To lose him, especially while he was taking his daughter to practice, it’s rough.”
Barrett, who was received with a huge ovation in his first professional appearance back home in Toronto earlier this season and wore sneakers themed to the occasion, liked the nickname as a reminder of his heritage, telling ESPN before the NBA Draft, “I like that a lot. The Canadian maple leaf, so I get to rep my home, and also Kobe’s mentality, that mamba mentality, my competitive nature. So both together, you get the Maple Mamba.”
He said Tuesday that he did model much of his style after Bryant. “Yeah, I always said I loved his mentality,” he said. “I always tried to play that way. He had an ‘I don’t care’ mentality. He worked so hard. He played so hard all the time. I try to emulate that a lot.”
Barrett has been sidelined since January 16 when he suffered a sprained right ankle. He was on the floor at the Knicks morning shootaround putting up shots. It was the first time he has been able to do that since the injury and he took off his protective boot while he was out there. But he said he is still far from ready to return.
“To be honest, I’m just continuing to try to get better every day,” he said. “Shot a little bit, doing a little bit of shooting, trying to get my mobility back and trying to get stable on it. [I’ve got to be cautious] because today I was out there shooting and I was like, man, I feel good. No, it’s a process. Got to continue. I still can’t even stand up on one leg. Just got to slow down.”