CHICAGO — When Kobe Bean Bryant made his NBA debut, 16 of the 20 rookies and sophomores who will take part in Friday night’s Rising Stars Challenge at NBA All-Star weekend had not yet been born.
None of the 20 ever played against the Lakers legend. Only a few met him.
But even for the league’s younger generation, for players like Zion Williamson and Trae Young, and even for those who grew up outside the United States, Bryant’s legacy is tangible. His impact was, and still is, felt.
“It’s up there with Jordan,” Williamson said Friday. “Especially for this generation. Because he was this generation’s Michael Jordan.”
“Growing up, I didn’t get to watch MJ that much,” Hornets forward Miles Bridges explained. “So Kobe was kind of my Mike.”
Added Ja Morant: “That’s who I grew up watching.”
Williamson, Bridges and Morant were three of more than a dozen Rising Stars who shared memories of Bryant at NBA All-Star weekend on Friday. Their words paint a portrait of what Bryant meant to basketball’s Gen Z.
“When I was 8,” Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker begins. His mind flashes back to 2006-07, to scoring champion Kobe, to the All-Star Game MVP. Alexander-Walker was growing up in Ontario, more than 2,000 miles from Los Angeles. Nonetheless, “My first basketball number was 8,” he says. And then the memories start flowing.
“I had his first Nike shoe. And I remember I used to watch NBA TV, and they’d be showing his highlights. And I used to practice running with my thumbs up, like the way he did.”
“Just everything about basketball that he brought to the table,” Alexander-Walker continued. “Before the season even started, I knew the only shoe I would wear was a Kobe Bryant shoe. Just because of the impact he had on me and the approach he’s brought to the game, being super confident in yourself. People are gonna love you, people are gonna hate you. But as long as you can look in the mirror every day and feel confident, and feel appreciated by yourself, then that’s the biggest thing.”
Others have vivid memories of watching Kobe as a fan. Cavs guard Collin Sexton remembers staying up until 1 a.m. on a school night watching his “Mamba out” 60-point game against the Jazz in 2016. Wolves forward Josh Okogie remembers being at a friend’s house. A Lakers game, he says, “was just on, randomly. I wasn’t even trying to watch the game. And he hit a left-handed 3, or fadeaway, in the corner area. I just thought that was amazing. That was probably the No. 1 Kobe moment.”
Even Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, who grew up in Japan, watched Kobe throughout his childhood. Then, as a freshman in college, he got to meet his “hero.”
Meeting the Mamba
Hachimura couldn’t really understand what Kobe was saying. Hachimura and Gonzaga were at the Final Four in Phoenix. Before their game, Bryant brought the entire team shoes and gave a speech. What, exactly, did Kobe say?
“It was my first year, so my English was kind of bad,” Hachimura said with a smile. But he understood it was about the Mamba Mentality. And he understood what it meant.
Moritz Wagner learned about it first-hand as well. It was the summer of 2018. Wagner, now a Wizard, had been drafted by the Lakers. “I had a chance to meet him, and I feel very privileged to have had that chance,” Wagner said.
The two had a “pretty intense basketball conversation,” the German center explained. “That conversation showed me, in a way, that the Mamba Mentality, you can’t really explain it. And you can’t really fake it either. You can’t just say, ‘I have the Mamba Mentality.’ You live it every day. And he really did that. He had a different aura around him and mentality about him. That conversation, that whole day, kind of showed me that.”
Of all of Kobe’s face-to-face interactions with the NBA’s Rising Stars, Young’s was the most personal. It’s why news of Bryant’s death brought Young to tears on that Sunday afternoon last month.
“The last thing I got to talk to Kobe about was how proud he was of me,” Young said. “He just wanted me to continue to be a great role model for the younger kids.” Just like Bryant clearly was for so many two decades earlier.
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