Jerry West on Kobe Bryant's greatness: It's about the respect that other players have for you

FILE - Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant gives basketball great Jerry West a shoulder rub after the Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs 100-92 in Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference basketball finals, May 29, 2008, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, File)

As the rain pummeled Southern California, the winds whipping, Jerry West sat in his Westside home listening to it all, his thoughts changing as he began to reminisce about the evolution of Kobe Bryant.

The inclement weather on this Monday afternoon put West in a melancholy mood when a reporter called to have him share his thoughts about Bryant's statue being unveiled Thursday outside Arena in what West says will be an emotional ceremony.

Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020, and West said that was on his mind now because Bryant was about to be recognized for one of the highest honors in sports.

West also has a statue outside the arena, as do fellow Lakers luminaries Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Elgin Baylor and Chick Hearn.

Bryant now will join this exclusive Lakers club.

Read more: Complete coverage: Kobe Bryant's statue unveiling

“Well, I think it was a Sunday when his helicopter crashed, and I look outside [on Monday] and it’s raining and gray looking, very much like that day, except for the rain,” said West, who was the Lakers general manager who brought Bryant to the team. “And you know, his name is in the newspaper a lot for someone who passed away so unexpectedly. And, I don’t reflect on that part of it. I just reflect on the personal things that I saw.

“Just thinking, this Thursday we’re going to honor [him] ... I’m thrilled they are doing it.”

West recalled how Bryant as an 18-year-old rookie showed no fear when the game usually called for a veteran with experience to take the big shots. Instead, it was Bryant looking to lead the team at a young age. He shot four consecutive airballs late in a 1997 playoff game against the Utah Jazz, a semifinal series the Lakers lost.

“I remember how he became a basketball player maybe because of what people would consider a failure and that was the series against Utah,” West said. “When I saw him airball two or three or four shots in that game, I said to myself, ‘This guy is not afraid. This will be the changing of the guard for him.’ And he was already good. But he just didn’t have much experience. After that, his career just took off.”

Later in life, Bryant easily made the transition from iconic player to successful businessman.

He promoted women’s basketball, Gianna’s love for the game matching her father's passion.

Gianna Bryant and her father Kobe are photographed courtside at the WNBA All-Star Game in 2019 in Las Vegas.
Gianna Bryant and her father Kobe are photographed courtside at the WNBA All-Star Game in 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Those are just some of the things West admired about Bryant.

“His life was going to be just as successful off the court as it was on the court, because he combined the best elements for all athletes,” West said. “He was well-rounded. I think just his ability to be able to change the direction of his career where if he wanted to promote women’s basketball and opportunities for them in other areas, [he could]. When I watched how all this developed when he was still living, I said to myself that really indicates what kind of person he is also.

“Every once in a while I reflect back to those days and I can see that big smile on his face and I can see how determined he was as an athlete to get to the very top of his profession, which he did. And I think lastly for great, great players is the respect that other players have for you. That’s the only compliment in life and he had reached that status.”

West, 85, paused for a few seconds.

“I’m just looking at a picture of him and his daughter,” he said. “I keep it in a little place in front of me. I see it every day. It’s him sitting on the floor and she’s snuggled up against him. I’m not sure exactly what love is sometimes. I know when you care deeply. I think the most difficult thing for some people is to even show that part of it. But that to me was very special, the two of them together. It’s just tragic that he’s gone. It’s tragic.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.