Kobe Bryant's journey from cold-blooded assassin to NBA Godfather

Kobe Bryant would’ve never thought that he’d be here, dispensing wisdom like an old sage to anyone bold enough to approach him. Bryant built up an almost mythological reputation as a cold-blooded assassin. The self-proclaimed “Black Mamba” was so blinded by the championship chase and establishing a forever legacy that trampling everything in his path, scorched-earth style, was more the objective than leaving behind a blueprint.

But as his career began to wind down, his body betrayed him, and he became more aware of the influence he had on the game. Bryant began to recognize that his words could motivate as much, if not more, than his uber-intense actions. When Bryant shoots a text, an email or social-media shoutout, the message generally resonates and inspires.

“Listen, I’ve had great mentors growing up – Michael, Magic and all those guys,” Bryant recently told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to give back to the next generation and help them achieve great things and, in turn, they can pass it on to the generation that follows them.”

Considered an almost untouchable basketball god to players who grew up worshipping him on blacktop cathedrals, Bryant has now assumed the role of “Godfather” to a select few who could use some motivation through difficult times, or encouragement to pursue the impossible. More than likely, Bryant has been where they want to be or overcome more harrowing challenges. Sitting on that knowledge would be a waste of those experiences. From the time he was air-balling jumpers in Utah as a rookie in the 1997 playoffs to when he torched that same organization for 60 in his final game in 2016, Bryant has never been one to leave fuel — for himself or anyone else — in reserve.

Kobe Bryant is now enjoying a new role in retirement. (Illustration by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
Kobe Bryant is now enjoying a new role in retirement. (Illustration by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Bryant will add another distinction to his Hall of Fame career on Monday, when the Los Angeles Lakers — a franchise with no shortage of all-time greats in its history — will recognize both eras of his incredible 20-year run by retiring Nos. 8 and 24. Just like that, one man will own two of the Lakers’ 11 retired jerseys.

“He’s turned himself into a folktale. And it’s a great folktale,” Kyrie Irving told Yahoo Sports. “He’s like the abominable snowman that you can actually see in person. Almost like people are unsure if he’s approachable or not, but he’s an open book when you go and talk to him. It’s awesome to know that one of the greats to ever do it is taking the time to really give you knowledge that is about furthering your career and achieve greatness that you’ve dreamt of as a kid. He does it strictly for progressing the culture.”

Irving’s first encounter helped set the stage for their eventual friendship. Fresh off his rookie season in 2012, Irving completed a scrimmage with the U.S. Olympic team and bet Bryant $50,000 that he could beat him one-on-one. The game has never been played but the relationship has matured to the point that when he made one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history to deliver the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship in Game 7, Irving credited his “Mamba mentality” and FaceTimed with Bryant during the locker-room celebration. Irving has leaned on Bryant for counsel on how to handle playing with another superstar and how to deal with adversity and assume new challenges.

But Irving isn’t the only one to benefit from some Mamba mentorship. Though Bryant had solidified a reputation for being aloof during his playing days, several of today’s stars are familiar with the legend who doles out the secrets now that he has no more rings to win.

“He’s meant so much to the game. A lot of people look up to him. He’s been a big brother to the league and he’s always been there for guys,” Paul George told Yahoo Sports. “I think it’s his role and he understands that.”

‘He’s picking and choosing who he feels like wants to be great.’

In that devastating, soul-searching time after breaking his leg during a Team USA scrimmage in 2014, George was flooded with well-wishes and encouragement from family and visitors at the hospital. Bryant watched George’s horrific crash into the basket stanchion and sent him a text message about how to approach the next step in his life. Having just overcome an Achilles tendon injury in 2013 that usually ends careers at his age, Bryant gave George hope.

“That was like the ultimate lift to start out and have him behind me,” George told Yahoo Sports. “I spent a lot time talking to him. When I got hurt, through the whole grind of getting back. And when I got healthy, he kind of mentored me through that whole process. It was just like, ‘Attack rehab like you attack training. Don’t shortcut. Don’t leave nothing out.’ It was like, ‘Don’t leave nothing behind. Give it your all.’ That was the message through the whole process. No shortcuts.”

Bryant never had a connection with Isaiah Thomas outside of their interactions on the court during his playing days. But when Bryant heard about Thomas losing his sister, Chyna, last April, he offered his condolences and later his assistance through what would be an emotional postseason run for the Boston Celtics. Thomas was initially surprised to have Bryant’s support, given the history between the Lakers and Celtics.

“But the more I thought about it, we cut from the same cloth,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “He can probably relate to what I’m going through and I can probably relate to what he’s been through a little bit. It’s still dope moments when he’ll send a text or something. Like in the playoffs, he was calling me after every game telling me what to adjust to, what not to, what to watch in film. He was sending me scouting reports of the other team, throughout the playoffs, and it was helping. He’d give me advice to tell my teammates, how to defend certain players, all those types of things. So he definitely helped.”

The guidance didn’t end when a hip injury cut short Thomas’ career season during the Eastern Conference finals, the message just changed. “Now it’s about rebounding and getting back and having that mindset that I’ve always had. No matter what I’m going through,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “Come back better than ever.”

As part of his “Canvas” series for ESPN last May, Bryant made a short film titled “The Mighty IT” in which he praised Thomas for reaching stardom in spite of his height. Thomas had no idea Bryant was working on the project. “Kobe is my favorite player of all time. Him and Allen Iverson. To have him be able to do stuff or think of me as one of the top players in the world is a crazy feeling. It doesn’t always seem real,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “He’s in some sense, arguably, the best player to ever play the game. So anything he says, you’ve got to respect it. If he finds your game is good enough to give you input, that’s when you’re at probably a different level than other players. I don’t think he’s giving advice to every player. He’s picking and choosing who he feels like wants to be great.”

Bryant had special-made colorways for his signature Nike shoe strictly for Thomas and DeMar DeRozan, the Compton, California, native whose relationship with Bryant dates back to when he was in high school attending the Lakers star’s camps. “My love for the game came from him at a young age, as a Lakers fan watching him play throughout his whole career. Him seeing something in me that I didn’t see, to earn that respect from him on a basketball level is definitely a cool thing,” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports. “Because you know he’s always watching. If there is ever anything that needs to be said or expressed to me, he’ll come out of the woodwork and express that and give any type of advice. It’s always great to have a great that’s in your corner like that, that’s always there when you need him. It’s kind of like the ghost that pops up and tells you something or gives you something when you most need it, when you think nobody is watching.”

DeRozan recalls suffering a groin injury three seasons ago when Bryant popped up, Obi-Wan Kenobi-style, with a long text message telling him how to combat the injury. “From the mindset of the Kobe Bryant that everyone knows and to get that knowledge was uplifting. It made it OK to accept that hard path that was coming about, of me being injured,” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports. “I always come back better and better. I have that work ethic to put in, until I can’t no more. That’s something I can connect with him because you’ve seen in him throughout his whole career, his approach to the game and I always try to keep that in mind, whenever I go to the gym, when I wake up at 5 a.m. in the summers, workout, everything.”

‘He’s not like us. His mindset is totally different and that’s why he’s so special.’

After Devin Booker scored a career-high 70 points in Boston last season, he also credited his Mamba mentality for pushing him to the 10th-highest scoring game in NBA history — and the most since Bryant’s 81-point game in 2006. Booker was only 9 when Bryant had his highest-scoring night but, “You could just tell, the whole game, when he got to 40, he got to 50, he wasn’t like, ‘I’m good.’ He kept playing, kept attacking,” Booker told Yahoo Sports. “His demeanor didn’t change the whole game, his mindset didn’t change. I kind of say my game is related the same way. Every chance I got, I took advantage of it.”

Bryant immediately voiced his support on Twitter with the message: “#BookEm #70.” Booker told Yahoo Sports, “Out of every text or tweet I got, that was definitely my favorite one.”

Booker grew up a Detroit Pistons fan but admitted that Bryant was somebody “I idolized growing up, while not even being a fan of him.” During his rookie season, Booker asked Bryant’s security guard, Robert Lara, if he could spend a few minutes with Bryant after the game. Booker had heard stories about Bryant’s impeccable work ethic and competitiveness but saw how much he had sacrificed to the game when he stepped in the training room. “Everyone says he gave it, literally, his all. When he was talking to me, he had like 10 ice bags on and he was in the ice bath, like, he’s dedicated his life to this,” Booker told Yahoo Sports. “I’m 1-0 against Kobe, by the way.”

The two spoke for nearly 20 minutes that night in Phoenix and Bryant signed a pair of shoes for Booker that read, “To Book. Be legendary.” Booker said Bryant told him that he was on the right path but still had some work to do. Booker hasn’t had much communication with Bryant since, with the exception of a direct message Bryant sent to Booker on Instagram of a video that compared the two.

“He just kept it real, real with me. He told me a lot of stuff I hear from my dad [former NBA player Melvin Booker], hear from everybody else, but it’s different hearing it from Kobe Bryant,” Booker told Yahoo Sports. “Ever since then, man, when I’m slacking in a workout, that sticks out in my head. You’re hearing that from a living legend. Obviously, he sees something in me, hopefully, I can take that to the next level.”

Visits like the one with Booker were routine during Bryant’s farewell tour in 2015-16. He’d invite players back to the locker room to talk and sign autographs while soaking his feet in ice. He had dinner in Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant. After a game in Milwaukee, Bryant had a lengthy chat with Giannis Antetokounmpo and told him about the importance of working hard and believing in your craft. Antetokounmpo has honored Bryant by wearing his signature shoes the past three seasons, but the conversation didn’t much extend beyond that encounter. While checking social media right before watching the Greek national team in Eurobasket last August, Antetokounmpo saw Bryant issuing challenges to different athletes, including DeRozan (to rekindle a lost friendship from Compton) and Thomas (to make All-NBA first team).

“Still waiting for my challenge.. @kobebryant,” Antetokounmpo wrote.

Bryant responded with three letters: “MVP.”

“I’m like, ‘Wheeeew.’ That’s big time,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “Before that, that was one of my goals as a player. And it still is. But a guy like Kobe believing I can get that trophy? At that point, I was like, ‘OK. He believes I can do it. I believe I can do it. My team believes I can do it. I’m good for it.’ ”

Antetokounmpo has responded with the best season of his career and is grateful that he reached out to Bryant on a whim. “You know, he’s Kobe. He’s busy. I was, like, 50-60 percent sure that he was going to respond back,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “But I wasn’t expecting MVP. I love him giving me that challenge.”

Bryant was always about having that edge, finding those weaknesses in the opposition — even teammates — and exploiting them. No longer engaging in those psychological wars, Bryant wants to help others find their own advantages. Buddy Hield only wore Nos. 8 and 24 while growing up, but never had the chance to meet his idol until Bryant came to watch him during 2016 NCAA tournament regional action in Anaheim, California. Hield scored 37 points to lead Oklahoma to the Final Four and wound up signing with Bryant’s agent at the time, Rob Pelinka, a few weeks later. That summer, Bryant invited Hield to a workout. Hield couldn’t sleep the night before and wound up being blown away by Bryant’s commitment to run the same reverse-pivot jump-shot move dozens of times for perfection.

“He’s not like us. His mindset is totally different and that’s why he’s so special,” Hield told Yahoo Sports. “His plan was to always get separation from the league. He’s big in this world, on this planet. You get to spend a couple of minutes with him, it’s an honor. Hopefully, in my career, the stuff that he teaches me, I can see what he meant when I get in a game.”

‘You’ve had the unique opportunity of meeting some great individual in life who put you ahead of the curve.’

Bryant didn’t have many intense, competitive battles with the players he advises, but Carmelo Anthony has had a different experience. During a regular-season game against the Denver Nuggets, Bryant let Anthony know that he earned his respect after the two pushed, shoved, hacked and jawed at each other for several possessions. The relationship grew during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where Bryant took Anthony under his wing and offered pointers. “To me, it was shocking. I always heard those stories about Kobe, like, ‘Oh, he don’t talk to nobody,’ ” Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “We really linked, really clicked and formed a friendship. Him seeing what I was able to do and listen, even though I was still young, I was able to play well. But I was able to take advice. The most important part was, the comfort level that we both had with one another, I wasn’t afraid to hold him accountable. … He would do the same thing to me.”

When Anthony was stressing over his situation last summer, waiting for the New York Knicks to find a trade partner, Bryant was there to listen. “He always would tell me, ‘Stay with it, be patient. It’s always about basketball at the end of the day. You going to know what feels right. And what don’t feel right, don’t go with it. Follow your gut,’ ” Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “That’s something we would always talk about.”

Irving found an opening to an actual relationship with Bryant when Phil Handy joined the Cavaliers in 2013 as a player-development assistant. Handy, who had spent one season each in Los Angeles under Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni, would lecture Irving on the work required to be an elite player, using Bryant as an example. Finally, Irving asked Handy to connect them. Irving believes his like-mindedness with Bryant drew them closer.

“He was one of those guys when I was younger, I was always drawn to his career path and what he did from a mental standpoint and certain things he did to sort of weather the storm of being a great NBA basketball player,” Irving told Yahoo Sports. “I think the consistent search for fulfillment of the everyday grind of being in this world and ultimately committing yourself to a game such as basketball, where you become so maniacal about it that you watch it, you play it so much, you’ve almost been deemed a child prodigy because you’ve been playing for so long. You’ve had the unique opportunity of meeting some great individual in life who put you ahead of the curve. That comes with a lot of responsibility once you get onto the highest level of basketball.”

Irving explained that Bryant was the first person he FaceTimed after the highest achievement of his career because his father, Drederick, and older sister, Asia, were already celebrating with him in Oakland. “They would’ve been the first people,” Irving told Yahoo Sports with a laugh, “but Kobe was sitting on his couch and he was happy as ever. We got one out of the way. He knew exactly how I felt.”

When reports emerged last summer that Irving had informed Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert of his desire to be traded out of his partnership with LeBron James, the immediate comparison to how Bryant split with Shaquille O’Neal in 2004 was twisted into speculation that Bryant encouraged Irving to leave. Bryant responded to the rumors with a popular GIF of an annoyed President Barack Obama while noting that he had too much going on professionally to be acting as Irving’s puppet master. He ended the post with the closing line from his storybook career, “Mamba out.”

“I think it probably upset him,” Irving told Yahoo Sports. “I was just upset that he had to be brought into it. He’s retired. He’s writing stories, doing these animations with some of the best to ever do it. He’s so aside from influencing someone’s decision that much, that he has to be brought in, in these particular outlets, is placing fault on an individual that doesn’t deserve it. … Like, I’m a man. I can make my own decision. I felt that was unfair, but it’s all part of the business.”

Though Bryant couldn’t have predicted he would’ve played this role when he was Irving’s age, he has found the experience enjoyable and will continue so long as he finds young players who share his passion for the game. “It just means that sometimes in life, people do a complete 180,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “How I became the voice of reason for athletes? I don’t understand that at all. But I certainly enjoy doing it.”

More Kobe Bryant coverage from Yahoo Sports:

Mamba Moments: 20 snapshots from 20 years of Kobe
Report: Phil Jackson won’t make Kobe ceremony
Eric Adelson: What if Kobe’s darkest chapter happened today?
Vikings star salutes Kobe with cleats, TD celebration