“Love me or hate me. It’s one or the other. Always has been.”
Kobe Bryant has built an image around the sentiment in that line from a Nike ad in 2006, down to the “hero or villain” theme he’s had in this, his final season.
But he left out one part — respect.
The coaches and players who went against Kobe for the past 20 years may have loved him or feared him, but they all respected him. That was evident every time one of them spoke.
Over the course of this season, we have been talking to people around the league about Kobe, from what it was like to prepare to face him, to how things were different in this final season. We talked about his influence and legacy — and nobody put it better than those that went against him for the past two decades.
Here are their words about Kobe and what he meant to them and the game.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE GOING AGAINST KOBE?
“No matter what you did defensively, he still could rise up over you and get off a relatively uncontested shot with balance. That would scare you because there’s really no defense for it. It was like you couldn’t let him get the ball, so you had to pick your spots when you wanted to get him away from the ball or, if he did have the ball, who you were going to send to him, who you were going to allow to shoot the ball, what you were going to give up if you went after him and took it out of his hands. It was that sort of thing. But the final fear would always be — even if we did that — he still would rise up, and he’s going to get that shot off. And he did that against a lot of people, including us, many times.”
—Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs
“That’s a moment that I remember in (Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, a 39-point Boston blowout win). The funniest moment, Kobe knows this, but we were up 1,000 (points) in Game 6 and the guy who you would least expect walks over to me during the game — (then-Celtics assistant coach) Tom Thibodeau — and he asks me, ‘Are you going to sub out? There’s six minutes and we’re up 42 points.’ Of all the guys to say that, it’s Tom Thibodeau. And I looked over there at the Lakers and Kobe was still on the floor, and I actually said, ‘When Phil takes that guy out, I take my guys out.’ And Thibs said, ‘You’re safe.’ And I said, ‘Not with that guy on the floor.’
“I was dead serious. I had obviously lost my mind because it was a 42-point lead. But he put that fear in you, man.”
—Doc Rivers, current Los Angeles Clippers coach, former Boston Celtics coach
“He was just fearless. He’s a champion. To get to where you want to get to, you have to put the work in. His work ethic is one thing that he has. That’s the reason why he’s so great.”
—Paul George, Indiana Pacers
“I think probably one of the moments that would stick out to me, we’re playing in L.A…. and we were just trapping him and he was taking shots over two or three guys and knocking them down. I think that’s when I got to see firsthand how good he was.”
—LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
“Two things crossed our staff’s minds. Number one is, as much as we enjoy watching him on TV, I’m glad that we never will (see him in person) again. Number two is, I can’t imagine what he was like 10 years ago because he looked like he was 29 out there.”
—Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics coach, speaking after Kobe scored 34 on the Celtics this season
“I told him, ‘Are you sure you’re going to retire this year?’”
—Jae Crowder, Boston Celtics, after Kobe’s 34-point game against Boston
“He’s the most competitive player we’ve played against, and the thing he’s done throughout his career and the things he’s done to change the game, to motivate the players is unbelievable.”
—Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
“You remember all the struggles against him and all the competitiveness and you respect him so much for bringing it night after night after night. You know, a lot of players don’t understand that responsibility to be able to do that at that level, and he does it fiercely for all these years.”
—Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs
WHAT’S IT LIKE BEING KOBE’S TEAMMATE?
“When I first got there he was still young. He was Kobe, but he hadn’t been a starter yet. And that third year of his career, that was my first year, Rick Fox went down and he stepped in and took a starting role. But just seeing the film he watched all the time, the players he was talking about, the Oscar Robertsons, Michael Jordans, the Magics, he knew from day one who he wanted to be like. He knew that to be the best, you had to work hard. That’s what he did every single day. Not one day did I see him take off.”
—Tyronn Lue, former Lakers teammate of Kobe, current Cleveland Cavaliers coach
“Honestly, it’s hard. It’s not easy. He’s a guy that’s earned every shot he’s taken, earned every minute he’s given, so you feel like being a rookie, but you feel like you’ve worked to be in his position so early but you’ve just got to be patient.”
—D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
KOBE’S INFLUENCE ON YOUNGER PLAYERS
“Obviously for us, he was the Michael Jordan of our era, a guy we watched. He emulated Michael. He had a lot of the same fadeaways, sticking out his tongue, winning championships. Just a sense of self to understand exactly what it takes to be successful. So for us, he was a guy I looked up to. His work ethic, his understanding and he knew how to bounce back from losses and shooting air balls in the playoffs as a rookie to hitting game winners.”
—C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
“Me growing up in Los Angeles and being able to see Kobe, obviously he’s one of the greatest players to play the game. It was a true honor to be able to learn from him. It’s a great experience to be able to learn different things from him, not just on the floor but off the floor as well and very different experiences.”
—Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
“He’s been my idol growing up, my basketball idol.”
—James Harden, Houston Rockets
“I grew up watching the Lakers. I grew up watching him his whole career and getting a chance to have a relationship with him and kind of, you know, patterned my game after him so to speak, so definitely speaks volumes.”
—DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
“Kevin Eastman used to run a camp — a Nike skills camp — the first year they did the skills academy and I remember him telling stories about Kobe, just about his work ethic and things like that. And then over the years, you hear more stories. Being so close, you hear all kinds of stories and, like I said, the way he goes about his game, I respect that more than anything about him. Just the fact that he puts in so much work and cares about his craft so much.”
—Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
“Basically, the Michael Jordan of our era is what I see with all of his dedication to the game, his competitive drive. He’s one of those guys that always wants the ball in a tough situation. No matter the circumstances, he believes in himself, no matter what.”
—John Wall, Washington Wizards
“He’s had such an imprint on our childhood. I know he had an imprint on my childhood. And then I was in that mix where I was a kid, and then I was trying to figure it out in the NBA, and next thing you know you’re competing against him. So, it’s been crazy.”
—Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
“Earliest memory of Kobe Bryant? Probably when he won the Dunk Contest when he was 18, 19, and then probably after that just him in the playoffs hitting those shots, like Portland and Indiana in the playoffs in early 2000. So that probably is the earliest ones. I was really young, like six, five (years old).”
—Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves
“I watched Kobe growing up and watched him in the All-Star Game. The impact he’s had on my basketball game and in my life and so many other people, it’s really big. It’s astronomical. That’s Kobe. That’s the man.”
—Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
MEMORIES OF KOBE’S FINAL SEASON
“They were dedicated to me, and they’re going to go in my trophy case.”
—LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, on being given a pair of signed shoes by Kobe after their last game
“Just a little bit more loose. I think years before on teams that were playoff and championship contenders, he would talk, but he knew it was all about business once he left, so he didn’t want to open up too much and be looked at as, I guess, soft in his his words. He just opened up more. These last few years he’s been more of a big brother to us all, and I wish we could have more time around him, but we cherish what we have now and appreciate all he’s done.”
—Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, on what has changed with Kobe
“What really stood out (2016 All-Star Weekend in Toronto) was the respect that all the players had for him. We’re practicing, we’re fooling around, having a good time, and all of a sudden they started playing a video up there of Kobe highlights. And one by one, the players just stopped. We all just stopped, and everybody looked up and stared at it. For some of the young guys, the young All-Stars, some of the stuff they had never seen before, probably, when he was young. There were ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs,’ and that was a pretty cool moment.”
—Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs
“I’d say from a global impact, in addition to being a great player, I think because he was raised for much of his childhood in Italy, because he speaks several languages, I think because he was particularly interested in learning about other cultures, I think that he’s had almost — in addition to being a great player, he’s punched way above his weight in terms of the impact he’s had on the global expansion of the NBA. I was in China with him for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. That was amazing the number of people he touched.”
—Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner