CHICAGO – If a person not familiar with the NBA was interested in finding out why Kobe Bryant meant so much to this generation of professional basketball players, just talk to Zach LaVine.
Speaking for the first time since his death on Sunday at the age of 41 in a helicopter crash, the Bulls guard summed up a big reason why his death has been universally mourned in the basketball world.
“He inspired a whole generation of kids who wanted to be like him. Just like kids in the 80s and 90s wanted to be like Michael, we wanted to be like Kobe,” said LaVine. “Growing up and seeing the different highlights.”
That makes sense since it was Bryant who was entering his prime after Jordan’s retirement, becoming the face of the NBA in the midst of a dynasty with the Lakers. As much as his point total, 18 All-Star appearances, a most valuable player award along two Finals MVPs, and six championships appealed to the young fans, it was his work ethic that made him a legend.
It certainly did at an impressionable age for LaVine, who spoke glowingly of the late Bryant on Monday.
“His hard work. I feel like that was one of his biggest things that he instilled in me was his hard work, and I try to bring that to my game. His passion for the game, how ruthless he was as a competitor,” said LaVine of Kobe. “It’s more than that, as a basketball player, but he was a father and there was more families on there. It’s just terrible, man.”
The same remorse was felt by Bulls head coach Jim Boylen, who had tears in his eyes discussing a player whom his teams faced off against during his few stops as an assistant in the NBA.
“What I marveled at was his confidence. His ability to miss two-or-three shots in a row, then make eight-in-a-row. His ability to close games, to close quarters, to be a two-way player. I think those are what I valued,” said Boylen. “He honored a system, he believed in having a system. He was respectful to coaching. He was always the hardest worker.”
That caused problems for John Paxson’s Bulls teams for a number of years, yet the team’s executive vice president did get a chance to learn more about the guard than others in 2004. Bryant hit the free agent market that summer and had a discussion with the Bulls about making Chicago his next home, and it was then that Paxson learned much more about this superstar.
“I could tell he had an enormous amount of respect for Jerry Reinsdorf and that Jerry’s relationship with Michael and the brand that the Bulls are. The things that always stand out to me after that were, first of all, how smart of a person, we saw how smart he was as a player, but how smart of a person he is and how mature he is even at that time,” said Paxson of Bryant. “The other thing is, in talking about coming to Chicago. Remember, six years after Michael left or thereabouts, most guys, they’d didn’t want to follow that or have to try to live up to it. What he expressed to us was he wanted to embrace that if it happened, he wanted that challenge. Michael, I had the opportunity to be around him for such a long time and seeing that rare competitiveness.
“The closest I’ve seen, and I wasn’t obviously involved in it, but you just could just tell Kobe Bryant had the same thing. That some gene in you that is rare. That’s why there is a lot of really good players, you could even say great players, but there’s very few you put in the greatest category, and obviously, he’s one of those.”
That’s how Paxson remembers Bryant, and those in his organization think the same.