The toughest, most brilliant moment on a Sunday evening in June came down to a couple of dribbles followed by the biggest shot of Kyrie Irving’s career that ended a 89-89 tie and thrust the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time in their history into the NBA record books as champions. After the hugging and screaming, after the tears, after the sheer surreal moment that was about him and not LeBron James or Steph Curry, after Kyrie Irving carried hugs with him from his father and sister, he walked into the Cavaliers locker room and the first person he talked to was Kobe Bryant.
“I had been speaking to him throughout the playoffs and during the season. During the Finals I didn’t really talk as much because, for me, I wanted to experience it full on and If I needed his help I would reach out to him. He would send me some texts here and there but mainly he kind of let me be me and let me grow into my own space.”
At the moment of championship euphoria, Kyrie finally understood. The difficulty of winning a title, the physical and mental effort as well as things having to fall into place, is the process all champions have to embrace, regardless of the setbacks and difficulties. “Realizing how hard it it is just to win one, my respect for him is already sky high but it went to another level knowing that he’s got five of them. I’m trying to get a second one.”
The Kyrie-Kobe relationship was facilitated by Cavs Director of Player Personnel/Assistant Coach Phil Handy who was once with the Lakers organization. In the 2012 Olympics mini-camp, Bryant and Irving did a lot of trash talking about a one-on-one game. Kobe dared Kyrie to put his money where his mouth was and drop some cash but Kyrie didn’t rise to the bait.
A few weeks after talking to Kyrie post championship champagne bath, the Mamba’s phone rang again. This time it was Gordon Hayward. Hayward was impressed by what Kobe did in his very last game of his career when he outscored the Jazz 15-0 to win his walk off. Hayward wanted to work out with him over the summer but in a Gordon Hayward let’s keep it all private way no one knew about it until Zach Lowe (ESPN) spilled the beans in a December podcast. Hayward isn’t a name dropper and he wanted to keep the Kobe circus out of his orbit.
Hayward was very specific. He worked out with Kobe in Newport Beach for a week and for Bryant it was familiar because he did the same thing as a player, working out with Hakeem Olajuwan to pick up some footwork post moves. What Hayward was interested in was the midrange. [Hayward’s coach, Quinn Snyder, was also a Lakers assistant once upon a time.] Hayward confessed to Zach Lowe “it was one of my best weeks ever.”
Hayward had the best season of his career in 2016-17. What did he do from the midrange?
In the regular season, 44% 10-16 feet, his highest average in five years.
When Kobe Bryant made his last appearance in the Boston Garden in December of 2016, James Thomas had to be there. Not only was James a die-hard Lakers fan but he grew up in Inglewood, close to the Forum. James Thomas loved Magic first and then Bryant, even after he moved away from Lakers land to Spokane. In his Washington house is a collector’s item, Kobe’s #8 jersey hanging proudly. James made sure his son Isaiah understood his Kobe allegiance.
Of that last Kobe performance in the Garden, James Thomas said: “Seeing Isaiah now in the NBA and playing against Kobe, it’s still like dream. You look and think ‘Man this just couldn’t happen’. It doesn’t seem real because this is who Isaiah used to watch on tv and then he’s playing against him. He was Isaiah’s idol growing up. Isaiah was in love with Kobe Bryant.”
Isaiah sheepishly admits he was brainwashed by his father to be a Kobe fan. Now the relationship has added another layer to it: mentor.
Kobe reached out to Isaiah after the tragic passing of Isaiah’s sister Chyna. He and Isaiah began talking about Isaiah’s game. At that point, the Celtics were trailing the Bulls 0-2 in their best of 7 series. Kobe being the maniacal deconstructor of film that he is- he has always admitted his favorite part of preparation was viewing game clips- he gave Isaiah perspective Isaiah never considered.
Since then the Celtics haven’t lost and Isaiah has been spectacular, 28.5 points, 45.5% shooting, 6.5 assists.
“We’ve been in communication the last couple weeks since my sister passed. He’s been a big help since Game 2. We actually watched film together on the phone for 30 minutes. He was going over my film with me and teaching the things that he looks at when he watches film.”
It didn’t stop there. Bryant, compulsive about details, texts Isaiah before and after games. While the ordinary fan thinks Celtics-Lakers? Hell no. Kobe Bryant thinks excellence, achievement, be extraordinary.
photo via llananba