As Kobe Bryant’s career ended amidst a full-fledged Lakers’ rebuild, his role changed. He went from being the face of the franchise that led the team to five championships and countless other great seasons to being a mentor to the multitude of young, unproven players on the roster.
The extent to which Bryant filled that void is unknown; he was not present at many practices in his 20th season in the NBA and the highly losing season gave an air of misery around the entire team.
But we may know a little more about how Bryant responded to being a teacher to the young Lakers and it’s very promising. Julius Randle is the messenger in this case, as he appeared on the Vertical podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski.
“From a mentorship standpoint and being able to talk to him and his openness and honesty, I still talk to Kob’ to this day, anything I have questions for. I remember we were about to play a team and he knew a guy really well on the team and played with him and I’m like ‘What’s some of this guy’s weaknesses or what does he not like?’ and he told me. He’ll text me or talk to me or whatever whether it’s congratulating me on my baby or going to Orange County to work out with him. He’s open, he’s still there, he’s still available. And I think for me, that was bigger than anything because I knew he physically couldn’t do it.
“Going into my rookie year I was just talking about preparation. We were working out and I wasn’t doing something right, and he was like ‘You got to do it right, right now. You got to go through the pain, go through the fatigue, all of that right now. You got to fight through it right now, because when the lights come on, Michael Jackson doesn’t sweat while he’s performing. Michael Jackson’s not breathing hard when he’s performing. He’s doing all of that before, he’s doing all of that in his preparation and his work so when the lights come on he’s ready and it’s second nature.'”
This is obviously great to hear. Bryant is one of the greatest players in NBA history; any input that he can provide to Randle and the rest of the Lakers’ young core is useful information, even if it involves using the King of Pop as an example. It’s especially promising that he and Randle are still maintaining a relationship, giving the young power forward a mentor who can teach him the finer details of the game.
Randle also spoke about Kobe’s final game, a spectacular 60-point explosion that saw the rest of the Lakers effectively become spectators in the final minutes as Bryant clinched one final win:
“You pull up to the arena, it was mayhem. It was a carnival outside, or whatever it was. People going crazy, it’s Kobe’s last game. You go onto the court for warmups and it’s like, media there like all over the court. Like I’ve never seen anything like it. Media all over the court like it’s the NBA Finals. I’m like, “What’s going on?” You got Jay-Z courtside, you got Kanye there. All this stuff. You know it’s Kobe taking every shot. We’re getting Kobe the ball every single time. He’s taking every shot. We don’t need to be able to move tomorrow, we’re gonna be sore.
“You know that was the first time I really saw it click. He didn’t care that it was his last game, he went on a lot like it was the first game of his career. He didn’t care. That was pretty crazy for me because it just switched like, he really turned into a different person. You know, we weren’t playing for anything. We weren’t playing for the playoffs, we weren’t playing in the playoffs. He just turned into a different person. And like, from this competitive standpoint, you’re in the game and you’re watching him literally play his heart out, give everything he has out there, and you know, it was amazing to see.”
Kobe’s play last season was rightfully criticized. His iso-centric play did not make sense at that stage of his career as he became one of the most inefficient players in the league.
But Bryant’s play on the court (outside of his final game and a handful of other outbursts) seemingly did not mar his ability to inspire the young players and in particular, Randle. Even as he struggled to play at the highest level, he was able to give valuable lessons about how to prepare and compete to the next generation of Lakers’ stars.
That’s an incredibly valuable gift from the Black Mamba and one that Julius Randle seemingly will not forget anytime soon.