Before Kobe Bryant lifted his first Larry O’Brien trophy or suited up for his first All-Star game, the former Los Angeles Lakers star came off of the bench for then-coach Del Harris.
Despite being taken No. 13 overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft — and subsequently traded to the Lakers — Bryant started just seven games in his first two seasons in the NBA. At the time, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel saw most of the playing time at the guard spots.
Bryant could have moped and tried to force a trade to a team where he could get playing time, but instead, he told University of Alabama football head coach Nick Saban that he used it as motivation to try and become unbench-able.
“For me it was ‘Well, why am I not playing, what can I do differently? I have to be better. All right, that’s not good enough? Then I have to be twice as good,’” Bryant said. “For me it was a challenge of getting to a place where it’s undeniable. You have to play me because I’m that efficient, I’m strong at both ends of the floor.
“So it actually helped me, because I was coming off of the bench for the first two years and it’s like ‘Okay, I have to figure this out.’ I used it as a source of motivation, not to complain and whine about it.”
The situation taught Bryant the value of not letting outside noise affect him:
”It’s also the strength too of being able to tell your family members and your friends to shut up,” Bryant added. “Because they’ll be (saying) ‘Oh you should be starting! Oh, you should be playing, I don’t know what they’re doing!’ Shut up. If I’m not playing, I need to get better at this, I need to get better at that.
“There’s things I can control, but unfortunately, there’s a lot of outside noise, from your friends and former coaches and all sorts of stuff filling your head with nonsense, and you have to be able to have the strength to edit that and say ‘No, I don’t want to hear it. This is on me.’ That becomes tough for young players.”
Luke Walton has seen how hard dealing with young players and playing time can be firsthand in his first two season with the Lakers with players like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. It’s possible he runs into the same problem next season with second-year players Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, or rookies Moritz Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk.
“The process. Loving the process, loving the daily grind of it and putting the puzzle together,” Bryant said, referring back to what got him through his benching. “It seems like this generation seems to be really concerned with the end result of things versus understanding and appreciating the journey to get there, which is the most important thing. The trials and tribulations that come along with it.
“You have successes, you have failures, but it’s all part of the end game. What I see a lot of time from young players is that they’ll try, they’ll push, then all of a sudden they get hit with some adversity and say ‘Nah, I’ll do something else’ instead of staying with it. Just stay with it! A lot of guys just kind of give up on it because it’s not happening now.”
Walton has managed to keep the locker room under control so far, and if the Lakers’ young players are truly wise beyond their years, like Hart recently said, there should be no issue managing egos. If Kobe Bryant, who had one of the biggest — and most justified — egos in NBA history can deal with being on the bench for a few seasons, so can the young Lakers.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.