Two years ago, on March 24, 2017, Lakers legends including Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant gathered outside of Staples Center to tell stories about The Big Diesel, who was being honored with a statue in Star Plaza.
The next time these legends were expected to be under one roof and telling old stories again was for Bryant’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in the fall, and after that, his statue unveiling. Unfortunately, due to a tragic accident in which Bryant and his daughter Gianna were killed on Sunday, a few of them gathered much sooner than that.
On Tuesday, TNT had an hour-long pregame show dedicated to remembering Bryant, and the panel featured the usual suspects — Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaq — plus Dwyane Wade, Reggie Miller and the aforementioned West.
Shaq kicked things off by talking about his relationship with Bryant, who he won three consecutive titles with in Los Angeles before their rocky relationship forced O’Neal out of town in 2004:
“Our names will be attached for what we did. People always ask about our relationship, and I tell them it’s just like me and Charles [Barkley]: You’ve got two strong-minded people that are going to get it done that way, you’re going to say certain things but the respect will never be lost. When it comes to be inside the lines and win, that’s what me and him did. Me and Charles, that’s what we do.”
Now, O’Neal just wishes he could poke at his old friend’s ego one last time:
“The fact that we’re not going to be able to joke at his Hall of Fame ceremony. We’re not going to be able to say, ‘Ha, I got five, you got four.’ The fact that we’re not going to be able to say, ‘If we stayed together, we could have got 10.’ Those are the things that you can’t get back ... ‘
“Last time that I talked to him was when we were here [at Staples Center] and I asked him to get 50 and he got 60. That’s the last time that I spoke to him.”
The general manager of the Lakers during their three-peat era from 1999-2002 was West, who was a franchise legend long before joining the team’s front office.
West facilitated the trade that allowed Los Angeles to sign O’Neal to a seven-year, $120 million deal in free agency in 1996. But that trade also netted the Lakers the No. 13 pick, Kobe Bryant, and West used Bryant — a 17-year-old rookie — as part of his pitch to Shaq:
“I told Shaquille — and I really remember this — I said, ‘Shaquille, we just drafted a kid who’s the best player in the draft.’ And I said, ‘I know you’ve got a lot good players down in Orlando, but we have better players here, and we have one that’s going to be the best player in the league one day.’ Pretty bold statement to make, but, to me, it was obvious ... It was easy to identify.”
And West was right: Bryant was the best player in the draft, and in 2008, he was named the MVP of the league. By that time, West had moved on from the Lakers, but he still had Bryant’s best interests in mind, and no story highlights that more than the one he told for the first time on Tuesday:
“I remember when he was going to leave the Lakers ... I’ve never mentioned this to anyone. He was going to come sign with the Clippers, who I’m now involved with as a consultant, and I told him, ‘Kobe, under no circumstances can you do this.’ ... He was mad at every one of the Lakers: The owner, everyone else. And I said, ‘Kobe, you can’t go play with the Clippers. You can’t play for that owner — period.’ We had two conversations about it, and he supposedly made a commitment to the Clippers after we talked that last time.”
For those that don’t know, the Clippers’ former owner, Donald Sterling, was forced to sell the team in 2014 for making racist comments that were recorded and released by TMZ. Whether or not West knew that Sterling was racist, there was something he didn’t like about Sterling, and he wanted to protect Bryant from it like a father would for a son. And for West, that’s what that relationship felt like to him:
“There was so many things that we’d talk about, as he was just seeking information. His parents weren’t with him for a while, and, honestly, I felt like his father for two years.”
West also said that his son Ryan West, who was a scout for the Lakers for many years, was Bryant’s first best friend in Los Angeles. For West, Bryant wasn’t just part of the Lakers family — he was part of the West family.
View this post on Instagram
In June of 1996 I had the pleasure of picking up a 17 year old high school phenom at his hotel in Santa Monica to drive him to his workout for the Lakers. Years later he told me that was his first time ever on the 405 freeway. I can remember that day like yesterday. This was my first time seeing him up close and watching him on the floor was the most specaturlar thing I’ve ever seen at such a young age. I dropped him back off at the hotel and as he got out of the car he said “ I can’t wait to be a Laker someday.” We winked at each other, embraced, and I said to him “it’s going to happen.” Fast forward to his first summer league game in Long Beach, the 17 year old kid in front of a packed house, scored an easy 29 points against grown men. After the game I asked him how he felt the game went, his response, in typical Kobe fashion “that was easier than I thought.” I will always cherish the times we spent together during the early part of his career. From our talks in the locker room prior to every Laker home game, to the times we spent at his house after games, talking about life and basketball. Being there from day 1, from his first workout, it was amazing to watch him grow to a larger than life presence. He went on to not only become a Laker, but the GREATEST LAKER of all time. I was his number 1 fan from day 1 and his legacy will live forever in all of our hearts. I’m completely broken right now. RIP Kobe and Gianna Bryant. #kobe #8 #24
Our thoughts are with everyone that is still coping with the deaths of Bryant, Gianna and the seven other lives that were lost in the helicopter crash on Sunday morning. Additionally, this is a reminder that it’s okay to cry, and that telling stories about what Bryant meant to you is a good way to cope with the harsh reality that he’s gone.
All quotes were courtesy of TNT. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts, or listen to the latest episode below, in which Harrison Faigen and Alex Regla talked more about Kobe and the TNT special pregame show. You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.