Kobe Bryant was notorious for being a hardass on his teammates during his 20-year career with the Lakers, most recently highlighted by Jeremy Lin telling a story about the time when Bryant called all of his teammates “bums” who would get traded (none of them ultimately did).
But while Bryant’s final season will mostly be remembered for his storybook ending of a 61-point final game, his teammate Ryan Kelly also told Bill Oram of The Athletic that it marked a bit of a personal evolution for Bryant, who became more of a mentor in his last days in the NBA:
“He was a little bit softer,” said Kelly, who played with Bryant for his final three seasons and, in a piece of Lakers minutiae, was the last player to ever replace Bryant on the court. He subbed in with four seconds left in a move that allowed Bryant to bask in a standing ovation after notching his 60th point.
“Not that he was ever going to accept losing by any stretch,” Kelly continued, “but he was more willing to help the young guys, to take a backseat at the end of games. From that standpoint, I think you’d see a real teacher of the game and certainly, ‘This is a year that’s a lot about me,’ but also about a lot of young guys.”
That change in Bryant sort of precipitated the role he’d play in the basketball world upon his retirement. He may not have wanted to formally coach in the NBA any capacity, but Bryant became an elder statesman of the game, someone to pass on wisdom to a generation of current NBA players from Isaiah Thomas, to Kyle Kuzma, Anthony Davis and even Tony Parker (amongst others). It was a way for him to pass on what he’d learned from his own endless quest to learn from the greats and move the game forward.
Bryant’s efforts didn’t stop with the league he played in for two decades, either. He was passionate about women’s basketball as well, from coaching his daughter Gianna’s team, to his mentorship of top prospect Sabreena Ionescu and the secret camp he put on for top WNBA players to pick his brain and work on their games together away from the cameras. The WNBA posthumously established the Kobe & Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award to honor his efforts and commitment to the game.
It’s a real shame we didn’t get to see this chapter of Bryant’s life play out in full, but his dedication to inspiring and helping up the next generation is something we can all learn something from. He may have been a singularly dedicated competitor nearly unmatched in his voracious pursuit of wins, but as he aged, it seems he also learned that we can all win at life more if we help each other. It’s a lesson we should all take to heart both now, and when our society begins the long road back to recovery from our current trying times.