There was a moment when Gilbert Arenas appeared to be challenging Kobe Bryant as one of the premier shooting guards in the league. It was right around when this happened.
Arenas was in the midst of making three straight All-Star teams, as well as earning three consecutive All-NBA nods, culminating in a second team honor in 2007. He tailed off significantly after that stretch, injuries and poor judgement prematurely ending his NBA career. However, that peak was enough to make Hibachi a cult figure, and earn Bryant’s respect in the process.
In their retirements, Bryant and Arenas often crossed paths at AAU tournaments. Arenas has four children, and Bryant would habitually encourage Arenas to get involved as a coach for one of his kids’ teams, a path that obviously brought Bryant a lot of joy in his post-NBA life. Arenas shared the story with Julie Stewart-Binks of the first time Bryant made the suggestion on an episode of “Drinks With Binks”:
“We’re at the gym and Kobe’s Mamba team is there, so we go shake hands and then he tells his daughter, ‘This is the mother****er that scored 60 on me, can you believe that s**t?’ So he introduces me to GiGi, and then we’re just talking about the kids. I say, ‘Yeah my daughter’s over there,’ and then he was like, ‘Can she shoot like you?’ I was like, ‘Nah she’s more raw talent, you know, raw talent, kinda lazy but really gifted.’ He said, ‘You can teach lazy and you can teach shooting, so don’t even worry about that....
“He’s like, ‘Why aren’t you coaching?’ I was like, ‘I don’t wanna deal with parents.’ He was like, ‘But it’s the future. You know the kids are the future. Take all that knowledge you have, you’ve seen, you’ve studied, prepared, and put it into the future. If I knew what I knew now back when I was a rookie, oh my god. I had to learn on my own, so now it’s our job to give it to them earlier, so coach.’”
Not everyone is suited to coach, and certain arguments can be made that Arenas is the wrong person to be coaching a kids team, but Bryant believed in redemption and second acts. He also clearly felt very passionately about women’s basketball. According to Arenas, for nearly a year, every time they ran into one another, Bryant would ask him if he had started coaching yet.
Finally, on the day of the fatal helicopter crash, Arenas woke up with an epiphany that he wanted to take the leap.
“That Sunday morning 3 a.m. waking up, knee hurts, feel like it’s gonna rain, like I can feel it in my knees, I’m sitting there dreaming like I’m just gonna call the coach and tell him I’m gonna coach, that’s what we’re gonna do. So then around 7:00 the team is in Oakland, and they’re playing in the big Oakland tournament, so I call them and I say, ‘Hey man you know what, I think I want to coach.’ ... And then an hour later I get the tragic news, and I’m like what does this mean. The day I decide that, the one person that hounded me of coaching, I decide I’m going to coach that day, and that happens, I spent weeks trying to figure out like what is this. It’s like one of those things where it can really hurt you mentally, because it’s like that isn’t supposed to happen like that. It’s supposed to happen like I see him the next time and my team is coaching against his team.”
Despite that crisis of faith, Arenas decided he wanted to stick to his word and coach an AAU team. It didn’t happen the way he imagined, but it meant so much to him that Bryant wanted him to be a coach. Given what we know about Bryant’s mentorship of younger players during retirement and his devotion to the Mamba Academy, Arenas picked the best way he could to honor Bryant’s memory.