Before Kobe Bryant retired in 2015, playing against the Los Angeles Lakers was a major milestone for young players in the NBA because it gave them an opportunity to go head-to-head with Bryant, one of the most accomplished and skilled players in the league. J.R. Smith, the No. 18 pick in the 2004 draft, reached that milestone on the fourth game of his rookie season and he relished the experience — arguably a little too much.
“Byron Scott was telling me, ‘Hey rook, when you get into the game, Kobe’s going to take two dribbles baseline and pump fake. Just stay down,’” Smith said at practice on Sunday. “The whole time, I was just so hyped to play against Kobe and play against the Lakers and to be in the situation that I was in, I don’t think I really took it as a scout. He had so many moves, I didn’t think he was going to do just that.
“And sure enough, he gets into the game, two dribbles baseline, pump fake, I jump, they call a foul, he makes the shot and within seconds, the horn blows and I come out.”
Those few seconds are Smith’s longest-lasting memory with Bryant, but it’s not the only memory Smith has with Bryant. To Smith, Bryant was someone who made himself available for advice on life on and off the court, and in wake of Bryant’s tragic death in January, Smith cherishes the moments he had with Bryant more than ever.
“When I was playing with the Knicks and obviously he was with the Lakers, I seen him a few times at dinner and just having those small conversations — intimate conversations — he gave me so much guidance as a person, as a player,” Smith said. “There’s just so many things you miss every time you hear his name, every time you see his face, every time you see a picture of him and his daughter. There’s so many memories that hit you and you still can’t believe it — that he’s gone.
“I woke up this morning and seeing pictures of him, I’m still in shock and still in awe. He’s just one of those people that you thought would be here forever.”
Sunday, August 23, would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday. Frank Vogel confirmed that the Lakers will honor Bryant by wearing the popular “Black Mamba” jerseys against the Trail Blazers on Monday, but Bryant was at the forefront of everyone’s minds on Sunday too.
“This day and tomorrow ... it brings back a lot of the emotions of what happened and we’re all still very sad about his loss and Gigi’s loss,” Vogel said. “It’s just a tough thing for all of us to handle and to go through, and I’m grateful for the support he showed in me being here.”
But while days like Sunday and Monday are good days to honor Bryant’s memory, the Lakers have carried his memory with everything they’ve done this season, and they’re hoping to pay the ultimate tribute to him by bringing Los Angeles a championship — something Bryant did five times in his 20 years with the team.
“His name comes up every single day,” Smith added. “We chant his name after every break, after every huddle. We also speak of his memory. We speak of his mindset and how we can attach that to our team, as individuals, to collectively come together for this one common goal that we’re going to strive to get.
“If there’s anybody who led by example more than someone like ‘Bron that I’ve played with, that I’ve seen the most, it was someone like Kobe Bryant. We take everything with his name as gold.”
Happy birthday, Kobe.