Jerry West reflects on Kobe Bryant: 'He has legacy throughout world'

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Friday, January 15, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif. -- As theLakers' general manager who helped engineer a trade that brought Kobe Bryant to Los Angeles, Jerry West had a daily firsthand view of a budding 17-year-old who would extend the good fortune of a legendary franchise and help rekindle a post-Michael Jordan NBA.

West, now an executive board member for the Golden State Warriors, reflected Thursday night on Bryant's career, calling him a one-of-a-kind player with a global appeal who would be nearly impossible for the league to replace.

"He was a showman, but he also was a winner," West said. "And he has [left] a legacy throughout the world. Millions of people love this guy, and millions of people will miss what he was able to accomplish in his career."

West took in Bryant's final game against Golden State from an Oracle Arena luxury suite 20 years after trading center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for Bryant, whom the Hornets had just drafted out of Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia.

"I've always had a fondness for him as a player," West said. "Sometimes he would disappoint me with some of the things he would say, in particular with regards to players who would not play as hard as him. Number one, they couldn't play as hard as him, but number two, they didn't have the skill to play as hard as him.

"But I think on the balance, this has been a remarkable player, a player for the decades, simply one of the greatest players that ever played the game. And I'm talking about a handful of guys that ever played the game."

West called Bryant an "incredibly gifted all-around player."

"But I think you should look farther than that," West said. "I think in the NBA he will be one of those players that will be perceived as one of the 10 top players of all time, probably higher, because I don't want to demean anyone that's played this game at eye level. I don't.

"But for a franchise to have someone that long, for 20 years, it's pretty amazing. He's left a lot of big footprints there. I don't see anyone there now that's going to be able to step into those footprints. I'm hopeful they will find one one day."

The Lakers' swap for Bryant has long been considered lopsided, given that Bryant went on to become one of the best Lakers in franchise history, helping them to five NBA championships.

Yet Westsaid the deal wasn't as uneven as people believe.

"It was not a one-sided trade," he said. "Charlotte won over 50 games that year with Vlade as a starter. So I think it's almost demeaning to Vlade and to Charlotte to even think that that was something that was an error for them."

West called Divac an "All-Star center and a starting center for a lot of teams in this league."

"We offered Vlade Divac from the No. 1 pick in the draft all the way down to [the 13th overall pick], and finally Charlotte, who needed a center desperately, agreed to do this," he said.

Of Bryant's draft position, West said, "Frankly, I thought he should have been taken No. 1, but that was my thought.

"He was special. I'm surprised other people did not draft him. I'm really surprised, because he was really special."

West also credited Bryant's agent at the time, Arn Tellem, with helping steer Bryant to the Lakers.

"His agent, Arn Tellem, told the New Jersey Nets ... [that Bryant] didn't want to play there," West said. "It was too close to Philadelphia. Other teams talked about drafting him, and we didn't hear much talk about it at all.

"Then Kobe's parents got involved, and he would really basically try to tell people that he didn't want to play so close to his hometown. So to say that we did this on our own would be fiction. We had a lot of help along the way."

The Nets had the eighth overall pick that year and worked out Bryant, but they selected guard Kerry Kittles out of Villanova instead.

West has long regarded Bryant's draft workout with the Lakers, held in Inglewood, California, as the best workout he has ever seen.

"I think the one thing that was very evident to me right away was this was a player that, from my perspective at 17 years old, I'd never seen anyone with the skill level that he had," West said. "He was really unique."

Now 37, Bryant, who is planning to retire this summer after 20 years in the NBA, said he remembered being "extremely excited" for that workout.

"Jerry, I had grown up watching for so many years," he said before the Lakers' 116-98 loss to the Warriors on Thursday. "I had a great opportunity to talk to him beforehand and then to have him watching me was pretty sweet."

Bryant, who grew up a Lakers fan, recalled how he had wanted to show West and the other members of the Lakers who were there that day how much he enjoyed the game, enjoyed competing and physical challenges.

"And all the while having to prove that 17 [years old] is, 'You know, listen, I'm fine,' " Bryant said. "You don't have to worry about me. You don't have to give me a bib. No pacifier. You don't have to have somebody tuck me in. I'm ready to go. If I get knocked down, I will be fine. Those were some of the main things, really."

Bryant teared up as a taped video tribute from West aired before the game.

"That was a tough one for me to get through," Bryant said afterward. "That got me a little bit."

Bryant called West "the man that believed in me from the beginning."

"The conversation that I had with him sitting in the Forum locker room and just being in awe of sitting in Magic's locker and sitting next to Jerry West talking about basketball," Bryant said. "That's before anybody knew anything. That was special."

The Lakers ultimately acquired Bryant, and moving Divac allowed them to clear cap room so they could offer more money to Shaquille O'Neal, then a free agent.

Those two moves, as West said, "changed the course of a franchise that had been very good, but put it on a track to have incredible success for so many years." Bryant would go on to win five championships, three of them alongside O'Neal.

Regarding taking Bryant, West said, "Again, we weren't geniuses. Trust me, we weren't. We had a lot of good fortune in Los Angeles, a lot. ... To look at this kid and see the skill he had, and he couldn't sit still. They show pictures on TV where there's a storm and electric lines are down, and they're jumping, going all over the place -- he's jumping, making sparks. That's who he was. You could see that."

Yet Bryant still had a long way to go, West said.

"I was fortunate enough to be, frankly, like a father to him for the first couple years in Los Angeles," he said. "He spent time in my house, interacted with him. Tried to be a father figure to tell him that this is not as easy as you think it's going to be, regardless of how skilled you are. I said, 'You're going to have to learn how to play with your teammates. You're going to have to learn how to play an NBA game. This is not one against five; it's five against five.'

"They used to call him 'Showboat.' ... And I told him, that's not a becoming name. I said, you don't want to be a showboat. When somebody looks at you, they want to see the greatness you can attain if you change some of the things you're doing. And, boy, did he ever do that."

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