LOS ANGELES — Metta World Peace was 14 years old the first time he stepped on a basketball court with Kobe Bryant.
It was in Providence, Rhode Island, a high school game featuring a pair of transcendent prodigies. World Peace, then a flinty teenager with muffled natural ability, and Bryant, still in the larval stage of becoming his own constellation, would both go on to have two of the most polarizing, memorable careers the NBA has ever seen.
But on that day, all their accomplishments lay unclaimed in the distance.
World Peace can still recall bits and pieces from their initial meeting: the whispers that Bryant was the next Grant Hill, a hyper-competitive 15-year-old whose mythology as we now know it had yet to weave a single thread. His jump shot was already a razor.
According to World Peace, Bryant fired a 50-point torpedo through his LaSalle Academy’s chest. The experience shook World Peace’s entire perspective and opened his eyes to how talented his competition could really be.
“[Kobe] kind of motivated me, actually, to continue to get better,” World Peace told Bleacher Report. “Because when I played against him, I wasn’t as skilled. I was always tough, but I wasn’t skilled. So, essentially, he had a lot to do with my motivation. If I want to be good and play with guys like this, I have to work on my game.”
World Peace and Bryant eventually teamed up to win a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, and after three years apart, that's again where they find themselves today.
That fact is remarkable on its own, considering their age, but what's more compelling is how their relationship has dovetailed—how they continue to serve each other in ways both obvious and unseen.
The two first became teammates when World Peace signed with the Lakers in 2009, supplying the defending champions with physical snarl and another defensive presence. He was an All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year and third-team All-NBA selection in 2004.
His on-court impact was never a question, but World Peace's mercurial, sometimes-violent behavior prevented him from staying put in one place.
He bounced from the Indiana Pacers to the Sacramento Kings to the Houston Rockets, while Bryant erupted in L.A. as his generation's most potent offensive threat. Kobe defeated World Peace's Rockets on his way to the title in 2009, and their careers stood on two very different paths.
With World Peace, the Lakers won it all in 2010 but steadily declined from the NBA’s mountaintop over the next three years. They went 143-87 and suffered embarrassing playoff defeats against a few rising squads.
Bryant stuck around through it all, but a pair of season-ending injuries sapped the Lakers of any punch. World Peace signed with the New York Knicks in 2013 after the Lakers waived him. He then spent a year in China. His NBA career was effectively finished before the Lakers invited him to training camp this season.
All that feels so long ago even though it just happened.
It makes this season’s reunion between World Peace and Bryant all the more remarkable—despite the fact that they're reunited under a completely different set of expectations.
The Lakers are now the rebuilding punchline to a joke everyone outside Southern California has waited decades to tell. They have the second-worst record in the NBA. A three-game win-streak aside, the Lakers are struggling through the type of year that'd make George R.R. Martin weep.
Bryant is 37 years old and on the last leg of an otherworldly journey. His true shooting percentage has never dipped lower than where it sits right now. World Peace just turned 36 and resides on a non-guaranteed contract. He hasn’t played a minute in nearly a month but routinely gets shots up on game days to stay ready.
The Lakers are oddly built and all too inexperienced, but the two veterans are still helping each other as much as ever—more off the floor than anything else.
“I just want to free Kobe up to have a really good season,” World Peace said. “I really don’t want him to have to focus on keeping the young guys focused. It’s his last season. His last season should be played at a high level, which, he’s playing at a high level. ... I’m sure he can take on the world, and I’m sure if he had to take on the challenge of fixing the young guys and go out playing at a high level, he would. So I’m not saying I’m doing the job for him. But for me personally, I would like to free him up. I want to see him have a really strong finish to his career.”
Up until the past few seasons, Bryant’s self-reliance was both unsavory and the stuff of legend. He’s had great success as an autonomous supernova, and even today he doesn’t need World Peace any more than you or I need DVR or a functioning dishwasher.
But these elements make life more bearable, and they’re never not appreciated.
The two don’t ever discuss Los Angeles’ struggles or how the Lakers are rebuilding. Instead, as often as they can, they reminisce—mostly about former teammates and how mean they both were, how competitive they remain.
“Everybody on this team loves [Metta],” Lakers head coach Byron Scott said. “He’s very professional about the way he approaches his job, and Kobe respects that. And once you’ve got his respect, pretty much you’ve got the respect of one of the best who’s ever played.”
That respect mixed with this season’s low stakes translates to a breezy relationship. On Christmas night, the Lakers were heavily outmatched against the Los Angeles Clippers, so Bryant and World Peace detached themselves from another blowout loss by chewing over happier times.
“I was telling Metta on the bench, when Paul [Pierce] was running back down, I said ‘You know Metta, I’m so damn happy we won that 2010 Finals because I’d be so sick as s--t sitting here right now.’ You know, and he felt the same way,” Bryant said. “It’s been great, being with Metta. He and I go so far back…it’s been great having him around.”
The losing won’t stop, and neither guy is getting any younger. But the experience isn’t intolerable either. Both men are satisfied with where they’re at and where basketball has led them.
Bryant is retiring. World Peace has yet to consider his future as an NBA player, but he is more than secure if this is it. He’s ready for whatever’s next.
“I’m not trying to predict my future right now. For me, it’s all about energy. Spiritual energy. For me, it’s bigger than the game. I just try to always stay in tune with my energy. From a universal standpoint. Just staying connected to things I’ve been through in the past even before I was born,” he said. “For me, it’s all bigger than the game of basketball as I evolve as a person, and then I just like to be here with guys that love to play the game of basketball. So it’s pretty cool, being connected to other people.”
Nostalgia has built an unbreakable bond between World Peace and Bryant. Since that day in a Providence gym, they’ve battled, fought and seemingly orbited each other.
They've spilled champagne and cackled in the shower to celebrate nights they’ll never forget. Two cerebral minds. Two unforgiving bodies. Two champions who've guzzled the NBA's sweetest nectar and now struggle through its harshest reality, the most sobering battle of their professional lives.
But they still have each other. And right now, it’s their unquantifiable connection that makes this troubling season that much easier to swallow.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com. All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.