LOS ANGELES — On the one hand, they are two global icons.
On the other hand Thursday night at Staples Center, they were just teammates talking on the bench, almost no one noticing them furthering a new relationship that is meaning more and more on a private level to both mentor and student.
Kobe Bryant, knees encased in ice packs and done testing his body in the Los Angeles Lakers' second exhibition game, was using the fourth quarter to do what he was doing even before training camp began: teaching Jeremy Lin to think and play more like him.
Bryant looked out on the court, using both hands to show Lin what he saw—and what he envisioned could and should be happening. Lin listened intently. A few minutes later, Lin felt comfortable enough to joke with Bryant, leaning his left forearm into the 16-time All-Star as they spoke and Bryant cracking up at what Lin said.
Joining the Lakers via a trade with the Rockets in July, Lin said he found in his early interactions with Bryant that he is "such a normal guy away from everything...he's human."
Lin has learned a lot since then.
"He cares about all the little things," Lin said. "It's like the stuff that he talks to me about, I didn't ever think about it. Little stuff. I'm, like, 'Oh, OK. That's one way to look at it.' He's challenging me to expand my perspective.
"I think that's really important, and that's something that I love doing. It's a blessing that he's here in the same locker room."
The thrust of Bryant's lessons might surprise you.
Defense, where Bryant has let his game steadily fall off in recent seasons, and before that where he used to be mocked by Phil Jackson with jokes about Bryant not deserving his All-Defensive Team honors, is what Bryant is teaching Lin.
"Jeremy's biggest challenge, which he loves, is that I'm really going to challenge him to be a great defensive player—because he can," Bryant said. "He has the speed, he has the length, he has the size. He has never had to take on that challenge, but I think he can be a great defensive player."
Lin has been derided for his defense, and he lost playing time last season in Houston to Patrick Beverley, who is one of the NBA's most dogged perimeter defenders. Lin's effort, however, was not in question, which is why Bryant is confident that his guidance—or his tricks in fouling without being called for fouls—will really work for Lin.
When they worked out together over the summer for a week in Anaheim, Bryant was already issuing his challenge about defense. (It's no coincidence that Bryant and Lakers coach Byron Scott were in semi-daily contact, and one of Scott's core beliefs is that his lead defender must make the opposing point guard work hard for space.)
Bryant knows this. Too often he has roamed too freely on defense, but his greatest successes at that end have undoubtedly come while defending whoever has the ball, head-to-head.
Lin said defense is "pretty much all" he and Bryant discuss on the court.
"It's just nice to have somebody who's pushing me and helping me, teaching me the tricks," Lin said. "It's also nice when he's one of the best to ever do it, even on the defensive end."
Bryant has received All-Defensive Team honors 12 times, yet his Scott-inspired defensive activity in the exhibition opener Monday night was jarring in its intensity.
On Thursday night, Golden State opened the game by zipping the ball around with good movement before Klay Thompson nailed a three-pointer—but Bryant closed out on defense harder than he has on a shooter since about 2003.
As the Warriors' talented scorers continued to ring up points with ease, Bryant barked to his teammates: "We're making it too easy!"
Bryant had three steals to go with his 15 points in 23 minutes Thursday night and declared himself "more than comfortable" in his comeback from Achilles and knee injuries. He said he is on board if Scott decides to sit him out of one of the remaining six exhibition games (perhaps one of the back-to-back games Oct. 21 vs. Phoenix or Oct. 22 vs. Portland).
He knows, however, that there won't be much winning during this comeback unless the Lakers' defense improves dramatically from the Mike D'Antoni era. Bryant was so disenchanted with what happened last season that he headed off to France for his wedding anniversary as the Lakers (including an injured Steve Nash and Pau Gasol) finished up their season by traveling to Utah and San Antonio.
Bryant, as he promised he would, has locked back in since.
Although the stigma of being a bad teammate has been difficult for Bryant to shake, Lin isn't the only teammate Bryant has mentored.
Last season Bryant harped on Nick Young to become more professional. Even though they rarely were on the court together, Bryant was vocal from the sideline and practically forced Young into studying game footage in his down time.
Bryant continues to push Young, saying the other day: "In order to be 'Swaggy P' and for people to pay attention to 'Swaggy P,' he has to put in some work on the court. Or no one's gonna give a s---."
And this summer, small forward Wesley Johnson—a notorious underachiever in his four NBA seasons, including his inconsistent first Lakers season—met Bryant for 7 a.m. workouts most of the offseason in hopes of molding Johnson into a defensive wing-stopper for the Lakers.
People are still paying attention to Lin for his epic splash in 2012. Although he is expected to come off the bench behind Nash for the Lakers, Lin's popularity is such that he might still be Bryant's partner in the Western Conference's starting backcourt for the All-Star Game. (Lin finished fourth in voting last season among all West guards behind Stephen Curry, Bryant and Chris Paul.)
Lin is determined to establish the game behind the name in his first Lakers season. Ten years younger than Bryant to the day, Lin aspires to be playing in the NBA when he is Bryant's age, 36.
No doubt Lin will learn a lot from Nash about point-guard offense in the coming year, but for now the emphasis is on defense from Bryant.
Where is your off hand? Is that the best angle to take? How can you fake as a defender? Are you taking this as a challenge?
"Really small things you'll never see," Lin said.
Bryant's first text message to Lin, who was half-asleep in Shanghai at the time in July, was: "We have a lot of work to do."
By the time this training camp began, Lin put it this way: "Kobe has been very, very, very kind to me."
Ten days into the preseason, class is in full session.
"He's pushing me and he's demanding a lot from me, and he's definitely taken on a mentorship role for me on the court," Lin said. "That's something I don't think I've had in my previous four years in the league."
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.