Kobe Bryant danced in the right corner, Pelicans forward Dante Cunningham hopelessly attempting to keep pace. Bryant pivoted and spun and shimmied until he caught Cunningham leaning and then burst down the baseline and soared for what seemed like a routine two-handed jam. Yet jogging back on defense, the five-time NBA champion gently touched his shooting shoulder with his left palm. Bryant was in obvious discomfort.
"He probably went up and down the court at least two if not three or four times with his right arm dangling down to his knees basically," says Clay Moser, a Lakers assistant coach at that time. A couple of minutes later, as Los Angeles trailed New Orleans 64-59 with 2:58 remaining in the third quarter on this January 2015 night, Bryant caught a dribble handoff from Jordan Hill at the elbow. He took three shaky dribbles with his off-hand before relinquishing the ball, finally signaling to the Lakers bench he needed a breather.
This anecdote is now forever merely a memory.
Bryant shockingly died Sunday—he, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others perishing in a tragic helicopter crash. His unwavering determination and perseverance has been widely celebrated, most notably punctuated by various accountings of Bryant somehow, someway mustering the will to shoot two free throws against the Golden State Warriors in April 2013 immediately after rupturing his Achilles. At 35 years old, Bryant still endured, maniacally rehabbing for an improbable Dec. 8 return. Only six games into that 2013-14 campaign, he sustained a lateral tibial plateau fracture in his left knee, once again prematurely ending one of his final seasons. Cue another grueling rehabilitation process.
Bryant vowed to end his career properly. He would not be sidelined by failing tendons and bones.
One week toward the end of the 2014 offseason, Bryant gathered Lakers star rookie Julius Randle and free-agent acquisition Ed Davis, a fellow client of his agent, Rob Pelinka, for a grueling stretch of summer training sessions. "He worked his ass off," Davis says. The journeyman forward heard the lore of Bryant's exhaustive drills. Yet word of mouth couldn't possibly prepare Davis for reality.
Bryant, fresh off rehab from a second straight season-ending lower-body injury, paced the 19-year-old Randle and Davis in the devilish 17s drill, in which players must run from sideline to sideline 17 times before one minute expires. Sprints followed, this time with a ball in each of their hands. Bryant instructed his teammates to dribble hard from one baseline to the far elbow. And upon reaching that destination, they were to fire jumpers with their off hands.
To finish, the exercise required each player to drain five shots in a row. Bryant completed the task with ease. "At that point in his career, he wasn't playing for nothing," Davis says. "He knew he wasn't going to win a championship. For him to have that much dedication, it's just crazy. We weren't making the playoffs. We were terrible. But he was locked the f--k in."
Fast-forward to that January, and the Lakers are visiting the Pelicans with only 12 wins against their 30 losses. Bryant jogged off the floor with that droopy right arm. He professed to coaches the pain didn't matter. I have my left hand, he reassured any skeptics. "It was: 'Oh, I can still play. I can keep this off my mind,'" says Xavier Henry, a Lakers teammate.
"He was hurt, but the way his swag is, man, it's unbelievable," adds Robert Sacre, then a Lakers center. "His swag made it seem like it was nothing. That guy had crazy pain tolerance. It's sick. It's disgusting."
After icing his ailing shoulder for the majority of the fourth quarter, Bryant lobbied to return for what would become his final minutes of the season. Five days later, Bryant was ruled out for the remainder of 2014-15 with a torn rotator cuff.
"That was pretty incredible," says Jim Eyen, another Lakers assistant that season. "He can take his mental toughness to another level."
With 4:48 remaining in that game, Bryant gathered the ball in the right mid-post and went to work on Quincy Pondexter. "We threw it in to him in the post, and he made this incredibly beautiful, shimmy-shake, Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan-esque post move with his left hand and buried it," Moser says.
The action appeared far from natural, but Bryant made the shot look fluid. "He was like, 'I've just been practicing all these shots,'" Sacre says. "I couldn't doubt him, you know?"
Davis and Randle confirm the story. That summer workout proved prescient. Few outside of Bryant boasted not only the gumption but also the skill to convert a contested jumper in live game action with their weak hands.
"I tell people that, and if they're not avid followers of the NBA, they don't really believe me," Moser says.
It's even harder to believe the man behind the legend is now gone.