24 Stories for 24: Every 2020 NBA All-Star's Kobe Link

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2020

24 Stories for 24: Every 2020 NBA All-Star's Kobe Link

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    Everybody around the NBA seems to have their own link to Kobe Bryant—a story or feeling that either directly or tangentially connects them to him.

    This has always been a matter of fact. Kobe was never just a player. He was a religion and a myth, an idol and an archnemesis, a mentor and a hindrance, a reality and an idea, all at the same time. His legacy, both on and off the court, is such that it can be whatever you want it to be.

    And yet, following the death of Kobe, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash, it's clear acceptance of his impact never doubled as a measure for comprehension. The outpouring of responses to this tragedy, for both the Bryants and everyone else affected, is unlike anything the league has ever experienced.

    Sudden loss has a way of amplifying clarity, but Kobe's notoriety implied a certain awareness. We knew how much he influenced everyone who came into contact with him, watched him play or followed him off the court. 

    It turns out we didn't. Not really. The enormity of his memory casts new light on the extent of his imprint.

    "Looking at my young players and seeing how emotional they are—they didn't even know him," Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told reporters. "It just tells you how far his reach was."

    Little about Kobe's legacy is genuinely consensus. That he was charged with raping a 19-year-old woman in 2003—the charge was later dropped after the woman elected not to testify, and a civil lawsuit between the two parties was settled out of court—is part of his story. His impact on the game, though, is less complicated. He had one, in some way, in some form, on everyone. This year's All-Stars, young and old, all felt his loss because they all felt his presence.

    Everybody around the NBA seems to have a link to Kobe. These are theirs.

Devin Booker and Damian Lillard

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Damian Lillard

    A groin injury is keeping Lillard out of Sunday's superstar showcase—don't worry, Dame D.O.L.L.A. is still performing Saturday night—but that doesn't make him less of an All-Star. And like most of his Chicago-bound peers, he has at least one Kobe Bryant experience that stands out.

    In this case, it was a "welcome to the NBA" moment. He recounted the interaction in 2014:

    "The very first game against the Lakers, Kobe was making all these crazy shots. We double-teamed him, triple-teamed him sometimes. We tried to make sure every shot that he took was tough. And in my head, I was like, 'He's eventually going to start missing. The shot's going to stop falling eventually.'

    "But I guess that's just a college thing where eventually shots just stop falling, because he kept making them. Fadeaway over two people, fadeaway from three, pull-up jumper with two hands in his face—he's just making it. And it was just one of those times where I was like, 'When a guy in the league gets hot, I guess this is just how it is. There's nothing you can do about it.'"

    During an April 2013 appearance on The Dan Patrick Show, Lillard added another "welcome to the NBA" moment brought to him by Kobe (via Complex's Jose Martinez):

    "I think our last game in L.A. was probably the time where I had that because it was a pretty close game and I scored a few buckets and the crowd was into it. Kobe was killin', and he went to the free-throw line, and they needed those free throws. I told him, I said, 'Kobe, I just need you to miss one,' and he just kind of ignored me and just stayed focused, and he went and made both free throws. And then there was a timeout, and I remember walking back on the floor and he walked past me, and he tapped me on the back and said, 'This isn't my first rodeo, rook.'

    This all seems on-brand for pre-twilight Kobe. His maniacal work ethic and killer instincts never wavered, but he became more of a teddy-bear figure to the kids by the end of his career. Lillard might've received a slightly less snarky welcome if he entered the league two or three seasons later.

    Or maybe not.

         

    Devin Booker

    Booker's Kobe experience is more tightly knit than others. He grew up idolizing the five-time champion, and the two developed a relationship.

    Kobe was on his way out by the time Booker entered the league, but that didn't prevent him from reciprocating the respect. After his final game in Phoenix, he gave the then-19-year-old a signed pair of his shoes with the message "Be Legendary" also scrawled across.

    To say Booker was elated would be an understatement. As he told reporters at the time:

    "It's just something I will remember for the rest of my life and I can tell my kids about. I remember me catching the ball, and I had it in kind of the short post. And I missed the shot, but I used one of his moves against him, and that's the first thing he said against me. 'You're trying to use my own move against me?' He said that right at the end of the game, so it was fun. That was the only time we matched up, but like I said it's something I will remember for the rest of my life."

    Anybody else catch feelz? Because I caught feelz.

Bam Adebayo

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    Bam Adebayo notched a triple-double in his first performance following Kobe Bryant's death, and he dedicated that effort to his role model: Bean himself.

    Shortly thereafter, Adebayo went into greater detail about how much Kobe meant to him.

    "When I was in high school, I said if I make it to the NBA, I want to meet Kobe," he said. "And I felt like I was having an All-Star year this year, and I feel like he was going to come to the game. And, you know, I broke down."

    This is both gutting and remarkable—an authentic reminder of the impact Kobe had over those who never even got the chance to meet him.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo's work ethic has been compared ad nauseam to Kobe Bryant's own delirious drive, but their ties run deeper than this shared commitment to grinding. Much deeper.

    "[The] first NBA game I watched was a Kobe game against the Celtics—he was big, and you could feel it," Antetokounmpo said, per Forbes' Andrew Wagner. "And from what happened yesterday and how many people reached out to him and his family, you realize how big he was.

    "I grew up with Kobe—he's one of the reasons I started playing basketball—and he's one of the reasons I'm here today."

    Antetokounmpo forged a more tangible connection with his idol once he entered the league. Bryant issued him a Mamba Challenge in 2017 with a three-letter mandate: MVP. Antetokounmpo was so serious about completing his mission that he set up a workout with Kobe during the summer of 2018—for which he showed up three-and-a-half hours early. (That's 30 minutes late in Kobe time.)

    Other stars were lampooned for getting in runs with Kobe. Jayson Tatum's mentions still haven't fully recovered. Antetokounmpo proved immune to the jokes, in large part because he seized hold of the 2018-19 MVP discussion and never looked back.

    With that task complete, Kobe doled out another: Championship. The Milwaukee Bucks are now on pace to win more than 70 games, and Antetokounmpo is the runaway favorite to secure a second straight MVP.

    Another Mamba Challenge may be on the verge of completion.

Jimmy Butler

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    Jimmy Butler was specifically asked about his Kobe Bryant story. He went the first-on-court encounter route while speaking with reporters:

    "Everybody does have a Kobe story, right? I don't know. I just think...The first time when I played against him, in Chicago, probably rookie year, second year. Just knowing that I'm on the court with one of the greatest people to ever play the game, it hit me a different way. That's everything to me: knowing that I'm in the same league with somebody that has done this at an extremely high level for so long. I think that's special."

    It should come as no surprise Butler felt a certain way about occupying the same space as Kobe. He had to sense a kinship. Their competitive drive shares a certain edginess, the kind that compels them to roast their own teammates if they're not working up to their standards.

    To that end, which one ya got: Kobe's "Soft like Charmin," or Butler's tour de force?

Anthony Davis

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    It turns out there's a story behind the above picture from the 2012 Olympics. Anthony Davis told it to reporters after the Los Angeles Lakers honored Kobe and Gianna Bryant at Staples Center on Jan. 31:

    "We were playing Nigeria...and we were winning by like 60 or something like that. I finally got my chance to go in the game. I was just so happy to be around these guys, all these future Hall of Famers. I forgot to put my jersey on before the game. When Coach K [Krzyzewski] called me to go into the game, I'm going up to the table and I'm about to take my warmup shirt off, and I look down and it's just a white T-shirt underneath.

    "I kind of whispered to him because I didn't want these guys to hear me [say], 'I forgot my jersey,' and I go sit down. Kobe got on me like...I can't say what he said, but basically, 'Why you not going in the game? It's your chance.' I said, 'I don't got my jersey on.' There's a picture where he's kind of looking into my warmup. He said some more things after that. So now before every game, I kind of just check to make sure I have my jersey on. He told me how to get dressed before a game."

    I truly, deeply, really mean this: LMAO.

    Another Kobe-Davis moment from London ranks as a close second to this doozy. Kobe wasn't renowned for mentoring kids—or should we say, his competition—at the time, but he made an exception for the teenager who followed him around at the Olympics.

    "I think he was there when me and Serena [Williams] had a nice conversation about work ethic and competition and how she processes competitiveness and rivals and all that," Kobe told the Los Angeles Times' Tania Ganguli. "Sort of comparing notes. He was just sitting there watching."

    That is such a surreal mental image: Kobe and Serena shooting the breeze, chitchatting about life, with an impressionable 19-year-old looking on, either there by invite or just to eavesdrop. It's a little creepy, perhaps, on Davis' part. Mostly, it's surreal—and in hindsight, powerful.

Luka Doncic

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    Luka Doncic's Kobe Bryant moment could follow the same theme as so many others we're about to rehash: He looked up to him and LeBron James, got to meet him, even work out with him, and was subsequently overwhelmed by his impact. That's a recipe for a quality feel-good story—and in this instance, right on the money.

    But Doncic's signature interaction with his idol is more Kobe than that. It is a moment that encapsulates the approachable star he became with the devout competitor he always was.

    Kobe and Gianna took in the Los Angles Lakers' Dec. 29 game against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center. As Doncic was getting ready to inbound the ball, he heard someone behind him saying...something.

    "He was talking Slovenian," Doncic said afterward. "So I was like 'Who's talking my language?' I looked over and I was truly surprised."

    It was Kobe.

    Five championships, two Finals MVPs and a league MVP are awesome and all. But only a true legend would take the time to learn enough Slovenian to properly dis someone half his age.

Joel Embiid

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    Hopefully you haven't yet tired of hearing about NBA players who started loving the game because of Kobe Bryant, because Joel Embiid is another who picked up a basketball after watching him.

    This is a common refrain and still, somehow, ridiculous. Kobe's reach as a basketball player remains unfathomable.

    Embiid's more direct Kobe moment came during the former's last game in Philadelphia. He relayed it in a story for The Players' Tribune

    "The most surreal moment was when Kobe was retiring, and he played his last game in Philly. After the game, they set up a little room for us to talk for a minute. He walked in, and I shook his hand and I told him, 'Man, I know you probably hear this a lot, but I literally started playing basketball because of you seven years ago. Whenever I'd be shooting the ball at the park, I'd be yelling out, 'KOBEEEEEE!'"

    "He laughed and we talked for a minute, and then before he left he said the most Kobe thing. To most people, it wouldn't mean anything. But to me, it was surreal. It was like I was in a video game or something.

    "He said, in the most Kobe way, 'OK, young fella. Keep working. Keep working.'"

    Honestly, "keep working" is probably the most Kobe farewell ever. Really, anything that includes him leaving the room while instructing someone to exhaust their energy stores in the pursuit of stardom and championships and greatness fits the bill.

Rudy Gobert

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Rudy Gobert did not have an established relationship with Kobe Bryant, but as a transplant from France, he's more than qualified to speak of No. 8 and 24's global influence.

    And he did, telling the Salt Lake Tribune's Andy Larsen:

    "When I first started playing basketball, I didn't know nobody. I watched Space Jam—that was the only thing I knew about basketball. But most of the kids I was playing, they'd have a jersey No. 8 with Bryant on the back. There was Bryant and Shaq—those were the two jerseys that we had. After a while I was about to find out who he was, and he was one of my favorite players."

    Space Jam being Gobert's introduction to basketball is pretty wild. His transformation into a Kobe appreciator is less so.

    Gobert also apparently enjoyed watching Kobe hang 60 points on the Utah Jazz in his final game. He didn't make the trip for the occasion because of an injury, so I think that makes his marveling at a rival player beating his own team totally OK.

Brandon Ingram

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    Among the best barometers for Kobe Bryant's reach is the influence he held over those who didn't count him as their favorite player.

    Enter Brandon Ingram.

    Kevin Durant was his numero uno, but Kobe was the player he still copied most on the playground. As he told Lakers.com's Mike Trudell in 2018: "Well, everybody said 'Kobe.' The fadeaway from Kobe. I think that was it. I mean, my favorite player was Kevin Durant, but I don't think I ever just tried to go out and imitate him. I think it was always Kobe."

    Ingram has a point. If nothing else, it's not nearly as fun to say "KDEEEEE" as it is "KOBEEEEE."

    Though he entered the league right after Bryant retired, Ingram still played in his shadow. The Lakers will always be Kobe's team, and then-team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka later pushed him to seek the Mamba's counsel.

LeBron James

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    LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are inextricably linked.

    All-time greats always find themselves in the same rarefied air, but they have deeper history. LeBron grabbed the face-of-the-league torch from Kobe, they built a relationship as the NBA's buddy-buddy era began its crescendo and, now, they're both Los Angeles Lakers. That LeBron just recently passed him on the all-time scoring list, much to Kobe's delight, is yet another throughline.

    Of all the options from which to choose, their 2002 encounter at All-Star Weekend in Philadelphia feels most appropriate. It was one of their first meetings, and it ended with LeBron wearing shoes a size too small. As he told reporters:

    "I believe I was playing [a high school game] in New Jersey, and the All-Star Game, if I'm not mistaken, and you all can correct me, was in Philly. That Saturday, me and Maverick [Carter] drove to the Intercontinental [hotel] in downtown Philadelphia, and he gave me a pair of his shoes, which I ended up wearing that following night. It was the red, white and blue Kobes. I was a [size] 15, and he was a 14, and I wore them anyways.

    "I sat and just talked to him for a little bit. He gave me the shoes, and I rocked them in the game, and it was the same night we played Oak Hill against 'Melo [Anthony]. Then, I saw what he was able to do the next night winning MVP here in Philly that following night."

    Anyone inclined to single out the speech LeBron gave in honor of Kobe on Jan. 31 is well within their rights. His words were raw, moving and, somehow, exactly what everyone watching needed to hear.

Nikola Jokic

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Nikola Jokic's first opportunity to meet Kobe Bryant came at a nondescript moment. That he remembers it at all, though, is the whole point.

    "My first year, I was talking to the refs before the game," he told reporters. "And he was there."

    Perhaps there's more to this story than Jokic divulged. Short of his leaving out an entire 15-minute conversation, it speaks to Kobe's aura that players are able to recall their interaction with him, however seemingly inconsequential. Just being in his vicinity is, for some, enough to commit the experience to memory.

    For his part, Jokic was no stranger to the Kobe Bryant way. He has spoken to his global impact, received his own Mamba Challenge—"MVP"—in 2019 and is among the many who associates tireless effort with No. 24.

    "When you think about Kobe, it's no excuse," Jokic said, per DNVR's Harrison Wind. "Nothing can put your mind off what you love to do. It's the Mamba Mentality."

James Harden

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    Kobe Bryant saw into James Harden's future.

    It was 2011. The NBA was mired in a lockout. Kobe and a 21-year-old Harden were playing in a Drew League pickup game. They dueled, not as mentor and mentee, but as equals. Harden dropped 44 points. Kobe pumped in 45 and the game-winner.

    That's one big ol' memory unto itself. Kobe made it even more special by touting Harden's potential to those around him. As Tyson Chandler recounted (h/t Rockets Wire's Ben DuBose):

    "'He's come a long way,' Kobe told me during the lockout. We were playing pickup, and James was there. Kobe was like, after a pickup game, we were sitting down, icing, he was like, 'He's going to be the next one after me.'

    "I was like, 'Really?' This was a young James. [Kobe] was like, 'He's going to be the next one after me.'

    "I'm like, 'If you say so. You know better than anybody.'"

    One trade to Houston, a league MVP and a handful of almost-MVPs later, Harden has proved that Kobe, one of his role models, did in fact know what he was talking about.

Kawhi Leonard

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    Remember when Kyrie Irving FaceTimed Kobe Bryant after the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 title? Well, Kawhi Leonard did the Kawhi version of that after the Toronto Raptors took home the championship last season.

    "I'm a guy that talked to Kobe last year, before the season, and right after we won in the locker room," Leonard said. "Me and [then-Raptors assistant] Phil Handy worked out with him before we got to Toronto, and he was probably the first or second guy we talked to other than our teammates and family after we won in the locker room.

    "That motivation [Kobe gave him]. I thought about him every game. He was a [source] of drive for me last year trying to get that championship."

    Leonard went on to say that he first sought out Kobe in his third year, and that they lived relatively close to one another over the offseason. He attended Kobe's invite-only mini camp this past summer as well—though purely in a spectator's capacity.

    It should also be noted that Kawhi smiled when he met Gianna Bryant. That by itself is a pretty big deal.

Kyle Lowry

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    Kyle Lowry's competitive motor has drawn comparisons to Kobe Bryant's iconicized work ethic. Their games have never been similar, and Lowry's commitment to the grind didn't gain attention until later in his career, but they share a fierce obsession with the process that goes into the final product.

    Somewhat ironically, this anecdote has zero to do with that connection.

    Ahead of the 2016 All-Star Game, Lowry appeared on The Lowe Post podcast and was asked whether he took exception to Kobe making the final cut without having the numbers to back it up.

    "Not at all," he said (h/t Fox Sports). "I think it's going to be enjoyable. It's going to be pretty cool. Because I know he's going to try and go off...I might let him score, make it a highlight, so I could be in one of those all-time videos of the All-Star Game. I'd let him score."

    Lowry has always carried himself with a deadpan realism. He is never goaded into indulging sensationalism yet doesn't take himself too seriously. Those crying foul at Kobe cracking an All-Star roster in his final season were party poopers, and with his nonchalant endorsement, Lowry let everybody know it.

Khris Middleton

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    Khris Middleton did not have the direct relationship with Kobe Bryant that Giannis Antetokounmpo enjoyed, but he is still one of the many (many) current players who drew inspiration from him prior to entering the NBA.

    "He was one of my favorite players growing up. I took a lot from his game," Middleton said, per the Post and Courier's Derrek Asberry. "I used to pull YouTube clips to study him. I tried to stay up late to watch his games because he was on West Coast time."

    All those YouTube deep dives paid off in a big way in the Milwaukee Bucks' Jan. 28 victory over the Washington Wizards. With Antetokounmpo out, Middleton had the ultimate green light, and he responded in a way that would've made Kobe proud: by dropping a career-high 51 points.

    "To go out there and play and put on that type of performance," Middleton said afterward, per Asberry. "I definitely can dedicate that to him as a thank you for what he did for the game."

Donovan Mitchell

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    By his own admission, Donovan Mitchell was not a Kobe Bryant fan growing up. He planted his flag in LeBron James' camp.

    Sometimes, the loudest support isn't the most impactful. Big-name Kobe devoutists are no doubt billboards for his influence, but it is the slightly less enthusiastic admirers who demonstrate the full extent of his reach.

    Mitchell falls into that latter category. He didn't worship Kobe with the same obviousness so many of his contemporaries did, but he still felt the weight of his celebrity. He couldn't believe it when Kobe made him a subject of his show, Detail, with ESPN.

    "I was in shock that he was talking about me," Mitchell said, per the Salt Lake Tribune's Andy Larsen. "He knew my name. He knew my game. I think that's one of the wildest things to me. I watched that video yesterday—just, like, wow."

    This regard for Kobe is something Mitchell felt before the basketball legend knew his name or game. Much like Brandon Ingram, he still found his younger self channeling his inner Mamba despite his favorite-player allegiances belonging to someone else.

    "I grew up yelling 'Kobe!', you know, shooting paper into a trash can," he said, per Larsen. "People shouldn't stop doing that."

    Don't worry. They won't.

Chris Paul

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    Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight. If anyone was wondering how close, they received their answer in CP3's Instagram tribute, which affectionately noted that Gianna and his son, Chris, already had their marriage prearranged by their parents.

    No other Kobe-CP3 story comes close to matching the trade that was then wasn't.

    Their careers were almost intertwined when the Los Angeles Lakers and then-New Orleans Hornets agreed to a deal in 2011 that landed CP3 in Hollywood. Except, at the the time, the league was acting as owner of the Hornets. And soon after news of the blockbuster broke, then-commissioner David Stern vetoed the trade for the ever-infamous basketball reasons.

    This, of course, didn't sit well with the two superstars. They were taking a quasi-victory lap. Kobe, in fact, was already counting championships.

    "You know me. My dream isn't to win games," Kobe told ESPN's Baxter Holmes. "It's like, 'How many of these titles are we going to win [together]?' Because if we don't win, we're a failure."

    "It was crazy," Paul added. "It was exciting. We talked about potentially being teammates and all that stuff like that. Then, in the blink of an eye, gone."

    This non-trade remains one of the NBA's great what-ifs. Kobe, who didn't make it back to the Finals after the Lakers' 2010 title, never seemed to fully get over it.

    "Things would've been very, very, very different around here," he told Holmes, "with two of the most competitive people the league has ever seen."

Domantas Sabonis

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    Domantas Sabonis' ties to Kobe Bryant are more cursory and, at the same time, deeper than most on this list.

    On the one hand, the two didn't share an intimate relationship. Sabonis lamented the loss of Kobe but entered the league after his final season. He didn't have the opportunity to create a Rolodex of Kobe experiences.

    On the other hand, no other current All-Star, as far as I know, can say that Kobe dunked on his dad. Or that Kobe also blocked his dad's game-tying two-point attempt in the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

    Just so nothing's lost in translation: Kobe held Arvydas Sabonis in high esteem. He was a floor-spacing center before the league knew how to properly value floor-spacing centers, and Kobe recognized him as one of the greatest international players ever.

Pascal Siakam

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Pascal Siakam is only tangentially connected to Kobe Bryant. He was the subject of a Detail episode, and he's the first player since Kobe in 2009 to record a 30-point, five-rebound, five-assist, two-block outing during the NBA Finals.

    These loose ties aren't to say Siakam didn't appreciate Kobe's game. He did. And he regrets not having the chance to build a more direct link.

    "I was invited to the Mamba camp that they had over the summer [of 2019], and I was unable to go," Siakam said. "So that really hurt me, just knowing that was my chance to meet him and maybe have a relationship with him or see things that he sees in my game and learn from him.

    "I was definitely mad at myself. I feel like I kind of missed an opportunity. And I remember [former Toronto Raptors assistant] Phil [Handy] telling me he was a fan of my game."

    This is not an attempt to commoditize Siakam's grief. It is just further evidence of Kobe's reach. That he could have such a significant impact on those he never engaged with is a credit to his basketball lore.

Ben Simmons

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    Kobe Bryant both marveled and lamented at how Ben Simmons dominated without a jumper. In other words, he was just like many of you.

    Simmons did not view Kobe as a detractor for regurgitating the obvious. He too was someone who appreciated the immensity of Kobe's imprint.

    "Kobe Bryant was someone who I looked up to, a fierce competitor, a Champion, an icon," Simmons tweeted after the helicopter accident. "His dominance and relentless spirit translated both on and off the court. Your fans across the world loved you with such passion and you never let them down."

    So much about Kobe's legacy is subjective. His work ethic and the ferocity he played with seem to be the common ground on which everyone can meet. Those are the common denominators in all these stories, memories, tributes and throughlines, whether players knew him intimately or from afar: an appreciation of his drive.

Jayson Tatum

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    Jayson Tatum's 2018 offseason workout with Kobe Bryant turned into a meme after he didn't make the superstar leap as a sophomore. But while he did open up the year launching too many low-quality twos, the Kobe-ification of his shot profile was overblown. Mid-range jumpers have long been ingrained into his game.

    Whether you have an opinion on who players choose to work out with over the summer is irrelevant. Ditto for whether these offseason meetups even truly matter. The chance to pick Kobe's brain about everything—everything—meant something to Tatum.

    Consider what he said about the offseason workout while appearing on The Bill Simmons podcast:

    "I got a chance to just sit down and talk to him first. You know, I got to meet with him. And we talked about a lot of things, basketball-related, non-basketball-related. I tried to get into his mind and see how he went about things. Just trying to get better each year, what he wanted to improve year after year so he didn't backtrack or be complacent. His will to just be the best and just striving to get better every year. That's one thing I found interesting.

    "When we were working out, his thing was just trying to break the game down and make it as simple as possible. He said the year he averaged 35, all he worked on in the summertime was pivot foot, trying to play off both pivots. He said, 'That's all I did for the entire summer. Obviously, I expanded off a move from each pivot and a counter move to that.' But he was like, 'The entire summer that's all I worked on.'"

    It doesn't take an expert to detect the amount of respect Tatum had for Kobe's craft and input. As he noted on that podcast, he watched the Detail episode Kobe did on him "like 70 times." He likewise made it clear that Kobe was everything to him while growing up.

    "Even before then, like when I was like four or five, I'd just always tell—my mom would ask me what I wanted to be when I got older," he told Simmons. "And I would just be like, 'I wanna be Kobe.' She'd be like, 'You wanna be in the NBA?' 'No, like, I wanna be Kobe.' He was just my favorite player. I had his posters, all his jerseys. That was my guy."

Kemba Walker

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    Kemba Walker's standout connection to Kobe Bryant is yet another first encounter. His came during high school, and he could barely put what it meant to him into words.

    "I was blessed to meet him in high school," he said, per the Washington Post's Ben Golliver. "Just to see him, his presence had an impact on me. You always knew how hard he worked. His work ethic and mentality is what inspired me the most."

    There's that storied work ethic again.

    History is littered with impossibly absurd tales of his workout regimes. All of them should be veritable myths. Because Kobe was Kobe, they're not. They're accepted truths. No recount is too extreme to be anything else.

    Kobe made a high school bench-warmer play one-on-one games to 100? Sure. He had already put in three hours of work and was drenched in sweat and icing his knees by the time other superstars were waking up? Duh.

    He once worked out for nearly seven hours straight, between 4:15 a.m. and 11 a.m.? Well, what else is he supposed to do before lunch?

    He taught himself to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on piano...by ear? Nothing passes the time after a 19-hour gym session quite like self-learning musical compositions from the early 1800s. Buy it.

Russell Westbrook

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Russell Westbrook recalled his first meeting with Kobe Bryant in an Instagram tribute, which played out exactly as you'd expect.

    "I met Kobe when I was 16 at UCLA playing against him in a pickup game," Westbrook wrote. "He played like it was the NBA Finals."

    This is so Kobe. And so Westbrook.

    Truth be told, this may have actually been the encounter that birthed the relentless version of Russ we've watched for the past 12 years.

    "From that point on, I decided that I wanted to emulate his Mamba mentality," Westbrook continue. "At the time, there was no name for it, but I recognized in him what I always felt in myself. He became a friend, a brother, a mentor, a teacher, he defended me, he believed in me, and he taught me how to weather the storm."

Trae Young

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Trae Young met Kobe Bryant as a kid. Years later, he would go on to become the favorite player of Kobe's kid (Gianna).

    "I was told earlier this morning that he was coming to watch me with his daughter," Young said earlier this season, per ESPN's Baxter Holmes. "It was crazy, because he told me his daughter is a huge fan of mine and I'm one of her favorite players. It's kind of crazy, because I'll be watching her highlights too."

    Young is one of the players who developed a bond with Kobe despite coming into the league after him. One of their final conversations is equal parts powerful and a sign of how close they became.

    "He was just telling me how much he’s seen my game progress and just been happy for me," Young said, per the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Sarah K. Spencer. "Just saying how proud he was of me and how he wants me to continue to be a role model for kids growing up and just for Gigi. And all the kids looking up to me, just continue to inspire these kids and continue to play my heart out."

    That's the sound of your heart melting.

         

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.