While reminiscing about his idol, Nets rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was interrupted by his teammate Markel Brown, who was ready to leave the locker room.
Hollis-Jefferson demurred. “This is serious, Markel,” Hollis-Jefferson told him. “I’m about to cry, man. Chill.”
Hollis-Jefferson was half-joking. But he also half-wasn’t. Three weeks earlier, he’d met Kobe Bryant for the first time, two 6’6″ and 6’7″ shooting guards out of suburban Philadelphia sharing a private moment.
Sunday night, he reminisced on a lifetime waiting.
“I was trying to meet him since like, sophomore year,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I was telling my AAU coach, I was telling my college coach, they were talking about it, he’d heard of my name, he knew who I was, but it never happened. So (before Nets-Lakers) I was like, ‘all right listen, man. I’m in the NBA. You’ve got to make it happen.’
“It was great to be in his presence, to hear from him, to tell me that he’s watching, he’s noticing, (saying) ‘keep working hard.’ It means the world. It gives you a sense of hope that you can be something special. That’s all I’m trying to be, is something special.”
A sense of place connects them. Hollis-Jefferson and Bryant went to rival high schools in Pennsylvania: Hollis-Jefferson in Chester, Bryant in Lower Merion. A 25-minute drive separates the two schools. Bryant was in his NBA prime during Hollis-Jefferson’s formative years, and the effect on him as a burgeoning basketball player was palpable.
“Every kid around that time where we’re from was like, ‘I want to be like Kobe,'” Hollis-Jefferson said. “He gave so many people hope, to work hard in whatever they did. I was one of those kids that really took that in to do the extra, the things that were necessary, the things that you thought were unnecessary. I was just that kid that, I felt as though I needed to do these things to get over that hump to be successful. He inspired me like no one before, besides my mom and brother, but he’s up there.”
Wayne Ellington, who grew up in the neighboring township of Wynnewood, corroborated Hollis-Jefferson. “Growing up in the same area, all you hear is ‘Kobe, Kobe, Kobe,’ so I watched all his games, man. Just watching, studying, trying to steal things out of his game.”
Bryant confirmed in a poem on The Player’s Tribune what most of the world already knew, that the 2015-16 season will be his last in the NBA. It’s time. He ranks near the bottom of the NBA in nearly every shooting category, and he looks broken down on the court, misfiring mid-range jumpers and long-range shots at a rate unlike anyone in NBA history. The Lakers are floundering at the bottom of the Western Conference, and Bryant’s shot-taking is the primary reason for that.
It’s time, even if some aren’t quite ready to process it.
“First of all, he’s probably lying. He’s probably coming back,” Jarrett Jack joked to The Brooklyn Game. “Nah, I’m just playing. (It’s a) little bit of a surreal moment. He was a guy that set the standard of being the best player and as a champion for such a long time.”
“It’s weird to think about him not being in a Lakers uniform, honestly,” Brook Lopez told The Brooklyn Game. Lopez grew up a Lakers fan in California, growing up in the era of Shaq & Kobe’s dominance.
It’s time, but it’s weird. Bryant has donned Lakers purple and gold for over 1,500 games and 47,000 minutes since his debut 19 years and 27 days ago. His NBA career can buy cigarettes in all 50 states.
Bryant was already a veteran by the time Jack, who’s spent 11 years of his own in an NBA uniform, first played against him. Jack began his career in Portland, playing the Lakers four times per season, right around the time of a hotly contested Lakers-Trail Blazers rivalry.
As he earned more playing time, Jack played well against the Lakers, including a 30-point, seven-assist effort in 2007, and a 21-point, 10-assist game a year later, both Trail Blazers victories. Jack says it was around this time something Bryant said stuck with him.
“Being a young player, I would just come in and do my thing, not knowing that some people may have been taking notice or whatever the case may be,” Jack told The Brooklyn Game. “I remember when I subbed in, he was like, ‘can you not kill us tonight please? Thank you.’ And I looked at him, I was like, damn, that’s kinda dope. He kind of took notice to what I bring to the table. That was kinda cool.
“(But he) killed all of us back, you kiddin’ me?” Jack added. “I didn’t have to tell him to try not to kill us. He was gonna do that anyway.”
Bryant’s descent from the top was swift and brutal: three season-ending injuries, an unwillingness to take a smaller offensive role commensurate with his diminishing skills & athleticism, and reported clashes with numerous people in the Lakers organization marred the end of his tenure.
Bryant’s fierce competitiveness was part of what made him so divisive: it was his greatest strength and weakness. No matter, he’s a future Hall of Famer who dominated the NBA en route to five titles and over 30,000 career points, and Hollis-Jefferson will remember him for that: the process, not just the results.
“That’s pretty much everyone’s favorite player, but me, it’s for different reasons,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Just watching him, how he works, how he looks at people, how he approaches the game of basketball. It’s that aggression he has, that want and will that overpowers everyone, I love about him.
“Even if, respectfully, even if he wasn’t the greatest player, just if he approached the game like that, I respect people like that. That means a lot. To be — I’m not saying a part of it, but to be in the NBA when that’s happening, it’s like, yo, I was a part of history. I can tell my kids, like, hey, my first year in the NBA, and he retired that year. So I’ve got a little story to tell, to be part of it.”
Bryant isn’t anywhere close to the special player he once was; everyone in the league knows that, even if few will say it. The Nets match up with him one last time on March 1st, and in the ultimate act of respect, Hollis-Jefferson is going to try to shut him down.
“Definitely going to pay dues, pay credit. But when we’re out there on the court, I’ve got to play him hard. Just put it in his mind, ‘my last time playing a Chester guy was a great matchup.’ So I definitely look forward to that.”
Knowing Bryant, he wouldn’t want anything less.