Kobe Bryant’s death cast a feeling of immense loss over the basketball world. It was perhaps best described by his friend and former agent Rob Pelinka, who said he felt a shift in the “axis of the world” upon hearing the news.
Bryant left basketball in 2016 with a 60-point gem. He seemed to disappear from the game in a way stars rarely do. His daughter, the late Gianna Bryant, brought him back to the sport with her own interest. And when Kobe did something, he went all in.
The Lakers legend’s death revealed the extent he dedicated himself to basketball via his daughter. Russell Westbrook, in particular, became close to Kobe in retirement. Here’s how the two went from being fierce opponents to a student/teacher relationship.
Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant’s epic showdowns
Westbrook and Kobe overlapped in the NBA from 2009 to 2016, according to World of Basketball. This included two crucial playoff series between Kobe’s Lakers and a stacked Thunder squad including Westbrook, James Harden, and Kevin Durant.
All three weren’t quite the steady superstars they are today. Bryant brought a level of steely-eyed play the trio wasn’t quite prepared for. The Lakers made fairly quick work of OKC in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, going 4-2 in the series.
It was a different story in 2012, however, Kobe, slowed by a tough recovery from an Achilles injury, wasn’t quite himself. The Thunder, on the other hand, came in hot. They demolished the defending champs, the Dallas Mavericks, 4-0.
The Lakers seemed out of gas this time around. And the main pieces of the Thunder were hitting their prime. LA fell 4-1, sending the organization into a prolonged absence from playoff contention.
Kobe made a point of challenging one player in both series. A man he later called “the most athletic player I have ever faced,” according to Def Pen. It was a young, fiery Russell Westbrook.
What Bryant thought about Westbrook as a player
Bryant and Westbrook clashed 33 times in the NBA. But they met first at a UCLA pickup game when Westbrook was a freshman. When they did start facing off professionally, Westbrook didn’t quite resemble the player we know today.
Kobe recounts the experience in his book, The Mamba Mentality. Bryant immediately recognized Westbrook’s aggressive potential but noted his jumper wasn’t there. The point guard was easy to shut down, as long as he couldn’t drive to the rim.
This changed with time. Westbrook’s shooting improved, forcing Kobe to change his approach. The cat-and-mouse mixup games that define the highest levels of play entered into the stars’ standoffs. Kobe wrote that Westbrook’s obvious practice outside of games impressed him.
After Kobe’s retirement, the two stayed in touch. This is when Kobe realized the extent of Westbrook’s dedication to continuous improvement. At 29, the UCLA alum was well into his prime. Yet he recognized his deficiencies as a player and pressed Kobe for advice.
“He wanted to work on his post game, his footwork in the post,” Kobe wrote in The Mamba Mentality. “He realized that was the next step in his evolution and the key to his longevity.” The two practiced together in Orange County that summer.
How Westbrook embraces the “Mamba Mentality” today
Westbrook and Kobe’s mutual affection was always on display. When Kobe dropped 60 in his final game, the California native was openly jubilant. And Kobe regularly name-dropped Westbrook as the heir to his aggressive playstyle.
When the NBA legend passed, Westbrook finally spelled it out. He had intentionally bought into Kobe’s mental program, considering himself a disciple of the Mamba Mentality. Westbrook announced he would redouble his efforts to exhibit this approach to the game. And he’s been noticeably more aggressive since that proclamation.
Leading a successful shift toward small ball for the Houston Rockets, Westbrook is flourishing. He jumped from scoring 26.3 points on average at the start of the season to 32.3 under the new program. MVP favorite Ja Morant took note, telling ESPN that Westbrook’s immense play has been “taken for granted” for too long.
“I feel like he’s highly disrespected,” Morant said. Westbrook struck at the complement like he read Kobe’s book that morning. “I don’t really care what nobody else thinks about my game,” Westbrook said. “I appreciate [Morant] and other guys, but […] as long as I’m satisfied with what I bring to the table, I’m going to keep busting everybody’s ass.” Pure Mamba Mentality.
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