Throughout his life, Kobe Bryant reached out to others to learn how to be the greatest. Whether it was a call to Dwyane Wade for pick-and-roll advice, to Kevin Durant about pindowns or to UConn coach Geno Auriemma about what to teach in a defensive drill for his daughter, Gianna’s, team, he was never shy to pick the minds of the best at their craft.
That Mamba Mentality was one of the traits Kyrie Irving shared with his mentor, Bryant.
When asked which current NBA players Bryant had kept the most contact with, the first name that came to his mind was Irving’s. In an interview with SiriusXM last March, Bryant recalled the time Irving called Bryant via FaceTime after the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit and won the 2016 NBA Finals in Game 7 against the Warriors. He was sitting on the couch with Gianna when his phone rang.
“Kyrie’s in the locker room celebrating on Facetime like, ‘Dude, it worked! Your advice worked!,’” Bryant said. “I was really, really proud of him. So I’d say Kyrie is the one I’m closest to.”
Just as Bryant had done in his career, Irving reached out for advice on how to grow his game and win an NBA championship. That relationship spanned years, amongst Bryant’s retirement from the NBA, Irving’s journey to Brooklyn and even their sneaker collections.
When Bryant and Gianna died in a helicopter crash with seven others on Sunday, Irving could not bear to see the court in Brooklyn’s matchup with the Knicks. He reportedly left Madison Square Garden upon hearing the news, remaining silent until his return on Wednesday against the Detroit Pistons.
The emotion continued at Barclays Center, as Irving cried during the National Anthem and a moment of silence for the nine victims from the tragic crash.
The NBA is a brotherhood, and the tributes have shown just how Bryant was connected with players across the current league. From Irving and Chris Paul missing time to the Lakers postponing their game on Tuesday against the Clippers to players across the league changing their jersey numbers, Bryant’s impact throughout the NBA has continued to show itself.
While Irving was emotional, he still locked in his Mamba Mentality against the Pistons. Irving set the tone early, finishing with 20 points, five assists and five rebounds in a 125-115 Brooklyn victory.
As Wednesday’s game winded down, Irving pointed to the sky while he exited the court. He waved on a crowd chanting “Kobe Bryant.” He was approached with hugs from both teams.
He grasped for words and held back tears as he talked about his friend and mentor.
“You try to find clear cut messages that you would send to Gigi and Kobe and everybody that lost their lives in such a tragic [event] like that, it’s just...it’s hard, you know, it’s hard,” Irving said to ESPN after the game. “I’ve been trying to do this the last few days, just trying to get ready for a moment like this.”
Irving spoke of his relationship with Bryant, which he said goes back four or five years. There was nothing Irving could not ask of his mentor.
“In some ancient text, they say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and I had that type of mentorship relationship with him where I was able to ask him almost anything, no matter how nervous I was or fearful I was,” Irving said. “He was just easy to approach with those types of questions about what goes on [in] a day-in, day-out basis, chasing something that’s bigger than yourself.”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson called Irving “completely authentic” following Wednesday’s game, and that he is. As Irving recalled Bryant’s spirit, he could not help but smile. It showed how much Irving looked up to Bryant, and how much he valued such a person in his life.
“He left a lot of teachings — a lot of breadcrumbs I call them, and I just followed all of them, I just followed every single one,” Irving said. “That probably pays a lot of focus into the person I am today.”
Irving’s relationship with Bryant was the epitome of the NBA icon’s connection with the league following his retirement. They were two beings who shared questions and answers and musings, but beyond that, they shared a mentality of wanting to learn how to be great. Irving knows he is not the only one that is hurting following Sunday’s events, but he will continue to keep his connection with Bryant close to his heart.
“I think the most beautiful thing is that it’s connecting all of us and these seeds that he’s planted in all of us continue to grow and his legacy is going to live on forever, obviously,” Irving said. “But that man was a philosopher, he was a teacher, he left so many great things here for us to follow, and I’m just going to continue to carry the torch.”