FOX Sports NBA Writer
Kobe Bryant knew this moment was coming.
He dreamed of it. He analyzed it. He planned it.
Even though a fatal helicopter crash four years ago robbed him of attending the unveiling of his statue outside of Crypto.com Arena on Thursday, Bryant’s likeness will not only forever be immortalized — his vision will be, too.
“For the record, Kobe picked the pose you’re about to see, so if anyone has any issues with it, tough s–t,” Vanessa Bryant said as a who’s who of Lakers luminaries and season-ticket holders stood and applauded at the private event.
The moment Bryant wanted to be encapsulated in bronze was him raising his right index finger following his 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors in 2006. Now, a 19-foot tall, 4,000-pound statue of that moment is outside of the arena he helped put on the map, providing a tangible mecca for his legions of basketball fans worldwide.
The Lakers unveil a statue honoring the late Kobe Bryant at the Star Plaza outside of Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
The unveiling of Bryant’s statue was both celebratory and somber.
Most people in attendance wore black. Ahead of anyone giving speeches, a video compilation of Bryant’s most spectacular performances was shown, interspersed with an interview of him describing them.
We were reminded of his magic. Of his genius. Of his laugh.
He was painfully absent. You could imagine him standing on that stage, with his signature charm and humor. He would’ve poked fun of himself for not passing, He would’ve talked about hard work. He would’ve thanked those closest to him for their support.
Instead, they had to do the talking for him. His wife, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, former Lakers teammate Derek Fisher, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss and Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all gave speeches.
Jackson unearthed some gems about Bryant, including how he once arranged a meeting between Bryant and Michael Jordan so that Bryant could learn about “being in a restricted basketball system that relied on passing” — but it didn’t go as planned.
“Kobe walked in after his shower and the press and whatnot, and he sat down, and he said, ‘Michael, I can take you one-on-one,'” Jackson recalled. “And Michael said, ‘Well, I think you might. I’m 37, you’re 22.”
Jackson, who coached Bryant to five championships, was honest about their relationship being tricky at first. He had to teach Bryant not to take over games. To pass to Shaquille O’Neal. To be part of a team.
“I pulled him aside, and I said, ‘You want to be captain of the team some day, don’t you?'” Jackson recalled telling him his rookie season. “He said, ‘Oh, I should be captain now.’ I said, ‘Kobe, you don’t associate with your teammates. You’re separate and apart.’ ‘Well, all they think about are girls and hubcaps and cars and whatever. I’m watching the game. It’s a serious business for me.'”
Over the years, Jackson watched Bryant grow.
He fought through injuries. He became unstoppable on the offensive end. (Jackson laughingly recalled how he angered fans by benching Bryant for the final 12 minutes of a blowout win over Dallas in 2005 after he scored 62 points through three quarters.) He even went on to dish the ball to his teammates in key moments. (Jackson pointed to Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against Boston when Bryant passed to Ron Artest with just over a minute left and the Lakers up 76-73 — and Artest made the clutch 3-pointer.)
But there was one moment that impressed Jackson most.
“Jay Leno invited the team to go on the Tonight Show,” Jackson recalled, after they won the 2010 championship. “… And some were sitting in the front, some were sitting in the back on chairs. And as Jay Leno was trying to make humor, he said, ‘Who’s this guy…never in a uniform, always dressed, that’s sitting behind you right there? And Kobe said, ‘Don’t make fun of Adam Morrison. He’s one of our teammates. He puts in the work. He may not get to dress, but he puts in the work and he’s part of our team.’
“Then I knew, that’s when I was the proudest of Kobe.”
As for Buss, she revealed how much her father valued Bryant after acquiring him in a draft day trade from Charlotte, which had selected him as the 13th overall pick in 1996.
“An NBA team once offered to trade us five players in exchange for Kobe, but [former Laker owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss declined, explaining that Kobe was as rare as a flawless five-carat diamond,” Jeanie recalled. “And five one-carat diamonds would never equal the same value.”
Fisher praised Bryant for not only being “an actual living legend” on the court, who was an 18-time All-Star, two-time Finals MVP and one-time MVP in 2008 during his 20 seasons with the Lakers – but for being an excellent girl dad, something they bonded over during their 13 seasons together.
“I’m personally still in awe of how, on the rare days off that Phil Jackson used to give, Kobe still found the energy to go to Disneyland with the family on those days off,” Fisher said. “That impressed me almost more than anything he did on the court.”
Jeanie Buss, Derek Fisher, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Phil Jackson and Vanessa Bryant during the unveiling ceremony for the Kobe Bryant Statue at Crypto.com Arena. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Abdul-Jabbar reminisced about how Bryant once told him that he loved waking up in pain because it meant he had worked hard. To Abdul-Jabbar, Bryant was the living embodiment of dedication.
“We learned from him that the limits of what is physically possible can be expanded, given enough effort and enough heart,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “That was insight. That was Kobe.”
As for Vanessa, who not only lost her husband in that fateful helicopter crash in 2020 but also her 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, she once again took the microphone in a moment she wished she could’ve been just a loving spectator.
“It goes without saying that today is an especially sad day for us since Kobe and Gigi aren’t here for what is supposed to be an incredibly joyous moment in Kobe’s legacy,” said Vanessa, who also spoke at her husband’s memorial less than a month after his death, as well as his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2021.
Vanessa revealed that Bryant won’t just have one statue outside Crpyto.com Arena, but three, including one of him wearing his No. 24 jersey, and another of him and Gianna.
As for the statue that was unveiled Thursday, Vanessa noted that she requested some specific details on it.
She wanted it to include his five championship trophies, his career accolades, a QR code that connects to Kobe’s highlights and a triangle-shaped base as a nod to Tex Winter’s and Jackson’s triangle offense.
In other words, she wanted his fans to feel close to him. To feel his greatness once again.
‘l’ll leave you with one of my husband’s amazing quotes,” she said. “Leave the game better than you found it. And when it comes time for you to leave, leave a legend.’
“And that he did.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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