Hollis-Jefferson, the rookie standout for the Brooklyn Nets, was raised in crime-ridden Chester, Pa., about a half-hour drive from Bryant’s hometown of Lower Merion.
"Every kid I would say around that time from where we’re from was like, 'I wanna be like Kobe. I wanna be like him,'" Hollis-Jefferson said Sunday after hearing the news that Bryant will retire at the end of the season.
“He grew up so close to us, and it was just like, ‘I could do that. I could do that. Let me work on it.’ He gave so many people hope to work hard in whatever they did. And I was one of those kids that really, really took that in to doing the extra things -- the things that were necessary, the things that you thought were unnecessary. I was just a kid that felt I needed to do those things in order to get over the hump and be successful. He inspired me like no one before -- besides my mom and brother. He’s up there.”
Hollis-Jefferson, who had always wanted to meet Bryant, wound up facing his idol on Nov. 6 in Brooklyn. After the game, the two shared a private moment in which Bryant was highly complementary of the 20-year-old defensive stalwart.
“It was great just to be in his presence, to hear from him, and for him to tell me that he’s watching, he’s noticing, and telling me to keep working hard -- it means the world to me,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It gives you a sense of hope, like you can be something special, and that’s all I’m trying to be is something special.”
The Nets were going to draft Bryant in 1996 but ended up failing to call his bluff, a decision the franchise obviously regrets. Over his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, the 37-year-old shooting guard has made 17 All-Star teams and won five titles. In a four-game sweep of the Nets in the 2002 NBA finals, Bryant scored 22, 24, 36 and 25 points.
Hollis-Jefferson is just glad he got his chance to match up with his favorite player.
“I don’t want to say I was a part of it, but to be in the NBA when this is happening -- it’s like, I was a part of history,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I can tell my kids, ‘Hey, it was my first year in the NBA and he retired that year.’ So I got a little story to tell, to be a part of it. It’s a huge thing, and I respect him.”
The Nets face the Lakers again on March 1.
“I’m definitely gonna show my respects before the game and after,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I got to pay my dues. But when we’re out there on the court, I’ve got to play him hard -- just put it in his mind that his last time playing against a Chester guy, it was a great matchup. I definitely look forward to that. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of that.”