Earlier this year, Kobe Bryant said “being a great friend is something I will never be.” The Los Angeles Lakers star guard explained that comment at an event Saturday by saying, “I meant that friends can come and go, but banners hang forever.”
Bryant, a five-time NBA champion, made his remarks during an interview with ESPN's Jemele Hill at the BET Experience at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles.
The question posed by Hill alluded to Bryant’s comments in a GQ magazine piece published in March 2015.
“It’s crazy, right?” Bryant said Saturday of his mindset. “It’s like, ‘This dude is nuts.’ But when you grow up, I loved the game so much. It wasn’t on purpose to be a bad friend or not to be as good of a friend. It takes time to do that. It takes a lot of energy to do that.
“Consciously, all my energy was focused on one thing. It’s like, friends, I have friends that have known me since I was 11. They know that that’s how I am. But nine times out of 10, that’s how they are too. Because they’re as driven at what they do as what I am. It works out.”
Hill asked Bryant what he has learned from strained relationships with teammates over his 19-year NBA career.
“Don’t be an a--h---,” Bryant said with a laugh. “No, I mean, I’ve never been the most patient person in the world, and one of my pet peeves is laziness or people who make excuses. I can’t stand it. Working with Shaq, the guy, he’s a freak of nature. He’s mean when he plays, which I relate to.
“But there are other parts that I just didn’t relate to. So there are certain things that were strengths of his, like putting his arm around the guys and helping them be better emotionally and giving them support. I wasn’t very good at that.
“But my strengths were my focus and my dedication to the game. I had to sit back and say, ‘We have these disagreements, but what can I learn from him? What does he do well?’ And once I was able to look in the mirror and say, 'OK, maybe you are being an a--h---?' You’ve got to self-assess. All this stuff ain’t coming from [nowhere]. It’s not just made up. So once I learned that, I think we were able to go to a higher level as a team.”
Did Bryant un-learn how to be, as he put it, an “a-hole”?
"There’s two ways to do that,” he said. “One, you can stop. Or two, you can just be extremely consistent, and then the people will get used to it. So when I said, 'I stopped being an a--h---,' what I’m really saying is people just got used to me being an a--h---. Then it was like, ‘OK, that’s just him.’”
"There's certain players that I've made cry. If I can make you cry by being sarcastic, then I really don't want to play with you in the playoffs." Kobe Bryant
Bryant then recounted a memorable interaction with a former Lakers teammate.
“Honestly, I remember Rick Fox said something in a meeting that stuck with me forever,” Bryant said. “Because we were having a discussion and he said, ‘Kobe, we just want to feel like you’re a part of us.’ And I never looked at it that way. I thought, ‘What do you mean? I am. I’m practicing hard every single day.’
“But that’s not what he meant. For me, stop being an a--h--- really meant you’ve got to start approaching the game on a human level and understand that we are people and we need to have that connection versus this hard drive all the time. Because no matter how skillful you are, it’s an emotional game. If you don’t have that emotional connectivity with somebody or with a group, you’re not going to get at your highest level of potential.”
“Now, to them, if you ask them, they’ll sit here and say, ‘No, he’s not an a--ho---,’” Bryant said. “But if you go to some of the other guys who show up to practice an hour later. You know what I’m saying? You know them. They’re easily identifiable. Those guys will say, ‘Yeah, he’s a big a--h---.’”
He added, “Your job is to imprint a DNA on a team. You have to push buttons. The trick is figuring out when to push them and how to push them. You’ve got to do that.”
What's the worst thing Bryant ever said to a teammate?
“Oh, Jesus, let me think,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not sure if the fact that I’m thinking about the worst things that I’ve said really means that I haven’t said that many, or maybe I’ve said too many. I’m scrolling through them [in my mind]. I’m like on iPod shuffle.
“I have made somebody cry before.”
“There are certain players that I’ve made cry,” Bryant said. “If I can make you cry by being sarcastic, then I really don’t want to play with you in the playoffs if that’s making you cry.
“But let me see. There was one teammate that was just so bad. He was so bad. It wasn’t Kwame [Brown]. Kwame wasn’t actually that bad. I tease Kwame. It wasn’t Smush [Parker]. It was a player that you guys won’t even remember if I said who his name was. I can’t even pronounce his name. It was some European kid.
“But he was really, really bad. I said, ‘Dude, you might want to reconsider what your life purpose is. Maybe it’s not this.’ It came out that way. I was like, maybe 20-something years old, I don’t know, really young.
“You know how you think one thing in your head, like, ‘I’m going to say this, and it’s going to sound like this.’ Then it comes out and it’s like, ‘Oh, s---. That’s not what it sounds like.' That is not how I envisioned it coming out. No, I meant, maybe you’re not reaching your highest potential by doing this. Maybe it’s something else.”
Bryant was asked to explain where the perception that he is difficult to play alongside, a well-documented perception that has reportedly deterred several free agents from coming to play for the Lakers, first developed.
“From people that want to take the easy route with stuff,” Bryant said. “You want to come? You want to play and play your heart out and compete and win? We’ll have no issues. It’s the people that ... say these things and the people that don’t show up to practice and the people that don’t want to work hard and the people that aren’t committed to it. We will never have anything in common. We just won’t. I’m completely fine with that. I’m completely OK with that. We can’t converse.”
Bryant also said growing up in Italy influenced not only his playing style but also his relationships with people.
“It shaped a lot,” he said. “In that situation, you wind up being in isolation a lot, so you have a lot of time to think. I gravitated to basketball even more because of the lack of common ground that I had with friends over there. So I wound up playing the game a lot by myself, imagining and dreaming and envisioning.
“But also, on the flip side of that, it makes you play things closer to the chest. Which is why I’m more comfortable shooting the ball off the double-team than passing to somebody in the corner for a game winner. No joke. Because you grow up really relying on yourself. So I had to learn, no, it’s OK to work with others. But when you grow up in isolation, especially in pressure moments, you always kind of go back to your nature.”