Thibodeau saw Kobe Bryant's potential

LOS ANGELES -- It was about 16 years ago in Saint Joseph's gym in Philadelphia, where a talented high school player first met an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers.

On Tuesday, for the first time since that meeting, the two meet while at the top of their professions as Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers host first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls.

"He was crucial. He was with me when I was 16 or 17 years old," Bryant said Sunday night at Staples Center, after leading the Lakers to a 117-89 win over the Golden State Warriors. "Just doing drills and just working on ballhandling and just teaching me the game. He was there from Day 1."

Bryant generated a national buzz while at Lower Merion High School in a Philadelphia suburb. He scrimmaged against NBA players at the invitation of former 76ers coach John Lucas, who was friends with Kobe's father Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, a former player and coach. The Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant out of high school in 1996 and traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.

"His dad was coaching at LaSalle, and John Lucas was the [76ers] head coach, and they had known each other for a long time," Thibodeau said. "And we are practicing at St. Joe's. In Philly, everybody was around, high school players, college players, pros were all in the same gym.

"You could just tell [that Bryant was special]. The way he would study everything. [It was] amazing for a high school kid."

The pair grew close fairly quickly. Thibodeau spent extra time drilling Bryant whenever he could, and he could tell almost from the outset that Bryant had the chance to be special. Bryant had a quality that most players his age don't exhibit.

"His drive," Thibodeau said. "He was so driven.

"He was a high school kid, and if he had a day off from school he'd be in the gym from eight in the morning till eight at night. And he was trying to play against the pros and watch everything and lift weights."

Having been around basketball most of his life, Thibodeau knew what he was seeing.

"You knew his talent," Thibodeau continued. "In high school, when he was playing against pros he looked like he belonged with them. You knew he was going to be special. But I think his drive is what really separates him when you combine that drive and intelligence with his talent. It's the top of the line."

Bryant was too young to know anything about Thibodeau's future head coaching prospects. He was just happy a man in Thibodeau's position took a liking to his game and his ability.

"When I was in high school I really didn't know what the hell was going on," Bryant said. "I just knew he was this really nice man who was very knowledgeable about the game and was willing to teach me things. Seeing him [as an assistant with the Boston Celtics], and in Houston before that, you knew that his time was going to come."

Having coached against Bryant and the Lakers many times, including in last season's NBA Finals, Thibodeau is familiar with the evolution of Bryant's game.

"His greatness is, you can play great defense, you just try to make him work, and he still has the ability to score big," Thibodeau said. "He's gotten to the point now where he can beat you a lot of different ways. It's not only scoring points, he can beat you with the pass; he can beat you with his defense; he can beat you with his rebounding.

"I thought in Game 7 [of the 2010 NBA Finals], what gets lost on people, [Boston] was badly outrebounded, and he didn't have a particularly good shooting night, but he had a great rebounding night and that probably was the difference of the game."

The respect is mutual.

"I think his defensive schemes themselves as a whole are fantastic," Bryant said. "He's a lab rat. He'll stay in there and figure things out and figure percentages out, and who's doing what. He's really focused on that task."

Nick Friedell covers the Bulls for ESPNChicago.com.