US Monastir's Ater Majok has paid tribute to former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant ahead of the Basketball Africa League, telling ESPN that Bryant inspired his career after meeting Majok in high school for the first time.
According to Majok, who would go on to be drafted by the Lakers in 2011, the pair met when Majok attended a youth camp which Kobe hosted in Los Angeles, and the Sudanese-Australian promised the superstar that they would one day share a court.
Majok, who is currently preparing for the inaugural BAL that starts on May 16, told ESPN: "I remember when I first got drafted, on draft night, I was in Washington DC.
"Mitch Kupchak, the general manager at the time, called me. He said, 'Congratulations, you're a Laker. You worked hard for it.' The first thing I remember saying was, 'Tell Kobe that I kept my word.'
"I sent [Kupchak] a screenshot of the pictures that we had taken that day, [because] Mitch didn't even believe that I had that conversation with Kobe."
He further explained how the duo met: "I was having a conversation in one of the camps that Kobe was hosting and I told him, 'One day, I'm going to be your teammate.'
"I took a picture with [Bryant] and said, 'Yo, you've got a bullseye on your back. I'm coming for you.' As a kid, being a competitor, that's something that you're automatically going to do.
"That's where my journey started -- when I met him that day. My words to him were, 'I'm going to be on the same court as you one day. If I'm playing against you, I'm coming at your neck, but if I'm your teammate, I'm going to make you proud.'
"He said: 'Yeah, a lot of people said that, but it's not an easy road, but if you can get there, get my phone.'"
If going on to be selected by the Lakers made Majok feel 10 feet tall, then watching Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2020, brought him straight back down to earth.
He said: "When I flew to LA the next day [after the call with Kupchak], I remember having the first practice. It was at 11AM. I thought I had good work ethics. Being professional and being African, I work hard and nothing is ever given.
"I showed up at 9AM and Kobe was in there already working out, bleeding sweat. Being around Kobe as a rookie, you don't even walk on the court with him at the same time. When he's working, you can't disturb him, so I just stood on the sideline and watched.
"I remember the equipment manager said, 'He's been here since 7AM.' I said, 'What? We don't have practice until 11!' He said, 'Yeah, and he's going to keep working, go eat, and come back.'
"He did this every single day. Some days, he'd be there at 5AM. That was the extreme of work ethic and being professional.
"When I started seeing him, I thought, 'Let me start imitating him -- not so much imitating his game, but imitating how he carries himself and how hard he works.'
"You've got to tell yourself: 'I'm not going to be Kobe -- I want to be myself -- but at the same time, I want to be blessed with that work ethic.'
"I started going in a couple of hours before practice. If I knew that he was shooting in the morning, I'd go to the gym at night."
Majok carried this routine with him for years, even as he hopped between countries after falling short of making a name for himself in the NBA. He was cutting his teeth in New Zealand with the Breakers when he learned of Bryant's passing.
He recalled: "I was actually asleep because of the time zone. I remember my mom calling me in tears and I knew something was wrong. I hadn't turned on the TV. I hadn't even looked at my phone -- she called me early in the morning.
"I remember my mom saying: 'Just turn on ESPN.' I kept seeing his name. I couldn't believe it -- it took me probably three days to get it in my head that this was reality. For me, it's still hard.
"Literally, this is the person that my character is based on -- this is who I learned a lot of things from -- being professional and even being drafted.
"I owe him for that, because when I met him and I was talking sh*t to him, talking smack, being a young high school kid... him challenging me led me to work hard to be in a place to get drafted.
"Then, just being in the same practice facility, the same block room, the same arena, the same uniform -- and just learning things -- he meant a lot to me.
"I don't talk about it too much to a lot of people, because this is something that is personal to me.
"It really hurt me, but at the same time, he is a legend. Despite his physical spirit passing on, I know his spirit is still here and I don't think his memory will ever go anywhere."
In the spirit of Bryant, Majok said he would settle for nothing less than the championship title at the BAL in Kigali. Tunisian side Monastir are scheduled to begin their campaign on May 17 against Madagascar's Gendarmerie Nationale Basketball Club (GNBC.
The entire 26-game tournament will air in Africa on ESPN (Channel 218 on DStv), as well as on Azam channel 120, Zuku channel 320, and StarTimes channel 256.
In the U.S, all games will be available on ESPN+ while the opening game and Finals will also air on ESPNews. ESPN will air the opening game and Finals in select countries in Asia-Pacific, the Caribbean, Europe and Latin America, and all BAL games will air on ESPN's digital platforms in those same regions. BAL games and programming will also be available in Canada on TSN and in China on Tencent Video.