At some point during his numerous Zoom sessions about business opportunities, empowerment, social injustice and basketball, conversations with Magic Johnson eventually turn to Kobe Bryant and his legacy.
It has always been a cathartic moment for Johnson and Bryant’s legion of fans.
They all still want to preserve the memory of Bryant and to celebrate his life that was cut short when the former Lakers superstar died on Jan. 26, 2020, in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
For Johnson, it has become his rite of passage as a Lakers icon to make sure that another Lakers icon is remembered, even during his videoconferences.
“Every time I do a Zoom speaking engagement, I have mentioned his name,” Johnson said. “They always say, ‘What a year for you?’ I say how the Lakers won, but they won for Kobe and then when we go to the Q&A part of it, they are always going to ask a question about Kobe. I did 45 and it has been 45 times Kobe has come up in the conversations.
“His legacy will always be here, his spirit will be here, people will always talk about him because, again, not just what he did on the court, because we’re going to talk about that. But also, what he meant to his family, to women’s sports, to those who are homeless, to those who were struggling with something. They’d get a call from him, ‘Keep your head up.’ He was just unique and special. Yeah, I always have him on my mind.”
The NBA Hall of Fame ceremony, having been postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will take place in May, and Bryant is in that class with generational big men Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
Johnson wishes Bryant were alive to give his speech so he could hear the words he would share with the world and to see his beaming face.
“I know he was going to give a speech that probably would have been the best all time, cause he’s competitive like that,” Johnson said, laughing. “He probably would have listened to what I said, what Michael [Jordan] said. He would have said, ‘OK, I’m about to give the greatest speech that there has ever been at the Hall of Fame.’”
It was in retirement that Johnson saw a Bryant so content with life.
Johnson saw a Bryant who loved being a father to his four girls, a husband to his wife Vanessa. Johnson saw a Bryant who became this “mythical figure,” willing to share himself with others.
“Now for me, this was the happiest I had seen him. Before, his happiness was of course winning [five] championships, playing basketball at the highest level,” Johnson said. “For fathers, he just really showed dads and really was a great example to all dads out there on just spending time with your kids and really supporting them in what they loved to do. I think he was a real great example. He had a worldwide influence. You know, very few athletes get to be bigger than life and get to go to that level, and you can name them all. He reached that stratosphere.”
On April 13, 2016, Bryant painted one last masterpiece for the Lakers, the entire basketball world and the sporting public.
He dropped 60 points on the Utah Jazz, Bryant’s going-away present in his final act after 20 years of enthralling the masses with his immense talent.
“That last game, I think about that a lot, ’cause I always shake my head. ‘How can this dude get 60 going out.’ That’s crazy,” Johnson said. “Going out! ‘Last game. I’m going to get 60!’ I’m just like, ‘Man!’”
After the Lakers won their 17th NBA championship in October, capping a season dedicated to Bryant, Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the team’s vice president of basketball operations and general manager, spoke about how proud Bryant would be at this accomplishment.
And after Pelinka added meaningful new pieces in Marc Gasol, Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews and Montrezl Harrell to the Lakers’ roster this season, Johnson and Pelinka talked again about how Bryant would approve.
“I just told Rob, ‘Hey, man, can you imagine what Kobe would have said to you making all these moves?’ Rob said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ I said, ‘Man, he would have been so proud of you and how you rebuilt the Lakers,’” Johnson said of Pelinka, who was Bryant’s longtime agent before joining the organization. “We had said that after the championship, and then I just told him that after he had completed the team.
“I always give him little notes that say, ‘Kobe is looking down on you, man, saying he’s happy and he’s proud of you.’ And I often think about how that was Rob’s go-to guy, like I’m sure it was the same way for Kobe. You always think about Kobe in some kind of way.”