It would be late and Klay Thompson would have school the next morning, but he’d want to hang out around the subterranean parking lot at Staples Center.
He had access because his father, Mychal, had been a champion with the Lakers and was one of their radio voices, but for Thompson, he didn’t care much about that.
No, he went to wait in a cavernous cement lot beneath the building, a place Kobe Bryant would walk past after every one of his games.
“My favorite part of the night was going down to the tarmac to see him leave, just so I could say, ‘Hey,’ to him and see what he was driving, what he was wearing, how he’s walking,” Thompson said. “Those were just such fond memories for me, being in the Staples Center parking lot. Him just knowing my name was enough for me to tell people he was my ‘good friend.’”
The modern NBA is littered with players who either wanted to be just like Bryant or who were influenced by players who wanted to be just like Bryant. While that legacy will be formally recognized Saturday when he’s enshrined posthumously into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, it’s already cemented throughout multiple generations of stars currently in the NBA.
“For me, he’s the G.O.A.T. [greatest of all time] of my era. He was the Michael Jordan of my era — the Kobe of my era. He did everything,” Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “… I just felt like he was the leader of the era of basketball I grew up watching, especially being from Los Angeles County, from L.A., he’s our G.O.A.T.”
For Thompson, now a star with the Golden State Warriors, the childhood thrill of sharing a few seconds on occasion with Bryant never wore off, even as he became a pro.
In Thompson’s first trip to Staples Center as an NBA player to face the Lakers, Bryant scored 39, some coming with Thompson trying to defend his favorite player. He’s played more than 600 regular-season games since then, but he still remembers his stats from that night.
“I’ll never forget that stat line: I went 6-for-8, 14 points, with just the hope that he noticed that I was a good player,” Thompson said.
There was the time the Warriors and the Lakers were in China for preseason exhibition games, and a jet-lagged Thompson decided to get in a late-night weightlifting session at the hotel gym. In between bench press reps, he felt a tap on his shoulder and looked up to see a hooded Bryant in sunglasses.
“I was so taken aback,” Thompson remembered. “I said, ‘Oh, what’s up, man?’ And all he said was, ”Sup.’ That’s all he said and he got to his workout. The fact that he even came over … ”
Video of Bryant recounting the meeting in a news conference still gives Thompson chills today.
For other players too young to have competed against Bryant, he was the counterbalance to the older generation in their life who wouldn’t stop talking about Jordan. That was the past; watching Bryant was the present.
“For me, he was my Jordan. Everybody talked about Jordan’s game, like my dad,” Hawks star Trae Young said. “They got to see him live and they got to see the mid-range and all his moves and things like that. …
“I didn’t get to see Jordan live, but everything Kobe did, on and off the court, he tried to be like Jordan. And you could tell. The impact he’s made, the legacy he has, its untouchable. That’s the biggest thing for me; his legacy will last forever.”
Part of that legacy is Bryant’s maniacal work ethic — the “Mamba mentality.” The 2008 and 2012 Olympics were critical to exposing young stars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis to Bryant’s now famous work habits.
Atlanta Hawks coach Nate McMillan was an assistant on those teams. He remembered Bryant doing strength training before breakfast, working out before noon practices and requesting all the scouting film he could get his hands on.
“There’s a reason why some people are successful,” McMillan said. “And Kobe put in the work on his craft to be the player he became. I saw that firsthand with the Olympic team.”
The legend of that work ethic has inspired players like Khris Middleton, a former G-League player turned All-Star who plays in Bryant’s signature sneakers.
“The determination to be great,” Middleton said. “You see the will that he put into his game; that you can see in some players today — the Mamba mentality mantra.”
Getting respect from Bryant as a competitor was an ultimate badge of honor for today’s NBA stars who were trying to make names for themselves while Bryant was in the final stages of his career.
“He didn’t want to befriend the players in the league because he felt like, ‘If I like you, I can’t take advantage of you.’ He always seemed to work to keep that edge,” McMillan said.
Even if Klay Thompson told his high school classmates that he and Bryant were “good friends” — a bit of a stretch — the Lakers star didn’t go out of his way to acknowledge him once he got to the NBA.
But in the early days of the 2014 season, the Lakers traveled to Oakland to play the Warriors, a team on the cusp of a dynasty with Thompson set to explode as one of the game’s most feared shooters.
Thompson torched the Lakers and Bryant for 41 points — mostly it was against the defense of Wesley Johnson — hitting threes in his hero’s face and fooling him with filthy pump fakes. It was, at the time, a career high.
“I couldn’t believe it. ‘Wow, I had 40 on the Lakers and against my idol?’ It was incredible,” Thompson said. “I still watch that highlight all the time for motivation. And then to see postgame, for him to come over and dap me up, I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Before the game could sink in, Thompson got interviewed after the game. Then-Warriors sideline reporter Ros Gold-Onwude asked him what Bryant had just said.
Thompson, hilariously, went blank. He couldn’t remember then. He can’t remember now.
But that’s not the point.
“I was so star-struck that he was giving me props,” Thompson said. “… That was my real moment when I knew I was going to be a player in this league.”
Like he wished when they first met as pros, Bryant had noticed the player that kid from the parking lot had become.