If there’s one thing that can be said about Kobe Bryant, it’s that his competitive spirit is unmatched — hence the origin of the phrase ‘Mamba Mentality.’
Throughout his 20 seasons with the Lakers, he got what he wanted simply by working harder than the next player, making it impossible not to have him be the face of the franchise.
And while his future Hall of Fame career is overflowing with successes, there are also many things that didn’t go Bryant’s way. His 2008 NBA Finals loss to the Boston Celtics stand out as well as the first few seasons after Shaquille O’Neal was traded where Bryant really struggled and at one point even requested — and then subsequently rejected — a trade.
However, the thing that Bryant really looks back on with a negative attitude is his first couple seasons in the league where he was constantly forced to ride the bench in favor of more veteran players, according to “All The Smoke” podcast with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson:
“There were a couple of them… losing to the Celtics in ’08 was tough. Before that, at the beginning of the journey, it was not playing … I would have went to school because I felt like my coach Del Harris at the time was trying to make sure he did not show favoritism to the young kid and as a result, he swung in the other direction doing things that weren’t really fair … My first two, three years were a nightmare for me.”
This period of time was so difficult for Bryant that he even considered a return to college just so he could prove how good he was, and how deserving he was of playing time:
“I sit around and watch all my peers going out there and playing 35-37 minutes … everybody’s doing their thing and I’m sitting here glued to the bench getting really, really pissed off and ticked off, thinking I should’ve just gone to college. That was the hardest part.”
Bryant did eventually earn significant minutes as by his third season in the NBA, he was averaging 37.9 minutes a game. However, he averaged 15.5 minutes a game his rookie season and 26.0 the following season and only started a total of seven games in the process.
With a player of Bryant’s caliber, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time where he was getting reduced minutes. But at that time, rookies really had to be obvious All-Star players to get minutes right away, unlike today where rookies are more often thrown into the fire right away.
Everything worked out for Bryant, but being a bench player for two seasons knowing full well what he was capable of could definitely sting.