While a few members of the current Los Angeles Lakers roster played alongside an aging and past-his-prime Kobe Bryant, head coach Luke Walton held the honor of suiting up with the five-time champion during his peak years.
But it wasn’t all flowers and roses for Walton, who was selected by the Lakers in the second round of the 2003 NBA Draft. He joined a team that was eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals of the season prior, and reloaded by adding veterans Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
Aside from being a rookie, Walton had the disadvantage of being the son of former player Bill, who had since entered into a career as a broadcaster.
“Back then, rookies had to go to training camp earlier,” Walton recalled on the eve of the Lakers retiring Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys.
“So, Kobe and all the vets we had on that team showed up about four days later, and looked at me and told me my life was going to be a living hell, because of what my dad had said about each and every one of them.
“I was really excited to meet Kobe and the other vets, and that quickly changed. From Kobe to Karl Malone to Shaq, they sat me down at a table and told me life was going to be hell for me. That was my first experience,” Walton said with a laugh.
Walton wasn’t certain what his father specifically said that irked each Bryant, Malone, Shaquille O’Neal and Payton. And he also wasn’t convinced there was anything in particular that drew their ire. “I think it was more just the way my dad does television,” Walton said.
Although his career began with a fear tactic, Bryant and Walton grew to develop a strong relationship as teammates. Even if it included Bryant needling Walton that he was a fringe player with a bad back and bound to coach, just like Phil Jackson.
“What stood out to me about Kobe was once practice started, the way that he worked. The way that he’s the first one in the building even though he’s one of the best players in the world,” Walton said.
“I’ve never seen anyone with the work ethic that he had. You look around our gym, we’re slowly creating that type of mindset.”
In addition to their first meeting, Walton recalled a memorable instance when Bryant attempted to bestow him with sage advice. “He had a philosophy that if you’re aggressive and you foul every time, the refs will stop calling it,” Walton said.
“I said, ‘That only works for you, because you’re an All-Star. I’ll foul out of every game.”
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