NBA All-Star weekend has finally concluded upon us as the league’s present and future stars geared up in what only looked like a cross between RuPaul’s pajama shirts and a basketball jersey. This piece is not about the jerseys though because this weekend only makes me think of an old film I saw as a kid. I think we all can recall the prototypical old dojo master from the Karate Kid and other Japanese movies that is faced with the task of training a young-aspiring ninja in the ancient art of karate.
The story always follows with the old master pushing his young protege to their physical limits through treacherous training exercises and continuous sparring defeats in the ring. Oh yeah, we can’t forget the infamous scene of the old master presenting a coin to the student while repeating, “Ahh Grasshopper, when you can grab the coin from my hand, you will be a master”. And, you guessed it, the youngster doesn’t grab the grab the coin until the very end to signify the training is complete and has surpassed the master.
It appears most of the young stars in this year’s NBA All-Star game, which grew up watching Kobe Bryant, have surpassed their master and finally taken the coin from the Mamba.
It’s very evident that many of today’s All-Stars, like Paul George, grew up watching Kobe Bryant and incorporated many of his moves into their own repertoires. Its no surprise George emulated Bryant in his youth and probably the motivation behind rocking 24 as his number. George is a Southern California native that hails from the city of Palmdale, which is located in the northern area of Los Angeles County.
George grew up during the pinnacle of Bryant’s career when he was capturing a three-peat and making jaw-dropping moves like this one:
It’s only natural that George learned a thing or two from watching Bryant over the years and figuring out the secrets to his moves. One game that caught my eye was George’s lone trip to Staples this season where he made the exact same move as Bryant:
It was almost mirror for mirror and, oddly enough, on the same side of the court as Bryant. Kind of spooky right? It felt like a case of deja vu watching George effortlessly catch the lob pass and swing the ball behind his back as similarly to Bryant all those years ago.
However, George isn’t the only Los Angeles product that has borrowed a couple of tricks from the master.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden are also both Los Angeles natives that grew up during Bryant’s prime years with the Lakers. We can see many shades of the old master painted all over their style of play with even down to their personalities on the court.
Many are unaware that Westbrook and Harden played together on the same junior high AAU basketball team during Kobe’s three-peat era in Los Angeles. I was fortunate enough to be a member of that team (Side note: I’m planning to write about these experiences and memories of playing on the AAU circut with anecdotes of traveling to Las Vegas basketball tournaments, visits to Hooters and how Westbrook earned the nickname “Usher” amongst the team) and can recall our worship of Bryant as a basketball god amongst mortals. We all wanted to be Kobe more than anything in the world and it seemed like everyone had dawned a poster of him on their bedroom walls next to their Dragonball Z poster (or at least I did).
Westbrook has always had an infamous reputation for being highly competitive and sometimes a little hot tempered at times. However, I feel Westbrook gets a lot of flack for his approach to basketball because most people just don’t understand him and his past experiences with basketball. Westbrook’s competitive spirit derives from watching Bryant and playing in the Los Angeles basketball scene where the competition is fierce and everyone wants to ascend to the highest plateaus of basketball. Additionally, Westbrook was always on the smaller size until he experienced a late growth spurt in high school. He had always received criticism about never being able to make it to the highest levels of basketball due to his size and and lack of strength to get to the basket. Similar to Bryant, he took the criticism as motivator to transcend his game and prove the nay-sayers wrong when he takes the court with the fiery passion we see today. Now, he has become one of the most electrifying players in the league that is known for his crazy athleticism and powerful finishes at the basket that remind us of the young Bryant from the late 90s/early 00s.
Harden has a similar past to Westbrook where he didn’t receive praise for his talents until late in his high school career when he made the McDonald’s All-American roster. He had received a lot of criticism for not being the most quickest gaurd and needing to become stronger on the defensive side of the ball. Similar to Bryant, the criticism ignited his passion to overcome these flaws in his game and transform into the player we see today that has no issue with speed or playing physical defense. Subsequently, a lot of Harden’s midrange game derives from watching Bryant where they both have this unwilling ability to get to their favorite spots on the floor to drain shots. He has incorporated many of the same effective moves, like the step-back and pump fake to draw a foul, that Bryant has mastered in his career to get defenders unbalanced and get a shot up. These types of moves have made Harden a tough match up for any team and add to the argument that he’s the best shooting guard in the league right now.
All in all, Bryant’s presence was heavily felt in last night’s All-Star game without him even taking a step on the court. Bryant’s impact on the current generation of stars is heavily present in some of the best players in the world that all grew up watching him as youths in Los Angeles. Even after Bryant’s days on the court are long gone, basketball fans will always see shades of the old master in his LA pupils that have finally become the master.