So much has happened in the eighteen years since Kobe Bryant- the kid, first shook hands with Byron Scott- the mentor. There have been successes and triumphs and failures and bitterness. There have been trophies and lottery picks and teammates and coaches. If the NBA is in your blood for a decade these sorts of things happen to you. Careers are sustained with gray areas binding the edges like glue. Injuries and timing and luck are just as important as 30 point games. Which is why a Lakers reunion 18 years later is one of those circle trips that rarely happen in sports.
We forget the world used to be different and smaller, absent of social media and the internet. For an NBA game to be seen across the world it took patience and time. There was something about waiting, about the anticipatory buildup of excitement that kept Kobe, a nine year old American living in Italy, connected to the country of his birth. The mail was Kobe’s passageway between the two countries of Italy and America, between living overseas and loving the Los Angeles Lakers.
It was 1988 when Kobe Bryant witnessed the culmination of a long journey that predictably ended with a Lakers celebration. It didn’t matter that Kobe was watching a months old tape of a repeat champion. The tapes sent to him by his grandfather were his saving grace, Kobe’s only lens in which to absorb American basketball.
Young Kobe was immersed in the nuances: Pat Riley on the sidelines, Kareem’s sky hook, Magic’s no-look pass, Cooper’s defense, Byron Scott’s shooting.
Of course Kobe in front of a television would not know his future. Destiny was at work here, what other explanation was there? The team Kobe loved would be the team he would deify. Win championships for. Score 81 points in historic fashion. Drop 66 points in 3 quarters. Win 61% of his playoff games. Become world famous.
But before then, young Kobe would become immersed in the education of Pat Riley, the mastery of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the litheness of James Worthy, the vision of Magic Johnson, the achievement of Byron Scott. In Byron Scott’s greatest professional year Kobe Bryant was nine years old.
Byron Scott was the Lakers leading scorer in 1987-88. He didn’t make the All-Star team but he should have. He played in 81 games. In 43 games he shot over 50%. He shot 80% against the Rockets and Spurs. He shot 70% against the Mavericks, 76ers, Kings and Celtics. He shot 60% against the Trailblazers and did it two more times.
In game 7, against the Jazz in the Western Conference Semi-Finals, Byron Scott played 40 minutes. He shot 63%. He had 5 rebounds and three steals and 29 points and the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference Finals. In the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, Byron Scott shot 58%, 50% from three. He shot 93% from the free throw line. He had 12 assists, 8 steals and 1 turnover in two games. It would lead to his last NBA championship a month later, his third.
All of it Kobe watched on tape. Kobe watched his favorite player Magic Johnson win a game 7 to earn his 5th NBA title. Kobe and Magic would have in common what all talented players have in common- their will to be one of the best at their position, to carve out a great career. But what Kobe and Byron Scott had in common was everything else.
Byron was drafted by the Clippers and then traded. Kobe was drafted by the Hornets and then traded. Byron had to prove to a skeptical team of champions that he deserved to replace Norm Nixon. Kobe had to prove to the NBA that he deserved to be drafted. Byron should have been an All-Star in 1988 but was not. Kobe should have been the MVP in 2006 and was not. Byron Scott replaced Mike Brown in Cleveland. Kobe played for Mike Brown in Los Angeles. Byron is willful, stubborn, dedicated and structured. Kobe is willful, stubborn, dedicated and structured. They both like control as much as they like to win.
Their first and only year together, Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott were teammates, shooting guards, rookie and veteran, teacher and student, and then, as often happens, they became lifelong friends. Byron played in 79 games that year, he was the shooting guard off the bench. In the second game of the Western Conference semi-finals Byron Scott had 24 points in 25 minutes, shooting 63%. It was his last golden moment, a final, fading memory to look back on and remind himself of who he used to be once upon a time. It was Byron’s best outing of the year but the Lakers still lost. His next two Lakers games were irrelevant. He took 8 shots, had 14 points and 6 assists.
Kobe Bryant played in 71 games in 1996. He averaged more points as a teenager than Byron did as a 35 year old- 8 points a game. In his 25th NBA game, against the Grizzlies, Kobe shot 60% and dropped 21 points in Vancouver. Two weeks later he did the same to the Pistons, 21 points, 60%+ shooting. His best game of his rookie year came in April against the Warriors. Kobe shot 81%. He bested his career high by 3 points, scoring 24. He only missed two shots.
But it was the playoff series against the Utah Jazz that forever changed the precocious teenager. He admitted afterwards his stamina was gone, his body betrayed him. He couldn’t shoot, he couldn’t do much of anything and by the time those air balls sailed in the Salt Lake City air Kobe knew he had to change and it had to start in the offseason. So he told Spike Lee no to his movie offer- He Got Game. Basketball came first. Kobe had to get his body prepared to withstand a 100 game season.
Long seasons were a thing of the past for Byron Scott; he and Kobe were going in different directions. Byron’s love affair (that began with a trade for Norm Nixon) was over. Kobe Bryant was the future; the coach in Byron could see during practices the raw talent Kobe possessed, he could hear it in Kobe’s voice when they talked on the bus. What Byron used to have, his Inglewood confidence, commitment and surety, it was all Kobe’s now, deep in the blood.
If you examine history the right way there are no regrets. Byron Scott glowed throughout the Showtime era and was celebrated because of it. The Lakers brilliance was his guiding light and then-because the world works this way- he had to bury it beside him. Things change. Nothing lasts forever. Byron wept through Magic’s retirement, had a stint with the Pacers. Now he was an old guy, a role player, a mentor to a young kid who was going to be great.
In 1996 Byron Scott was the last link to the excessive, glittering achievement of the Showtime era. Byron, the last of the starters to come aboard, was its final remaining player. He was still hanging on, which said something about his longevity. But his exit was pretty standard, the usual way it happens. He quietly left through the side door of the building at season’s end, not missed, not mourned, remembered for a different decade.
Separating the mentor from his student served both Kobe and Byron well. They did remarkable things after 1996. Byron went to 2 NBA Finals. He won Coach of the Year. Kobe won 5 titles and 1 MVP award. He became a global icon. Both had years of humility and defeat and underachievement and were questioned and criticized because of it. So their last act together, their predestined moment, is nothing more profound than a circle trip. Here. There. Now, it is here again for the both of them.
Assembled this year is an interesting team with Kobe and Byron and affection at its roots. Julius Randle grew up with Kobe Bryant hero worship. Nick Young grew up with the Lakers in his blood. Kobe Bryant grew up watching tapes in Italy and being immersed in the mythology; he bleeds it too. And Byron Scott came home to play for the only team that matters if you’re from Inglewood. Certain things just make sense even to the cynics of the world. Kobe and Byron together at last is one of those imaginary tales you never expected to come true because 18 years ago they shook hands for the first time in their lives.