The Kobe effect: UB Bulls coaches and players reflect on playing against and growing up with Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant broke a lot of records during his 20 NBA seasons playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, including holding a share of the record for most three-pointers in a game with 12.
Bryant shares that record with Buffalo men’s basketball assistant coach Donyell Marshall.
Bryant, considered one of the greatest players to ever play the game, has faced thousands of players during the last 20 seasons – and two of them can be found right on UB’s campus.
Both Marshall and Bulls Director of Player Development Julius Hodge, two former NBA journeymen, reminisced about playing against Bryant, who formally announced he’d be retiring at the end of the season in a post in The Players Tribune Sunday.
Marshall and Hodge talked about how retirement can take a toll on players who’ve spent their entire lives playing the game they love.
Marshall spent 15 seasons in the NBA from 1994 to 2009 and played with eight different teams. He’d be the first to tell you that he had a good run. He averaged 11.2 points per game and holds a record with Kobe Bryant.
But like most athletes, Marshall knew the end would eventually come. With the last major contracts he signed with the Seattle Supersonics and the Philadelphia 76ers, he knew they could be his last. It was there where he began to consider the end of the road.
And stepping into the realms of coaching and broadcasting was his next move.
“It was those last four, five years where I started thinking about life after the game,” Marshall said. “I always knew I wanted to move into this side of the game, so I began to take time in the summer to begin my transition.”
Marshall moved on from the NBA and coached in NBA Developmental League with the Maine Red Claws, then traveled throughout the college ranks, serving as an assistant with George Washington, Rider and finally, Buffalo. It was the years of preparation that allow him to make the move without much resistance.
He said it might be a problem with Bryant.
“That’s the major difference,” Marshall said. “Guys like Kobe, LeBron [James], players who don’t know when to retire – it’s a bit more difficult to make that transition.”
The same effect goes for Hodge, who retired after a 10-year playing career, including three seasons in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks. He played college at North Carolina State and was named the 2003-04 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and led the Wolfpack to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
When Hodge decided to retire and face basketball mortality, it wasn’t about the contracts, or even the playing time. He retired because of his own pride.
“For me it was pretty much: ‘Did I still have anything left in the tank where I can play at a high level?’” Hodge said. “It was a prideful thing, playing at a high level and not being the player I used to be. I gave it up about a year or two early. I went and did some commentating with the ACC Network, knowing I wanted to get into this field someday.”
Marshall played Bryant a total of 30 times, going 11-20 in those matchups. Hodge played, and lost, his lone game against Bryant’s Lakers.
Even with a loss, Hodge remembers a time when he experienced Bryant’s intense demeanor on the court and realized that Bryant is in fact one of the best of the past two decades.
“I remember I started having a good game against him defensively,” Hodge said. “I started talking a little bit of trash to him and my teammate, Marcus Camby, came up to me and said, ‘You don’t want to do that!’ Kobe comes down the court, knocks down a couple jumpers and I’m like ‘Uh-oh,’ so I look back to Camby and he’s like, ‘See what you’ve done?’”
Bryant finished that game with just eight points, as well as 10 assists and five rebounds. The eight points are a point of pride for Hodge, who playfully interrupted Marshall at practice Monday saying, “Tell him about the time I locked [Kobe Bryant] down to eight points. You not gonna tell him about that?”
Marshall’s moment of playing against Bryant was overshadowed by the return of another legend of the game.
“I was there when Magic Johnson returned,” Marshall said. “Kobe was on that team, but Magic stole the show that night. I’ve defended Kobe a couple times, I’ve been dunked on by Kobe … It was special to play against him.”
As the coaches reminisce about playing against Bryant, the Bulls players didn’t look at Bryant as an opponent or a rival. He was simply a role model. The Bulls still regularly practice the ever-famous Kobe stepback jumper, where Bryant got rid of his defender with a simple pivot and quick shot.
Freshman guard CJ Massinburg was one of the players who respected and emulated Bryant’s moves throughout his career. Never in a game, but Massinburg did admit he attempted some of the jumpers and fadeaways like Bryant took throughout his career in practice. “Honestly, Kobe was my favorite player ever,” Massinburg said. “He left the best legacy in the game besides Michael Jordan and honestly, it’s going to be weird turning on a NBA game and watching, knowing Kobe isn’t there in the league anymore. Kobe is a legend.”
But no Bulls player took news of Bryant’s retirement harder than junior forward Blake Hamilton.
A native of Los Angeles, Hamilton couldn’t believe the news when he first heard it. But after watching Bryant play and struggle this season, he was more understanding of the move.
“It’s tough to see him go,” Hamilton said, “I grew up watching Kobe play almost every game. In my eyes, he’s one of the greatest to ever play. It was tough to see him play like this, but I’ll always remember him as one of the best to ever play the game of basketball.”
Junior guard Willie Conner, a native of Chicago, home of NBA great Michael Jordan, was also sad to see Bryant retire, more so because Bryant was one of the closest players he saw compare to Jordan.
“Man, I was sad, I’m not going to lie,” Conner said. “It was like Mike [Jordan] retiring back in the day, only I was young so I didn’t really understand it. Now, the closest thing to Jordan is retiring and it’s tough to see. I’ll always remember that baseline fadeaway.”
Amid numerous comparisons between Bryant and Jordan, Conner called it “too close to call” before going with Jordan over Bryant. Hamilton ended with the perfect comparison for the two.
“Jordan and Kobe,” Hamilton mused. “That’s like Pepsi and Coke.”
Marshall said Bryant announcing his retirement at this stage of the season was good, because it removed some of the pressure from the game, but also allowed the fans to come out and appreciate their last glimpse of one of the greatest players suit up for one more season. Even though his game this season is clearly not his best, there’s something to admire about Bryant as a fan, an opponent or even fellow retired players.
“It was only a matter of time,” Marshall said. “Father Time remains undefeated. You see the way his body was breaking down, it doesn’t really surprise me. He gave it another go and it wasn’t working out. Now that he announced his retirement, it’s better for him and better for the fans, so they can appreciate it more.”