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Analysis: Jerry West and Kobe Bryant were a match from Day 1, and the Lakers reaped the benefits

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It was during the NBA Finals in 2010. Kobe Bryant was asked a question about whether he thought he was the greatest Los Angeles Laker ever.

The answer was immediate.

“No,” Bryant said.

He wasn’t being difficult or misleading and the question was fair, especially because Bryant surely would have been on the list of candidates for such a title. But in Bryant’s mind, that distinction — greatest Laker ever — belonged to only one person.

“In my opinion,” Bryant said, “it’s Jerry West because of everything that he’s done.”

Bryant didn’t mean just one thing, but really, he could have. What West — who died Wednesday at the age of 86 — did at the 1996 NBA draft and in the weeks that immediately followed not only added to his own incredible legacy, but also was the first step to Bryant becoming a true global icon and helping the Lakers win five championships in the next 14 years.

West had the courage to do what 12 other teams did not. He rolled the dice and drafted Bryant, who was still only 17 at the time. (Technically, Charlotte drafted Bryant, but on the Lakers’ behalf because he was traded later that night.) And three weeks or so later, West completed the second half of his master plan by signing Shaquille O’Neal to a seven-year, $120 million contract in free agency.

The Shaq and Kobe Era was born. West took the risk. The rewards were unforgettable.

“He’s responsible for managing here, he’s responsible for Shaq, he’s responsible for myself,” Bryant said at that finals news conference in 2010, the year that he won the last of his five titles — all with the Lakers. “He put the whole picture together and everything that he’s done, to me, he’s the greatest.”

They were immediately joined at the hip, Bryant and West, perhaps an unlikely pairing at first. But when West talked with his longtime friend, Arn Tellem, who was Bryant’s agent, he agreed to have Bryant come to a pre-draft workout after older, college-experienced players.

It didn’t take West long to see that Bryant was the best player on the floor. West was smitten. Another workout was arranged later, West arranging to have Bryant come in and play against former Lakers guard Michael Cooper — a very good defender who had retired six years earlier. West put that session to a merciful end after 10 minutes. Cooper couldn’t guard Bryant.

West knew he was getting the best player in the draft. That became his sales pitch to O’Neal, too.

“The times that I spent with him when he was 17 years old, at my house, constantly wanting me to go to the gym, watching him play in the summer league … he always talked this ‘Mamba Mentality,’” West said in 2020, not long after Bryant died in a helicopter crash. “He didn’t have to create that. It was already there.”

The Lakers trusted West on this one, because they agreed with much of what West saw — especially that Bryant didn’t sound or act like a 17-year-old. He was mature, polished, wise well beyond his years, and if all that hadn’t been true this experiment probably wouldn’t have worked out.

A couple years later, the Lakers rewarded West with a new contract. “Nobody has meant more to the Los Angeles Lakers’ franchise than Jerry West,” owner Jerry Buss said at the time. And then in 2000, the vision of greatness that West had four years earlier became reality.

The Lakers were champions in 2000. And 2001. And 2002. And then, long after O’Neal was traded to Miami and got a fourth title in 2006, Bryant got two more championships in 2009 and 2010.

Along the way to that fifth title was when Bryant proclaimed West the greatest.

“Jerry’s body of work and the championships that he’s been responsible for, just my opinion, you can have your own opinion, it doesn’t really matter to me,” Bryant said. “In my opinion I think Jerry West is.”

Bryant was going to have a stellar career great regardless of whether West decided to land him or not. The story would have been very different. Maybe he wouldn’t have won five titles, maybe he wouldn’t have become one of the all-time greats.

But that leap of faith that West took in 1996 was, absolutely, a big part of Bryant’s story. A big part of West’s story, too. So, Bryant might have been right on that day in 2010. The Lakers have no shortage of superstars, but it’s hard to argue that any of them were greater than West.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA

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