Jeanie Buss shares unique Kobe memories: 'He did things with purpose, with creativity'

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Kobe Bryant smiles after receiving his championship ring from NBA commisioner David Stern, left, and Jeanie Buss on Oct. 27, 2009, at Staples Center.
Kobe Bryant smiles after receiving his championship ring from NBA Commissioner David Stern, left, and Jeanie Buss on Oct. 27, 2009, at Staples Center. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes it’s laughter. Sometimes it’s tears.

That’s how it goes when Jeanie Buss remembers Kobe Bryant. And that’s probably how it’ll go again Saturday when Bryant is inducted posthumously into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

She’ll smile thinking about her father at the poker table and laugh thinking about how Bryant would be trying to stare through everyone else’s soul, even if he was only holding 7-2 off-suit. She’ll probably cry when the appreciation begins in earnest, neither man still around to celebrate Bryant’s iconic basketball career.

Everyone in the room will celebrate Bryant’s basketball past, the high-scoring games and the clutch shots while being acutely aware that the guest of honor won’t be there to reflect on his career with them.

“We’re not going to have the Kobe speech to go back to,” said Buss, controlling owner of the team, with a fracture in her voice. “And it's hard. It's like a loss all over again.”

Bryant’s induction into the Hall of Fame, though, should cut through some of the grief caused by his tragic death, another chance to celebrate his on-court greatness as an all-time basketball legend.

Kobe Bryant moves in to hug his friend and agent Rob Pelinka after playing his last game.
Kobe Bryant moves in to hug his friend and agent Rob Pelinka after playing his last game on April 13, 2016, at Staples Center. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Buss will think about the time Bryant scored 81 points — and about how he almost equaled that number weeks before in a game against Dallas, with coach Phil Jackson sitting Bryant despite the star guard outscoring the entirety of the opposition.

“I got in a real big fight with Phil on the way home, because I said, ‘Why would you do that? He's making all the shots.’ He's like, ‘That's just not basketball, Jeanie. You just don't do that.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, but it was fun,’” Buss said. “Then a few weeks later, we have this 81-point game. And the thing that I think gets lost in how amazing that was, is that it was what he had to do for us to win that game. … Kobe was about basketball. And Kobe just wanted to win games and win championships.”

His toughness was as legendary as his production. Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s former agent and close friend, said the moments that show his grit are Bryant’s greatest on-court achievements.

“The first was Game 7 against Boston in 2010," Pelinka wrote in an email. "Kobe called me before the game and told me his knee had swelled up the size of a grapefruit, and he had minimal lift and explosion. He talked about the game becoming more positional and less explosive for him. He knew it wouldn’t be a game where he could take over with scoring and have 30 or 40 points. Instead he dominated the game with where he was on the court. With his presence, and being in the right place at the right time to have 15 rebounds.

“One of the geniuses of Kobe was his ability to think and play a game in his mind, before the game even started. He would have all his chess moves in mind beforehand. To watch him win that Game 7 on one leg, by adjusting his approach and manner of play is something I will never forget.”

Pelinka also cited Bryant’s two made free throws after tearing his Achilles in 2013.

“When most people suffer that injury they are carried off the floor by teammates, or in a wheelchair. The pain is overwhelming,” Pelinka wrote. “What did Kobe do? He walked to the line and sank two [go-ahead] free throws. When I asked him after the game how he did that, he said, ‘I know that game was a must win for us to make the playoffs, and my teammates needed me to seal that win. I would never let my teammates down, so I had to block out the pain, and just focus on the task at hand.

“'What came to mind was, s—, Dirk [Nowitzki] can make shots on one leg with his patented fall-away jumper, so I can sure as hell make two free throws on one leg!’”

Buss knows what it’s like to be in the crowd for those moments, owning a second-row seat for his 20-year run with the Lakers. She relished the oohs and aahs from Laker fans because Bryant wasn’t just a competitor, he was a performer.

She laughed thinking about Bryant sitting at an imaginary poker table with her late father, Dr. Jerry Buss, Bryant’s eyes staring right through whoever he was in a hand, his determination to win more important than the cards he held.

Kobe Bryant and his family pose with Magic Johnson, Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka during the ceremony to retire his jerseys.
Kobe Bryant and his family pose with Magic Johnson, Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka during the ceremony to retire his jerseys. (Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s why Buss is sure that if Bryant was able to take the stage Saturday night, he’d have delivered another memorable moment during his induction speech.

“Knowing him, he probably had been thinking about it already, you know, to make it really spectacular and special and meaningful. He did things with purpose, with creativity,” she said. “Even when he made the decision to announce his retirement. It was top secret and … he picked that date because he wanted every person who was at that game to receive a letter and no more could be printed than the ones there so that everybody had one. And then that was it. You know, he wanted them to have something that they could keep the collectible.

“He thought about everything he did and everything he said, and I'm sure it would have been very meaningful.”

Owner Jerry Buss joins Kobe Bryant's family and Lakers teammates as they celebrate winning the 2010 NBA championship.
Owner Jerry Buss joins Kobe Bryant's family and Lakers teammates as they celebrate winning the 2010 NBA championship against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center. (Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.