Los Angeles Lakers
How Austin Reaves, the 'Hillbilly Kobe,' won over LeBron James
Los Angeles Lakers

How Austin Reaves, the 'Hillbilly Kobe,' won over LeBron James

Updated May. 9, 2023 3:02 p.m. ET

Austin Reaves' heart dropped when he glanced at his phone after a Los Angeles Lakers game against New Orleans in March.

One of his old Facebook posts had resurfaced and was being shared around the internet.

"I saw ‘SportsCenter’ posted it," Reaves told FOX Sports. "I was just like, 'S---.'"

Back in 2012, when Reaves was 13, he had posted a meme that read: "When I need some peace and quiet I set my phone to LeBron mode, no ring." In the background was a photo of five-time champion Kobe Bryant shrugging. (LeBron James, of course, was months away from winning his first of four championships.)


Now Reaves was in the same locker room as James, the superstar who had taken him under his wing. Reaves decided to break the awkward news himself.

"I called Bron over and was like, 'Look, I was s----ing on you back in 2012. I was a Kobe fan,'" the 24-year-old said. "[James] just laughed it off."

James didn't hold a grudge for that indiscretion.

The two players have developed a strong bond both on and off the court since Reaves landed with the Lakers on a two-way contract after going undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2021. And this season, it has paid off for both, as Reaves turned into a breakout star for the team, further gaining the respect of the most vaunted player in the NBA whose team desperately needed a lift.

Reaves was instrumental in the Lakers turning their season around after he returned from a hamstring injury on Feb. 7, helping them climb from 13th in the Western Conference to seventh. In the 23 games after the All-Star break ended, Reaves averaged 17.6 points, up from the 10.8 points he averaged in the 36 games prior to his injury.

And in the Lakers' first-round playoff series against Memphis, Reaves shined, averaging 16.5 points a game while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from beyond the arc. On Monday night, he scored 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting with four assists to push the Lakers to a 3-1 series lead over the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

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Reaves, who grew up on a farm in Newark, Arkansas, surrounded by over a hundred cows, has caught many people in the basketball world by surprise.

But not James, who had a good feeling early on about the man nicknamed "Hillbilly Kobe," a moniker given to Reaves by a graduate assistant at Oklahoma as a nod to his southern drawl and toughness.

After the Lakers signed Reaves, James wanted to evaluate him for himself. So, he watched film of him from Oklahoma, where he transferred in 2018 after spending his first two years of college ball at Wichita State. James liked what he saw.

There's a fearlessness about Reaves. He's not intimidated by guarding anyone or taking big shots. He's always moving, hustling. And he makes smart decisions on the court, letting the game dictate how he reacts.

But Reaves believes James took his game to another level.

James recently told Reaves something that still reverberates with him.

"I had come off a ball screen and I had already made up my mind that I was going to get him the ball," Reaves recalled of a particular game scenario with James. "That's obviously never a bad decision. But the way they were guarding us, it called for me to get downhill, get to the rim or make a play for somebody else.

"He came up to me and was like, 'Don't worry about getting me the ball. I'm going to find obviously ways to impact the game and I'm going to do what I do. Just be yourself. And take what the defense gives you.'"

They were simple words, but Reaves took them to heart. It unlocked something in him. It gave him permission to be himself.

In fact, he doesn't think he would've developed into the player he has become if he hadn't been alongside James the past two seasons.

"He obviously knows he's not a normal human," Reaves said. "But sometimes he doesn't understand what weight his words hold. He can really light something into a group of guys or into an individual just by his words."

Shortly after Reaves entered the Lakers locker room, he felt a kinship with James, both with how they saw the game and the world.

"I think it just started off basketball-wise, IQ-wise," Reaves said. "I think we kinda met on an IQ level just playing the game the right way, knowing the game. That stuff comes easy for both of us.

"I think it really formed from there. He's this guy who is the greatest player of all time, this, that and the other. But at the end of the day, he's a human who does human things. He's hilarious, jokes around a lot. Our personalities mesh together."

The two players come from opposite backgrounds and are in very different stages of life, but have developed an unlikely friendship that's apparent to everyone around them.

They often playfully mess with each other behind-the scenes in the locker room.

Whenever Reaves walks past James, he makes goat noises, blurting out "bahhhhh" in deference to James being considered the greatest player of all time, the GOAT.

And James, of course, has his fun with Reaves.

As a reporter interviewed Reaves for this story, James kept interrupting, yelling out across the locker room, "one-on-one special, huh" and "one-on-one time with AR." Reaves ignored the heckling for a while, until he eventually broke out in laughter – and fired back.

"Dude, get the camera back on him," Reaves said, as James chuckled and immediately stopped talking.

Their chemistry has spilled onto the court, with Reaves turning into a great complement for James.

In Game 1 of the Memphis series, Reaves had 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting, including nine straight points in the fourth quarter en route to a 128-112 victory. In the Lakers' 117-111 win in Game 4, he had a team-high 23 points, six assists and four rebounds.

None of this has surprised James.

"I knew from the first practice that we had when we grabbed him that he wasn't going to be a two-way player for long," James told reporters after Game 1 of the Memphis series. "...I just know. I've been around the game long enough to know great basketball-IQ players and I know the type of players that fit with my game. And I knew Austin would be that right away."

Reaves, who is earning just $1.56 million this season after his contract was converted to a standard deal in September 2021, will be a restricted free agent this summer. His play has put him on the verge of a huge payday.

The most the Lakers could pay him would be $50.8 million over four years if they use his Bird rights. They also have the power to match any contract he signs with another team. If a team uses the Arenas provision, he could earn much more – one potential offer sheet from The Athletic even estimates he could earn $98.6 million over four years, if a team values him that highly.

"I never thought that was realistic," Reaves said, shaking his head and smiling. "Obviously, you want to be as good as you can be in the league. But that's a lot of money. "

When asked how he plans on spending his first big paycheck, Reaves shrugged. He spent much of his life in a town with a population of fewer than 2,000 people, using his free time to hunt and fish.

"I don't spend a lot of money," he said. "I save it. So, that's something I need to think of."

Austin Reaves' 25 points in starting lineup leads to Lakers win vs. Suns

Reaves is now a hometown hero. But even though he plays for one of the most popular franchises in all of sports, the 6-foot-5, 197-pound shooting guard says he often goes unrecognized in Los Angeles.

"I don't really look like an athlete," Reaves said. "I kinda skate by that way … But people will walk by and look at their friends and be like, ‘Is that Austin?'"

He has even sometimes pretended not to be himself.

"I've done it before as a joke," he said, flashing a sheepish grin. "And then when I see their face, I'm like, ‘Oh no, I'm kidding, it's me.'"

Reaves has made it clear that he'd like to remain a Laker, playing for the team with which Bryant, his favorite player from childhood, spent his entire 20-season career, and alongside the game's current biggest star.

Reaves is a mix of confident and humble, and his play reflects his personality.

He's happy to be a star or a sidekick on any given night. He's willing to take charges. He has no problem sacrificing his body, such as when he estimated after Game 3 against Memphis that he was probably hit in the face three or four times.

James has taken pleasure in watching Reaves turn a two-way contract into a two-year contract and then become an integral part of the team. Through it all, Reaves has been filled with wonderment, something the 38-year-old superstar who is in his 20th season finds endearing.

In fact, completely unprompted, James chose to talk about Reaves after he was asked about becoming the oldest player in NBA history to finish with 20 points and 20 rebounds following the Lakers' Game 4 win against Memphis.

"I just love being able to make plays and be out there with my teammates to give them experiences that they maybe never had before," James said. "This is Austin's first playoff series and we were talking after the game, and he was just talking about how much he loves this. He said this is the greatest thing he's ever been a part of, basketball-wise … That brought a lot of joy to me.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham appreciates Reaves, too. He watched him go from being "undisciplined" in the preseason because of his herky-jerky style of play to becoming one of his favorite players he has ever coached.

Reaves' growth this season has been notable.

He developed his shot and mastered angles, going from shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc in his first 36 games, to shooting 57.8 percent and 44.3 percent in his final 23 games. He also has become one of the team's best perimeter defenders.

Ham has watched Reaves and James develop a special rapport.

"I think it's just a couple of guys who have a genuine passion for the game of basketball," Ham said. "Austin grew up watching LeBron and now having the opportunity to play with him, he's thrilled about that. LeBron sees this young kid who constantly works on his game, constantly trying to improve in different areas."

For James, seeing the joy with which Reaves plays has been a shot in the arm during a tumultuous season.

There was the time Reaves had a career-high 35 points against Orlando in March, leading James to call Reaves a "BAD MUTHA" in a tweet.

There was the time Reaves shouted "I'm him" after making a 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter of Game 1. ("I'm extremely happy for him and I want him to do it again," James said that evening.)

Then, during the Lakers' series-clinching win in Game 6 of the first round, Reaves capped off a Euro-step with a reverse layup, leading James to approach his teammate and imitate the Euro-step with him – twice.

But for James, one of his favorite Reaves moments had little to do with his play.

During a game against Chicago last month, Reaves made a one-hander over former teammate Patrick Beverley – and then lowered his hand to the ground, doing the "too small" gesture.


Beverley had done the same thing to James just three days prior after scoring on him in a game.

Reaves wanted revenge.

"That AR always got my back," James said. "Always."

Then he lovingly took a little shot at one of his favorite teammates.

"Even though he loved Kobe back in the day more than me," James said with a laugh, "I forgive him."

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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