Remembering Kobe: A Special Bond
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA reporter
Brian Shaw keeps a life-size cardboard cutout of Kobe Bryant in his garage.
Every time he pulls into his home in Oakland, California, he's reminded of the Lakers superstar with whom he won three NBA championships as a player from 2000 to '02 and two as an assistant coach in 2009 and '10.
While some of their former teammates find it too painful to look at photos of Bryant, after he died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020, Shaw looks forward to seeing his face each day.
"It just makes me smile because I think about all the things that we've done," Shaw told FOX Sports in an interview last week.
Shaw knew Bryant since he was a precocious 11-year-old who tried to participate in layup lines and challenge everyone around him to games of one-on-one and HORSE. Shaw played with Bryant's father, Joe, for one season in the Italian League in 1989-90 and looked forward to seeing the confident, outspoken little boy.
They met again in 1995, when Shaw was playing for the Orlando Magic and Bryant's father brought him to a playoff game because Kobe idolized Penny Hardaway. Bryant, who was in 11th grade at Lower Merion High at the time, walked up to Shaw and made a bold prediction: He said he'd be playing against him in a year.
"I just kind of laughed and was like, 'Yeah, right,'" Shaw said.
Bryant went on to deeply impress then-Lakers general manager Jerry West during a workout after his senior year, prompting West to orchestrate a draft-day trade to acquire the 17-year-old from the Charlotte Hornets in 1996. Four years later, in 1999, the Lakers signed Shaw, marking the start of an enduring and powerful relationship between the two men.
But things were rocky at first.
On the court, Shaw and his teammates thought Bryant was selfish. And off it, they found him standoffish.
"What I didn't take into consideration and I think most of us didn't take into consideration at that time was that he was underage, and he couldn't do a lot of things that we as teammates could do after games: go get a beer or go to the club or whatever the case may have been," Shaw said. "So being surrounded by grown men, I think he was misinterpreted a lot because he kind of kept to himself."
Bryant was a pariah – and he used his angst as fuel. When his teammates partied, he went to the gym and had marathon shooting sessions at midnight. When they slept in before practice, he sneaked in workouts before dawn.
Looking back now, there’s one moment in particular that helps Shaw explain Bryant.
Shaw once invited Bryant to go fishing with him at 6:30 a.m. in Santa Barbara, California. Bryant didn't go, so Shaw sent him photos of all the tiger sharks and stingrays he caught to show Bryant what he missed out on.
Bryant immediately called Shaw.
"He just goes, 'What did you do with them?' " Shaw recalled. "I said, 'Well, I just took a picture of them, took them off the hook and let them back into the water.' He said, 'Why did you do that?' I was like, 'What was I supposed to do? He said, 'You were supposed to kill them.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because they got caught. That's what they get for getting caught.' "
The lore surrounding Bryant's competitiveness was true.
And the nickname he gave himself, Black Mamba, couldn't have been more fitting. Black mambas are the second-deadliest snake in the world, and their venom can cause cardiac and pulmonary collapse within three minutes.
Bryant wanted people to fear him on the court. He was as intense as they come. And he never tried to pretend otherwise.
"There's no need for a poisonous, venomous, dangerous snake like that to apologize for what it is," Shaw said. "That's just what it is. So Kobe was that same way in terms of his mentality on the court or whether you were playing checkers with him, trying to recite lyrics in a rap song – he's going to have that mentality."
Shaw learned to love Bryant, quickly realizing there was no one in the world he'd rather go to battle with.
He even grew to appreciate Bryant's eccentricities.
Bryant would challenge anyone who scored on him at practice to a game of one-on-one. If a new player joined the team, especially if he was the top dog where he previously played, Bryant would insist on playing him.
Isaiah "J.R." Rider, who starred in Minneapolis, Portland and Atlanta before joining the Lakers in 2001, learned that the hard way.
After Rider scored on Bryant a few times in practice, the Lakers superstar demanded they head to a side court. Lakers coach Phil Jackson sat on an exercise ball and watched what transpired along with Shaw, Horace Grant, Ron Harper and Shaquille O'Neal.
"They must have played five games, and Kobe just absolutely destroyed him," Shaw said. "... We were all on the sideline laughing, saying, 'You asked for it. You got it.' And J.R. got so mad he ran over to the sideline and cussed us all out and was like, 'I'll beat all of y'all asses. Somebody stand up and say something.' He wanted to challenge us to deflect what had just happened."
Shaw watched the same fate befall many others over the years, including Mitch Richmond, Jim Jackson and Metta World Peace.
Bryant grew into one of the best players in the league. He was unstoppable on offense, silky, effortless and deadly. With Bryant paired with the brute force of O'Neal, the Lakers became a dynasty, winning three consecutive titles behind one of the top one-two punches in NBA history.
But the two always clashed.
Shaw compared them to his two male German Shepherds – two alpha dogs who need to be kept separate, or they'll attack each other.
Over the years, Shaw gained both players' trust before he retired in 2003.
The following season, he was home in Oakland when he received phone calls from both Devean George and Jackson begging him to fly down to Los Angeles because a giant fight was looming.
Bryant and O'Neal had been sniping at each other through the media, and Mitch Kupchak, the general manager at the time, warned them to stop, but Bryant went ahead and did an interview with former NBC reporter Jim Gray, calling O'Neal "fat" and "out of shape."
O'Neal wanted to hurt him – and everyone knew Shaw was the only one who could stop that from happening.
Shaw landed at LAX at 8:15 the following morning and went straight to the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo. When he arrived, O'Neal was waiting outside his car in the players' parking lot. O'Neal told Shaw there was nothing he could say to stop the "ass whooping" he was going to give Bryant, but Shaw persuaded him to wait in the film room and let him have a word with Bryant first.
As soon as Bryant's car pulled up, Shaw intervened.
"I said, 'Well, big fella is pissed off at you for what you said yesterday, and I don't want you to walk in and get blind-sided, but he said he was gonna whoop your ass,' " Shaw recalled. "And he said, 'Oh, I'm scared.'
"I said, 'Nah, I think this time you really should be scared.' I said, 'I haven't seen him like this before.'"
Shaw mediated a talk between the two that got heated at times, with Bryant and O'Neal pointing in each other's faces at moments, but overall, it remained peaceful. He reminded them that Karl Malone and Gary Payton had joined the team to win a title, and their squabbles were unfair to everyone around them.
Shaw had a special way with his teammates, especially Bryant.
He wasn't afraid of Bryant or starstruck by him. Shaw had known him since he was a child and never hesitated to tell him what he thought.
Bryant needed that.
"A lot of times when you get to the level that he was, most of the people you're surrounded by are people that work for you, that you're paying, whether it's your security team or whoever else," Shaw said. "And a lot of times, they'll be 'yes men,' and they'll do whatever it is that you want to do. They laugh at your jokes, even though they're not funny. They'll tell you that you look nice, even though maybe what you have on is kind of wack.
"I was the opposite of that. So if you had on something that looked crazy, I was going to be like, 'That's not it.' Or if your joke wasn't funny, I'm not going to laugh. And if you did something that was detrimental to the team or to a certain player, I was always the one that stepped in and was like, 'That's not right.'"
Shaw became an assistant coach on the Lakers from 2004 to 2011, and his relationship with Bryant kept growing.
One time, however, they almost got into a physical altercation themselves.
During a practice, Bryant, who was carrying the team night in and night out, made it very clear to Sasha Vujacic that he wasn't in the mood for him to be a pest on defense during a scrimmage. But Vujacic kept hounding him.
Bryant responded by catching the ball in the post, swinging around and elbowing Vujacic in the face.
"I jumped in, and I was just like, 'Do that to me,'" Shaw said. "'You chose to do that to someone who you knew wasn't going to do anything back to you. Do that to me.' And we almost came to blows."
Bryant was upset Shaw got involved, but Shaw explained the Lakers needed Vujacic, and he was afraid if he hadn't stepped in, Vujacic would've been broken and deflated.
They didn't speak for a week.
"But then eventually, he came back around and was like, 'I hear what you're saying. My bad,' " Shaw said. "And we made up, and everything was fine."
Bryant grew to respect and appreciate Shaw so much that when Phil Jackson was on the verge of retiring in 2011, Bryant publicly endorsed Shaw to take over the team.
"I feel all of the players believe in coach B-Shaw," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports in April 2011. "We have such a rapport with him. He's been with us for such a long time. We all have a bit of a bias toward him."
The Lakers, however, went in another direction behind Jim Buss, who was heavily involved in the coaching search.
Shaw became an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers from 2011 to '12 and the head coach of the Denver Nuggets from 2013 to '15. He returned to the Lakers as an assistant from 2016 to '19 before accepting the head-coaching gig with a new G-League team called Ignite that aims to develop elite youth prospects.
Shaw's decade alongside Bryant has earned him a lot of cache with his players.
They wear Bryant's shoes. They ask what he was like in person. They question whether the stories about his work ethic are true.
Shaw tells them they were understatements.
Bryant always practiced at game speed. He wouldn't just shoot 1,000 shots alone in a gym. He'd shoot each of those shots while mentally pushing himself to move and react as though defenders were running toward him and he had a fraction of a second to release the ball.
It took unparalleled toughness and focus.
And it paid off.
Shaw was on the sideline when Bryant scored 62 points in three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks in December 2005. In fact, Jackson tasked Shaw with asking Bryant if he wanted to play in the fourth quarter.
Bryant said no because it was a blowout, shocking Shaw.
"I was like, 'Look, man, not too many people can say they scored 70 points against another team,' " Shaw told him at the time. "'You've got a chance to score 70. Man, you've got to play.' He looked at the scoreboard again and was like, 'Nah, we're up 30. We don't need it right now.
"'I'll do it another time.'"
One month later, in a hard-fought game against the Toronto Raptors, Bryant scored a career-high 81 points.
Shaw keeps the stat sheet and a DVD from that game in his office.
"The first thing that came to my mind was he told me three weeks ago, when we really needed it, that he was going to do it," Shaw said. "And he followed through on that. And not only did he score 70 – he scored 81."
Bryant used to pick a spot on the court that he knew he could reach in two dribbles, and he'd use all of his might and speed to get there as quickly as possible. He knew where he was going, but the defender wouldn't. It's something he practiced over and over again in dimly lit gyms.
Come game time, it was effortless.
Bryant was a five-time champion, an 18-time All-Star and a one-time MVP in 2008.
Shaw witnessed it all.
Now he's trying to impart what he learned from one of the greatest players of all time to the next generation.
"Obviously, he's not here now, but he's still helping me to grab the attention of these guys," Shaw said. "And I say stuff like, if somebody's trying to cut corners or trying to take a shortcut from doing something, I say, 'Look, Kobe never took a shortcut.'"
Shaw still laughs when remembering the 11-year-old Bryant who challenged him to a game of HORSE and won – and later told reporters he had beaten Shaw in a game of one-on-one.
He fondly looks back at the chip on his shoulder Bryant had during his early years and how he used that to become a legend. He's proud of the man, husband and father Bryant became.
Through it all, they stayed in close touch.
Every time Shaw drives home, it's something he wants to think about.
And now, he keeps something next to the cardboard cutout of Bryant in his garage.
A life-size one of himself, right beside it.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA reporter for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News.