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Kobe Bryant sat in his Costa Mesa office Monday and talked about looking forward to the big game Tuesday night. “Of course, I’ll be there,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
Bryant will be focused on a court, just not the one most of Los Angeles will be watching. When the Lakers and Clippers open the NBA season at Staples Center, Bryant will be at a high school gym about 40 miles away watching his 16-year-old daughter, Natalia, play volleyball.
“I might look at the score on my phone,” Bryant said of the basketball game, “but that’s about it.”
Bryant’s priority may help explain why he laughs at the notion he would want an official role in the Lakers’ front office, and why he has been to more Sparks games with his family than Lakers games since retiring in 2016. As much as Bryant wants the Lakers to do well, his focus is on his wife, Vanessa, and their daughters, Natalia, Gianna, 13, Bianka Bella, 2, and Capri Kobe, who was born June 20.
“I have a life and I have my routine at home,” Bryant said. “It’s not that I don’t want to go [to Lakers games], but I’d rather be giving B.B. a shower and sing Barney songs to her. I played 20 years and I missed those moments before. For me to make the trip up to Staples Center, that means I’m missing an opportunity to spend another night with my kids when I know how fast it goes. … I want to make sure the days that I’m away from them are days that I absolutely have to be. I’d rather be with them than doing anything else.”
Bryant’s involvement in sports is now centered around the Mamba League, a youth basketball program created through a partnership with Nike. When Nike connected with Bryant to create the league, a critical objective was the equal representation of boys and girls in the program. Bryant also opened the Mamba Sports Academy, a training center for young athletes in Thousand Oaks. The only magazine displayed in the lobby of Bryant’s office is the cover of SLAM he appeared on with Gianna and her teammates in their black and white Mamba uniforms.
“It’s a trip to see her move and some of the expressions she makes,” Bryant said of Gianna. “It’s a trip how genetics work.”
Although Bryant won’t be at the Lakers-Clippers opener, iconic images of him — standing atop the scorer’s table celebrating his fifth championship in 2010, walking off the court following his 81-point performance in 2006 — will be displayed around Staples Center and L.A. Live as part of a Nike ad campaign. Those images are the favorites for the eventual statue Bryant will get in front of Staples Center, but he said he won’t offer any suggestions.
“My job is to create the memories and moments,” he said. “It’s someone else’s job to create the rest.”
Bryant’s focus may be on youth sports, but he often is contacted by NBA players looking to train with him and pick his brain. Instead of holding multiple sessions with these players, Bryant decided to hold an invitation-only mini-camp called the Mamba Sports Pro Invitational in August. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who recently joined the Clippers, received two of the first invites and worked out with Bryant at the academy.
“I’ve known them both for a very long time, and they’re both tough, very inquisitive,” Bryant said. “I remember sitting with Kawhi during All-Star weekend when he was a rookie. We were at a Nike suite and he came by and sat next to me and starting peppering me with questions about the game and summer regimens. It was the same with P.G.
“They’re so competitive on both ends of the floor. It’s not a tit-for-tat thing where you score and I score. They don’t believe in that. It’s, ‘You can’t stop me and I will shut you down.’ That’s a different mentality. Not a lot of players have that.”
George and Leonard grew up in Southern California, looking up to Bryant and watching the Lakers win championships. But both spurned the Lakers despite the team’s strong desire for them.
Bryant didn’t take that as a knock on the Lakers so much as the birth of the city’s newest sports rivalry.
“I’m sure Kawhi wants to take the challenge of winning independent of playing with LeBron,” Bryant said. “Maybe that was the same for P.G. I think they relish the challenge of taking on something new. I don’t think it was a slight at the Lakers. It was more about circumstances and what was already here in L.A. and on the Lakers, and they wanted to take the challenge of building something new.
“But the Lakers did OK. I saw a lot of Lakers fans were very disappointed, and rightfully so, that they didn’t get Kawhi. But you did get Anthony Davis. The Lakers have two freaks of nature. They’re going to be fine. It’s a hell of a time to be in L.A.”