What was it like to coach Kobe Bryant? From Del Harris to Byron Scott, here are some answers

Lakers star Kobe Bryant, right, speaks with coach Phil Jackson in 2010.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Kobe Bryant logged more than 1,500 games with the Lakers in his 20 seasons and he played for eight head coaches —some for only a few months, one for more than a decade. The Times asked each of them to offer their thoughts on Bryant and his impact on the NBA.

DEL HARRIS, 1996-99

Harris was the coach when Bryant, 18, arrived for his rookie season in 1996-97. Harris had a talented team and Bryant was a reserve player his first two seasons. Harris, now the vice president of the Texas Legends in the NBA’s Development League, vividly recalls Bryant’s arrival.


“He was bright and precocious, both in an athletic sense and intellectually and mentally. But he was basically a teenager in a teenager’s body,” Harris said. “He obviously wanted to play, but was 18 and Eddie Jones was an All-Star and Rick Fox [next season] was one of the centerpieces of our defense on the front line and he was a very physical player. Kobe at that point didn’t have the body to play the three [small forward] position for the most part. And of course we had Robert Horry, Elden Campbell and Jerome Kersey and Byron Scott. So we had a good team.

“Kobe had a rough start. … He went down to Venice Beach and got engaged in a dirt battle out there and broke his wrist. He was not able to do training camp. His first real NBA basketball was live action in early November sometime. I know he obviously wanted to play, and he did, but with that slow start, that really made it tough on him. I had to figure out how I was going to deal with him because I knew it would be difficult. I had told him he had elected to leave the kid’s game behind and get into the men’s game right away and I was going to treat him as a man, therefore...

“As the season went along, he just kept getting better and better. By the end of the year, he was central to the rotation. He was a key player.

“Even the next year, when he was our solid sixth man, he could have been sixth man of the year. ... Of course he made the All-Star team that year by vote. He was a sub on our team and a starter on the All-Star team, which didn’t help my position with him or his family or his fans. I’m sure I was the bad guy at the time.…

“There was one story when we were about start practice and he says, ‘Coach, if you could get Shaq [O’Neal] to move out of that low post, I could go one-on-one. I could beat anybody in this league one-on-one,’” Harris recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘Kobe, you’re right. I know you can do that. But two things. No. 1: I’m not going to move Shaq out of there at this point. No. 2: Your day will come when that will happen. But right now is not the day. You can beat everybody one-on-one, but you can’t do it at a high enough rate for the kind of team that we have. Your day will come. It just isn’t now.’ ”


Rambis coached Bryant for most of the 1998-99 season after Harris was fired. Later, Rambis was an assistant coach with the Lakers under Phil Jackson for seven years.

“We all to some degree throw around the word ‘great’ when we’re describing players, but he is truly one of the greatest players to ever play the game,” said Rambis, now the New York Knicks’ interim coach. “You kind of admire his work ethic, his commitment to the game, his commitment to the team, the city, ability to win championships and dominate games. He’s one those rare, rare players that comes along once in a lifetime.”

One quality stood out to Rambis: “Probably the thing that will stick out most in my mind is when he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon [in 2013] and walked up to the free-throw line and was still able to walk off the court. That’s who he is as a committed athlete. You don’t find too many guys that would be able to sustain that sort of pain.”

PHIL JACKSON, 1999-2004; 2005-11

Jackson was the only coach to lead Michael Jordan and Bryant to NBA championships.

“He passed Michael [Jordan], which is unbelievable in itself,” Jackson said of Bryant’s career point total. “He’s the highest-scoring guard that ever played the game. The greatest-scoring guard. That’s his legacy.

“His streaks were so impressive that it was remarkable he could get and stay hot. He could get going and be an incredible force in the ballgame and have these moments of brilliance where he could just go off and have a 40-point ballgame.”

The first years with Bryant were not easy.

“Early on, we had guys that would come out on the court [early] and shoot three-pointers — Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher would be out there. I said, ‘Why don’t you ever play that three-point shooting game with these guys?’ ‘I’m not a three-point shooter,’ he said. ‘That’s not what I want to work on. I want to work on other things.’…I was always trying to get him to participate with his teammates early on because he was kind of aloof and apart. He’d separate himself.”

One of Bryant’s playoff highlights that stands out for Jackson was in the 2000 Western Conference finals.

“He had a great moment at the end of that seven-game series against Portland, making plays at the end, to Shaq,” Jackson said. “I don’t know how many stops in a row we got. Fourteen stops in a row against Portland? It was incredible, the defensive stops. We just shut the door on them. That was pretty impressive with Kobe.

“He was around 22 years of age at the time. I’d been cajoling him all year about, ‘You’ve got to be a playmaker too. You’re not just a scorer.’ But that was a real tough thing. The thing with Kobe was he saw himself locked into a limited role with Shaq and all the talented players we had. ‘How am I going to be one of the greatest scorers ever if I can’t even score 20 points a game?’ ”


Tomjanovich coached Bryant for 43 games of the 2004-05 season before abruptly resigning because of physical and emotional difficulties. He still works with the Lakers as an analytics consultant.

“[Bryant] was the biggest attraction for the job, to get a chance to coach a great player like him. I had been blessed with Hakeem [Olajuwon], Clyde [Drexler] and [Charles] Barkley and [Scottie] Pippen.

“He was great. All the things that you’ve heard — working hard, practicing hard, setting the standard. He liked to talk basketball, called me in the off-season, asking about what kind of sets [I’d run] and things like that. Really a pleasure to be around the guy.”

Was Tomjanovich surprised Bryant lasted 20 years? “When you talk about him and [Larry] Bird and some of those guys, it’s the work ethic that gets these special guys there. It doesn’t happen by magic. They work their asses off to get where they are.”


Frank Hamblen was interim head coach after Tomjanovich stepped down. The Lakers finished that season with a 34-48 record. He was a longtime assistant coach under Jackson, both with Chicago and the Lakers. Hamblen, who is retired and lives in the San Diego area, recalled that 2004-05 season.

“It was a tough season and got tougher with Rudy leaving. We had a lot of injuries. Lamar [Odom] tore his labrum, Kobe had the high ankle sprain. It was a tough second half of the season. We didn’t have any fights or beat each other up,” Hamblen said with a laugh.

“You know, Kobe felt so comfortable with the triangle [offense], and that’s why we went back to it when I took over. He knew he could get his shot from several different positions. Instead of standing up and calling plays, which is the way Rudy coached, it was ball movement.… He knew what the problems were with our team. He was terrific. We had had a relationship prior to that with me being an assistant. He was really good. He was very easy to coach. He knew what the coaching staff was going through.…

“Kobe patterned himself after Michael [Jordan]. Kobe was very hardworking during the season and in the off-season. He didn’t take practices off, wanted to win every drill. Both of them did. They both wanted to win every competition — team competition as well as individual competitions. They wanted to win them all.”

MIKE BROWN, 2011-12

Brown coached Bryant for the 2011-12 season and the first five games of 2012-13. This season he worked part-time with the San Antonio Spurs’ coaching staff.

“At times, obviously, he would think that to win means to do this or do that and I may think to win means to do this or do that and sometimes they may not align. Coaches and players are not always aligned. But at the end of the day, you knew that he was trying to win every single time that he stepped on the floor. That’s one of the things that I appreciated the most with him.

“The other thing is you knew always with Kobe where you stood, where you were. I don’t know if he believes in hiding his emotions. A lot of coaches say they want that and then when they get it, it could be tough for them to handle. But I know that I enjoyed it because there was never a time where I had to guess what Kobe was thinking or what he wanted or anything like that. No guessing game whatsoever.”

MIKE D’ANTONI, 2012-2014

D’Antoni coached the Lakers for almost two full seasons before resigning in 2014. He was there the day Bryant sustained a torn Achilles’ tendon and famously limped off the court after making two free throws.

But a less-heralded game stood out in D’Antoni’s mind — a 116-107 Lakers loss in New York in December 2014. Bryant battled back spasms throughout the game and finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 44 minutes.

“He could will himself to do certain things in the game that were not normal,” said D’Antoni, now the Philadelphia 76ers’ associate head coach. “He could hardly walk in Madison Square Garden. I thought for sure he’d be out of the game. He comes and plays a lot of minutes and wouldn’t even let himself be subbed out of the game. A warrior-type mentality, and I think he demonstrated that for 20 years.”

BYRON SCOTT, 2014-16

Scott was a Lakers teammate during Bryant’s rookie season. After becoming a coach, Scott spent 13 seasons trying to devise defensive schemes to stop Bryant as head coach in New Jersey, New Orleans and Cleveland. Then Scott returned to the Lakers and was Bryant’s coach in the past two seasons.

“I’ve seen the maturation of Kobe Bryant from 18 to 37 years old. I’ve seen the highs and the lows. So for me, it’s just been pure joy to watch him. I played with him one year, watched him for many years and … I think I almost have that proud fatherly figure-type feeling. I’m like, ‘That’s my boy!’

“… Just being able to be in his ear as a rookie and tell him some of the things that we did back in the day and tell him some of the things that he had to do. To be able to see him take that all in and to see where he is now, it’s like, ‘Man, this kid is everything I thought he would be but more. But more.’ Our conversations when he said, ‘I want to best player in this league.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘You will be. If you keep working like you’re working, you will be.’ But I didn’t think it was going to be to this type of status. I seriously didn’t.… I saw greatness in him, but I didn’t see this, as one of the greatest ever. He’s third in NBA history in scoring, five rings. He was probably cheated out of a couple of MVPs.…

“He had some games against some of my teams where he had 50-plus. I just kept telling our guys, especially in New Orleans when we had a pretty good team, I said, ‘Listen. He’s going to go off. So we’re going to have to change it up almost every quarter in how we’re going to guard him.…’ so let’s play him straight up. Then in the fourth quarter, when the game is on the line, now we’re going to double-team [him] every damned chance we get. My whole thing was the other guys were cold as hell because they haven’t touched the ball.…

“Kobe was one of those guys that you tried to mix it up with as much as possible. At the end of the day, you would look back and say, ‘You know what? We did a hell of a job on him,’ and he’d still have 30. So there really was no stopping him.”


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