Jerry West reflects on Kobe Bryant: From wunderkind to icon

Kobe Bryant shakes hands with Jerry West in a 2010 ceremony to celebrate Bryant breaking the team record for most points.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant shakes hands with Lakers legend Jerry West during a February 2010 ceremony to celebrate Bryant breaking the team record for most career points.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Christmas card arrived in the mail at Jerry West’s home — it was from Kobe Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, and his family.

West and his wife, Karen, were both immediately overcome with emotion.

“As soon as I saw it, I said, ‘Oh, my God!’” West said. “And then my wife immediately ran out of the room just crying like crazy.”

The card had brought back a flood of sad memories from the tragic day when one of the most beloved Lakers, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020.


A year later and West still can’t get Bryant’s death out of his mind.

“When I saw that Christmas card, the first thing said was, ‘When is the anniversary coming up?’” West said. “But the effect it had on this city, and really because of his enormous popularity, I just think it takes something out of you. You see some people who can do anything they want to and never contribute anything to society. You would think with the enormous success that he had in his life, and he was willing to give back. But he was willing to continue to grow into a different iconic person in another different field. It’s rare that an athlete can do that. LeBron James has certainly done it. And I admire those players that do it, I really admire them.”

There is a picture of the Bryant family in the Wests’ family room, a constant reminder of how close the two families had become since Jerry brought Kobe to the Lakers more than 20 years ago.

On Jan. 6, West looked at that picture again, like he always has because he can’t miss it. But for some reason, on this day, West became sentimental.

Kobe Bryant is all smiles at the July 1996 news conference where he was introduced by the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant is all smiles at the July 1996 news conference where he was introduced by the Lakers.
(Los Angeles Times)

“We have this picture of he and his family, Vanessa, and right before I left, I looked at that and I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ It’s right out there in my family room,” West said. “My wife puts it right out there so you can see it. I looked at it again. I see it almost every day that I sit down to watch something on the news or watch an NBA game. Every time I sit down, the picture is right there, right in front of me. I cannot miss it. Every day, I see that picture. And Karen is the one who put it there just as a constant reminder of how much our family cared for him. It’s just a tragedy. It’s a tragedy. There’s no explanation.”

West believes things would have been different if the pilot flying the helicopter on a foggy day had taken another route. He believes everyone would still be alive and Bryant still would be offering wisdom to the world during these turbulent times.

“If they had taken the other route, he would still be around and we would get to see more of him and his accomplishments and also watch his family grow,” West said. “Somebody prominent like that, you’re not going to see his family grow as much, because they will be more hidden. And it’s fun to watch someone like him. His relationship with Gigi was ridiculous and you could see the love in his eyes when she got close to him. It was just amazing, and it’s gone. Even talking about it makes me sad.


“I don’t know what I’ll do that day of the anniversary because it will be prominent. I’ll probably relive that Sunday, I guess, that it happened. My God, it’s just horrid. Horrid. I can’t even imagine what those last moments were like. I hope somewhere along the way he had some final, great thought.”

West admired the way Bryant evolved throughout his 41 years.

He was the general manager for the Lakers when Bryant, then a 17-year-old wunderkind, worked out for the team before the 1996 NBA draft. West was blown away at Bryant’s skill set and what he was doing against Michael Cooper, the former Laker who was known for his defensive prowess. To acquire Bryant, West had to trade center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets, who had used the 13th pick to select the 6-foot-6 guard out of Lower Merion High in suburban Philadelphia. Bryant spent all 20 years of his career with the Lakers.

Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others perished in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. Remembering the Lakers legend a year later.

Jan. 24, 2021

West marveled at the man Bryant became upon his retirement. He watched Bryant become an advocate for women’s sports, a doting father and husband, a successful businessman, an Oscar winner for his animated short “Dear Basketball,” and a bigger global icon than when he laced up his basketball shoes.

“You always worry about people and what they are going to do after their careers,” West said. “One of the things that I was so happy for was that he was going to be bigger than when he played. He was just making a difference with young kids. His messaging to women, to young women of all races, of all colors. Not only did he talk about it, but he also participated. That, to me, is when you know somebody is really committed to making a difference.

“Honestly, I felt he was presidential. I really did. I thought he was. You can say that and people say, ‘Oh, that’s s—.’ It wasn’t … because he had charisma that was completely different than the charisma some of these other big stars have. Completely different. His appeal was just ridiculous. Ridiculous. And to say that an athlete who represents the best of a minority race, it’s just tragic because he could have helped make a difference in this world today and certainly when I watch today, I would have been keenly interested to see what he would have had to say about respective situations.”

West said the people of L.A. should feel “privileged” to have been able to witness Bryant’s talents for 20 years. He called it a “magical time” that he’ll never forget.

“Now I’m down in the dumps after talking to you. It’s true,” West said, his voice sullen. “There are just certain things I can’t get out of my mind and there will never be. Sometimes reading will bring it up if it’s something pertaining to a crash. And then to think that all of them are gone. All of them. That’s what to me is the most difficult thing I try to get my head around.”