Magic Johnson: Young Kobe Bryant showed maturity during failure

Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson before Bryant's last game as a Laker.
Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson before Bryant’s last game as a Laker on April 13, 2016, at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Airball …

Airball …

Airball …

Airball …

Perhaps, Magic Johnson believes, that was the moment of truth for Kobe Bryant, a defining moment of epic failure for the Lakers rookie that pushed him on his path toward greatness.

The Lakers were playing the Utah Jazz in the 1997 Western Conference semifinals when the 18-year-old Bryant had the nerves to hoist those four airballs when the game and Los Angeles’ season hung in the balance.

Bryant was unafraid that night , and he proved to be a fearless competitor over his 20 seasons with the Lakers.

And because he stood so tall so often, Bryant has reached the mountaintop of his profession — induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.

“Even after the first year when he took the shot and it was an airball against Utah, and what he said afterwards, like, ‘Hey, wait until next time. I’m going to knock it down.’ Like, he just had that confidence in his ability that I hadn’t seen for a guy that was that young,” Johnson said “And sure enough, he proved it. He proved himself to be right and everybody else to be wrong, because everybody was doubting him at that time. ‘Who is this young guy saying that he would shoot it again?’ ”


Johnson, a Lakers and NBA icon who is a Hall of Famer himself, laughed at that thought before he continued to praise Bryant.

“Then we saw him grow in that second year. You just saw it because he was putting in the work, so it was just early on I thought he could be in the Hall of Fame. … He had an old-school mindset and a new-school game. He had a combination, and you don’t see that too much. No matter what the circumstances, hard, tough, most people would have folded in a lot of situations. Not Kobe.”

The love affair between Bryant and the Lakers’ fans in Los Angeles, Southern California and around the world was an unshakable bond.

Legions were passionate about Bryant and his devotion to the game of basketball.

Former Lakers guard Magic Johnson, left, praises Kobe Bryant during the ceremony to retire his two jerseys on Dec. 18, 2017.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

There were so many moments in games to frame his career around, a career that left Bryant as the fourth-leading scorer in league history with 33,643 points, a five-time NBA champion and two-time NBA Finals MVP. He was also a 15-time All-NBA performer, an 18-time All-Star, a four-time most valuable player in the All-Star game, and the 2007-08 league MVP.

“It was just moment after moment where Kobe would be like, ‘I am not going to be denied,’ ” Johnson said. “So, he was all about performing at the highest level for Lakers fans and then he was all about pushing everybody — teammates, ownership, management, everybody — to be great,” Johnson said. “He was saying, ‘I’m going to take care of me. I’m going to do what I got to do. Now, what about you guys? What about everybody else? Are you guys going to do what you’re supposed to do?’ That’s why him pushing Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal], ‘Hey, we’re trying to win championships.’ Everything about him, it was always about winning and being prepared to win. So, that’s why I think Lakers fans loved him because it was never about Kobe.

“It was about, ‘How can we win this championship?’ And, ‘I’m going to push everybody to be great and to my level.’ He could do some things only a few people could do. When I say a few people, I mean the people that I’ve ever seen. That’s Michael [Jordan] and Larry Bird, and they would tell you about what he was about to do and you couldn’t nothing about it. That’s why we loved him, because he was that type of dude. And, you know, he beat the Celtics [in 2010]. That goes with it too.”

Bryant left so many in awe, like the night he poured in 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second-highest single-game total in NBA history, or the night in his final game as a Laker when he dropped 60 points on the Jazz.

“Kobe was the biggest celebrity in this town, and Kobe was able to draw celebrities,” Johnson said. “Very few guys can come and take over a city like Los Angeles. Very few. He was one of them. He was bigger than basketball. It was just his city, and he performed every night. You knew every night that he played you might see something that you’ve never seen anybody else do.”


Johnson paused for a few seconds and grew quiet as he gathered his thoughts, eventually saying how much he misses Bryant and wishes the icon were alive to give his speech Saturday when he is enshrined along with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, WNBA star Tamika Catchings and five others.

The ceremony for the 2020 Hall of Fame class for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is Saturday. A look at the nine inductees.

May 15, 2021

Jordan will present Bryant during the induction ceremony. Bryant’s widow Vanessa will give the speech for the Lakers legend, who was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame after he died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in Calabasas on Jan. 26, 2020.

“His speech would just be so inspirational and also just powerful and impactful,” Johnson said. “Especially during a time like now when we need all of that. When you have social injustice, when you have racial problems going on, all those things, you need heroes to step up. You need people who could make people feel better and somebody who could inspire people. Kobe would have done all those things and some. So, with all that’s going on — and the pandemic — people need something to feel good about, and he would have gave us what we needed with his speech at this time.”