Michael Cooper played in 873 games with the Lakers. Byron Scott played 846 with the legendary franchise.
They each also played pivotal roles in Kobe Bryant’s career with the people and gold, including the very beginning on the court and the very end on the court.
Scott’s last season with the Lakers was the 1996-97 campaign, which was also Bryant’s rookie season. Among the roles the veteran guard Scott played in his 14th and final NBA season was that of mentor to the then teenage phenom before a formal coaching role some 20 years later.
Cooper, meanwhile, never played with Bryant. But he played against him. Sort of.
With a first-round selection in hand at the 1996 NBA Draft, the Lakers worked out several potential prospects in Los Angeles that summer before the event. Cooper, then a Lakers assistant coach, was tasked with guarding Bryant at the workout. But it was the former NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award winner in Cooper who went to school against a kid right out of high school.
“Contrary to what everybody thinks, Kobe did not kick my (tail),” Cooper said while laughing. “I was 40 years old then, but the joy in that moment was seeing a young man at 17 years old maneuver around the court and get to where he is supposed to be.
“I was instructed by Jerry West to keep him away from the free throw line, to keep him away from the low post,” Cooper remembered. “Kobe worked and worked and worked until he could get the shot. He didn’t hit every shot, but he was able to get there, and only really seasoned veterans can do that.”
Added Scott, with a smile and a chuckle: “The story is now some 20-plus years old. It was originally Kobe held his own. Then, a few years later, it was Kobe did pretty good. Then it was Kobe wore him out. Add another 10 years and it was Coop got his (tail kicked).”
The story of the hoops protégé became legend.
“What I always say is if you are going to get beat one on one,” admitted Cooper, “let it be Kobe Bryant.”
That is a sample of the memories Cooper and Scott shared of Bryant at a recent fundraising event honoring local sports legends in Pasadena. They thoughtfully reminisced about the superstar who tragically passed away in a helicopter crash in Calabasas more than three years ago.
Scott and Cooper famously played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Something about Bryant was, well, unique.
“Meeting him when he was 17 years old and playing with him gave me an opportunity to be with him, to mentor him, to be around him a lot while talking about the game of basketball. Then, to come full circle and coach him was very special,” said Scott, a former star at Morningside High School in Inglewood.
“We all remember his last game when he scored 60 points. I remember heading into his last year. I told him my only objective was to get him to game 82 and to get to that game relatively healthy. I wanted him to be able to go out the way he wanted to go out.
“If you remember, he started that game like 0 for 5 or 0 for 6. It didn’t look good. Then he caught fire in a game we will all remember. I don’t think we will ever see another player retire, after all of those years of service, on that high of a note. Think of that — 60 points in your last and final game.”
That was at Staples Center in 2016, the 20th and final season — all with the Lakers — for Bryant, nicknamed Black Mamba.
During the evening, Scott talked about the toughness of playing on the hardwood with teammates like Cooper and Bryant.
Cooper, all kidding aside from the jokes about the pre-draft workout, used the platform to praise Scott’s influence on Bryant, who played in more than 1,300 games with LA.
“Byron was an exceptional player over the years, winning championships, and you can see the relationship he and Kobe had. I attribute a lot of (Kobe’s) success to Byron Scott. Kobe adhered to wanting to learn how to win championships. That made their relationship even that much better. You always saw how close they were.”
The relaxed atmosphere at The Ice House allowed Scott to praise Bryant’s unprecedented work ethic, including beginning gym workouts at 4 a.m.
“That Mamba Mentality … after so many weeks he was just so far ahead of others, and that was the way he thought.”
Scott also shared the nickname he gave Bryant — “I called him Show Boat when I first met him” — and how he listened to Bryant, who was 17 years his junior, as much as he talked.
“I loved being a part of his life. Coaching him later got us rekindled. It was full circle. It was special, and I miss him every single day.”
“His preparation is legendary,” longtime Lakers photographer Andy Bernstein said of Bryant. “He would get there nearly five hours before a game, and he would see me there setting up my equipment and we would share a laugh.”
Bryant and Bernstein collaborated on “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play,” a 2018 book that features Bryant’s personal perspective of his life and career on the basketball court and his exceptional, insightful style of playing the game.
The way he worked and the way he played the game — and an awesome first impression didn’t hurry — was integral to Bryant’s five NBA championship rings. With Scott’s three Laker rings and Cooper’s five, those 13 championships — and the fun, timeless memories — are a big part of the legacy of the trio.