NBA legend Kobe Bryant tragically passed away nearly a month ago, but public mourning will hit another high gear to start this week.
Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright would like a word on the subject.
In an exclusive interview with SeattlePI, Wright discussed the late Bryant’s impact and legacy ahead of his public memorial Monday at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Twenty thousand people are expected to attend the sold-out event, paying tribute to the basketball icon and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna who were among the nine people who perished in a helicopter crash Jan. 26 in Calabasas, Calif.
Bryant was 41.
In a Q&A with SeattlePI, Wright explained why he’s drawn connections to Bryant — who he called his “favorite athlete of all time” — from his bounce-back season in 2019. After playing just five games in 2018 due to injuries, the eight-year veteran posted career highs in tackles (132), pass breakups (11) and interceptions (3) this past season.
Beyond that, Wright discussed Bryant’s imprint on his personal life and NFL career overall, as well as his interpretation of his greater legacy.
Bryant, who was a five-time NBA champion and an 18-time All Star in 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, is considered one of the best basketball players of all time.
A sexual assault allegation in 2003 tarnished Bryant’s image, and he admitted to infidelity (the case was later dropped because the accuser decided not to testify). But Bryant has been celebrated globally — his reach growing in death — for the pursuit of excellence he demonstrated while he was alive. Many have also been touched with the pride he showed in being a father of girls.
Here is SeattlePI’s conversation with Wright (Note: the Q&A has been shortened and edited for clarity):
SeattlePI: Do you remember what you were doing when you heard that Kobe had perished? Take me through that day.
Wright: “I remember pretty vividly. I was here at home, in my bedroom. It was just me and my two boys. My wife had gone out with our daughter. So it was just us chilling at home. My yoga instructor — a friend of mine — she just texted me, ‘Did you see this?’ And she sent me a TMZ thing. ‘Kobe Bryant dies,’ that’s all I read. I was like, ‘What the hell is this s–t?’ I turned on the TV. Absolutely nothing. I turned on ESPN. Turned on CNN. There was absolutely nothing. I was like, ‘Alright, this isn’t real.’ Just went on with my day, but then it’s like more stuff just kept popping up. It was just like, ‘This has really happened.’ I was just in disbelief.”
SeattlePI: Did you have a strong emotional reaction to his passing?
Wright: “First, I was just in shock, like this cannot be happening. Like, ‘How is this happening?’ This is Kobe Bryant. He was in his prime (in life) … As time went on throughout the day, it just got emotional. Super sad to see this happen to him, his family. He lost his daughter as well. Just shedding tears … Just a tragedy.”
SeattlePI: What impact did he have on you, your career and your approach to being a professional athlete?
Wright: “I was watching that guy since I was a kid. He was hands down my favorite athlete of all time. You just watched how he bounced back from his injuries. His mentality was so strong and his grit was at an all-time high. You just watched how he played the game. He was just flawless. He was a master of his craft. I believe all guys from all sports can take notes from him. I just watched him throughout my whole career. I saw him a few times in person. He just resembled what an athlete is supposed to look like.”
SeattlePI: Why was he your favorite athlete of all time? What got you into following him so intently?
Wright: “I don’t know what it was about Kobe when I first laid eyes on him, but he’d just been my guy since Day 1. I never had favorite players like that, but everybody that knows me, knows my love for Kobe.
“One of my friends had texted me about the season I had (in 2019). They asked me how I bounced back like that, what was it. I told him that I just had the ‘Mamba Mentality’ going into last season. Nothing can stop me from achieving my goals. I saw Kobe come back from his Achilles (injury) and messing up his fingers and all this stuff. I was just like, ‘Nothing can stop me, I just gotta bounce back.’
“All athletes watched him, what he went through physically, but they saw his comeback. I went back and saw his last game when he scored 60 (points) at his age and it’s just like crazy for somebody to do that. He’s just a legend.”
SeattlePI: Do you have a favorite Kobe memory?
Wright: “My favorite Kobe memory was when he beat the Celtics in the Finals (for his fifth ring). It was just crazy. I remember I was in college (at Mississippi State), with my roommates. It was two of my roommates who hated Kobe, and it was two of us who loved him. I just remember watching that game screaming because Kobe, he didn’t have a good game that last game. That’s the game Ron Artest (now known as Metta World Peace) saved the Lakers. Just to see the joy in his face, man. He did everything to get (the Lakers) that championship. He was like, ‘I have to give the ball to Artest.’ He gave it to him. That was my all-time favorite Kobe moment, when he got that ring.”
SeattlePI: The struggles that many former athletes have faced transitioning to post-career life has been well documented. Kobe is a guy who seemed to thrive after basketball ended for him. His philanthropic and creative endeavors are well known, as well as the pride he took in being a father. Is that something you draw inspiration from, when considering that you’re approaching the end of your NFL career?
Wright: “No doubt, man. We see so many unsuccessful stories about guys transitioning out of the league. But Kobe showed me that I can be dominant in all facets of life. That I could still be passionate about other things outside of my sport, and I could still balance time to be a family man, and I can still coach here and there and stay around the game. He just really showed us what it looks like. Everybody saw it. Everybody watched it. That was really inspirational for me because there are success stories, but it’s not talked about enough. But everybody has talked about Kobe and how great he was off the court.”
SeattlePI: You didn’t get to meet Kobe. If you could’ve talked to him, what would you have said?
Wright: “I would’ve just probably thanked him, thanked him for how he went about things because he just inspired me in my personal life to reach the goals that I have. I would’ve been like, ‘Man, I watched you your whole career and I’ve done everything I can to resemble how you approached the game. Thank you for how you went about things because you inspired me to be as great as I possible can be.’”
SeattlePI: Were you surprised by the global reach and impact of his death?
Wright: “I wasn’t surprised. I was more just in awe. He was literally (felt) across the globe. Obviously, he played ball in America. But you see people in like the Philippines, China and across Europe that just felt this. It showed how much of a global icon he was. Even the people that wasn’t fans of him, the Kobe haters, they was hurting by this instance too because they respected him as well. I wasn’t in shock, but it was really cool to see his impact across the globe.”
SeattlePI: What do you think he’ll be most remembered by?
Wright: “I think he should be remembered by his work ethic. I think he’ll be remembered by his domination. I think he’ll be remembered by being a family man and just being an overall guy who’s legendary. He’s someone we can all relate to because he just worked his tail off. That’s one of my mottos in life: ‘Hard work always pays off.’ If you just give it your all, and just be consistent with it and persistent with it, your dreams could possibly can come true.”
SeattlePI: Last thoughts?
Wright: “I just think that for any athlete coming up, we should all do our best to represent a lot of things that he brought to the game. My kids are gonna know all about Kobe. I’m just going to have his stuff hung up all over the house and I’m going to continue to forever watch his highlights and his interviews to just learn from him. There’s a lot of stuff out there that will stand the test of time. It’s just going to be a blessing to be able to go back and look at that stuff.”