Kobe Bryant's zeal and passion for the game were unmistakably evident the moment he stepped foot in the NBA as a 17-year-old prep-to-pro prodigy in 1996.
But Del Harris, the 1995 NBA Coach of the Year and Bryant's first head coach in the league, said it was the late Laker legend's willingness to put in the work day in and day out that really propelled him to the pantheon of the league's legends.
"Kobe loved to play. Him, (Michael) Jordan, Steph Curry and a few others had great work ethic. They were willing to put in the time. Everybody wants to be Kobe, but they don't want to put in the time," he said during the SM National Basketball Training Center (NBTC) webinar on Saturday.
Harris, who worked in the NBA from 1976 to 2010, first met Kobe when he was four years old and coached his father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, in the 1982-83 season with the Houston Rockets. The two crossed paths once more when Kobe, drafted 13th by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 Draft before getting traded to Los Angeles not too long after, became the youngest player in history to hit the pros.
Bryant, however, had to earn his keep. Prior to his arrival, the Lakers were a stacked team that won 48 wins in the 1995-96 season -- a 15-win jump from the prior year that saw them land in the lottery.
Though clearly not lacking in talent, a wrist injury limited him in the preseason hampered his chances of successfully competing for minutes early on.
"Kobe loved to play so much that he played in a pickup game just a day before training camp is supposed to open. But he broke his hand. His rookie season, he missed training camp and didn't get a play until the season already started. And we already had a good team. That team won 56 games his rookie year, and he was like the seventh man on the team for most of the season," said Harris.
Bryant ranked 11th in minutes per game within the team (15.5 per game) and admitted numerous times that as a young player, he was vexed with the way Harris limited his playing time in favor of more established talents.
"We won all those games with (Shaquille O'Neal) missing 53 games in those two years. He missed 31 and 22 games, and we still won those games. That's how good the players were on that team," said Harris. "He was playing behind an All-Star player, Eddie Jones. And they only traded Eddie -- and he made the All-Star team for Miami -- to make room for Kobe, but we couldn't do that when he was 18, 19 years old."
"I told him that he would have to knock out a player before he'd get his spot. It was like a championship boxing match. In the Philippines, you know about boxing," he remarked. "You don't get a decision over the champion. I mean you gotta knock him out. And I told him, 'There will be a day when that happens, but it's not [now] yet.' He didn't like that at the time. He wanted to play all the time. But he appreciated it late. He told me."
Bryant responded to the challenge by slowly making tremendous improvements. His minutes rose in the last 20 games (18.5) and in the playoffs and even earned some crucial clutch time minutes that spurred his development into being an All-Star his sophomore year.
Harris only coached Bryant for 12 games in his third year before being fired early in the 1998-99 season but saw the star guard blossom into one of the most lethal two-way forces.
"By the end of the season, the last 20 games, he had worked to where he was a really important part of the team. And he averaged (about) 10 points a game his last 20 games," noted Harris.
"The next year, he was 19, and he worked hard and he developed his body more. He had an 18-year-old body, but the next year he had put on about 10, 15 pounds and muscle. And he became the runner-up Sixth Man of the Year in the league. And he was our third-leading scorer and came off the bench. He averaged 15 a game and thereafter, I only had him 12 games the next year. And in those 12 games, he averaged 20 points and (about) 10 rebounds."
Harris remains saddened by the loss of Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in January.
"We talked different times over the years, but he was focused mainly at first just on him and what he could do to be the best. And for a while, he wasn't the best teammate because he was, you know, in it to be the best. And he didn't have patience for other players who couldn't do what he could do. But he developed maturity later in his career. And he became such a man and did things for others," said Harris.
"And the shame of it all is that, at age 41, he was going to make an impact for years. He had a program all set up. But it's a shame that he wasn't able to continue on for another 20, 30 years and show just what kind of a man he turned out to be."