Kobe Bryant and Gregg Popovich led the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs into their fair share of postseason battles over the years, with Bryant’s Lakers winning four of the seven playoff series between the two franchises over the course of his and Tim Duncan’s careers.
The two sides played to several memorable matchups over those seasons, including Bryant’s 45 points against the Spurs in the 2001 playoffs, which remains a postseason record for a Spurs’ opponent.
The rivalry was often a bitter one on the floor, but it’s also always been clear that Bryant and Popovich had respect for one another’s talents. Bryant talked up Popovich’s coaching chops while Popovich has previously called Bryant “an icon.”
Popovich recently doubled down on that sentiment when asked for his thoughts on Bryant in light of his jersey retirement, via Brad Turner of the L.A. Times:
“Kobe is one of those guys that every coach in the world says, ‘That would have been great to have an opportunity to coach that guy.’ That’s the best thing I can say about him. It says everything,” Popovich said. “[He’s] one of the greatest players of all time. It’s not just his talent or his physical skills.
“His mind was on a par with Michael [Jordan] and Larry [Bird] and Magic [Johnson], guys like that. They thought the game. They knew what was going on. And then on top of that, he had a really phenomenal competitiveness. So it’s not just the talent. It’s the mind and the grit, the guts, the who he is and the way he wanted to compete night after night, which is what made him Kobe Bryant.”
Popovich hits all of the notes on what made Bryant special here, from his maniacal competitiveness to his borderline supernatural talent.
And while there has always been an underlying perception that Bryant would have been difficult to coach because of these traits, Popovich offers a reminder that any good coach would welcome that challenge because of how good of a chance he gave teams to win, which will probably always be his legacy.
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