Austin Rivers grew up in the NBA.
So it’s not likely the Pelicans guard, who is the son of former player and now coach Doc Rivers, would have been star-struck or anything like that when he entered the league two years ago.
But the first time the Hornets — now Pelicans — were playing the Los Angeles Lakers, Rivers nudged fellow rookie Anthony Davis and said, “Hey, there’s Kobe Bryant,” and Davis, who had been on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team with Bryant answered, “I know man.”
Rivers didn’t say whether or not he asked for an autograph.
“Kobe is a guy I’ve always looked up to, so it’s just different,” said Rivers, who with the rest of the Pelicans will be facing Bryant and the Lakers Wednesday at the Smoothie King Center. “You play against Kobe Bryant, you’ve got to come to compete because he comes correct every game.
“You hear about him getting slow, but I saw him make a reverse dunk the other night that was amazing. He’s in a tough situation right now, but he competes every night and his team plays hard because it’s Kobe’s team.”
“Tough situation” is putting it mildly.
The mighty Lakers, winners of 16 NBA championships, five of them with during Bryant’s tenure with the team, with 15 other appearances in the Finals, have fallen on hard times, really hard times.
Already pegged to miss the playoffs for the second straight year, something that hasn’t happened to them since 1975 and 1976, the team has cratered thanks to season-ending injuries to point guard Steve Nash and rookie first-round draft pick Julius Randle.
Thanks to Tuesday’s 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies, Los Angeles 1s 1-6, sporting the worst record in the rugged Western Conference.
It’s telling that the Lakers are 10 ½-point underdogs to the Pelicans. That’s got to be a first.
And yet, Bryant soldiers on for the franchise with which he’s played more than half of his life (Born in 1978 and drafted in 1996 at age 18, Bryant is in his 19th season).
Through Saturday’s victory against Charlotte, Bryant was averaging 26.5 points-per-game, 1.0 above his career average, and 5.3 rebounds, matching his career norm.
Small wonder many are speculating — if not actually advocating — that Bryant be traded despite the onerous $41 million he’s owed for this season and 2015-16, both to put Bryant in a better position and to acquire assets for the Lakers.
Not going to happen, said Pelicans TV announcer Joel Meyers.
“Kobe is going to be a Laker for life,” Meyers said. “It would be the surprise to me if he didn’t finish his career as a Laker.
“As much as he would like another ring, that’s the way it should be.”
Meyers should know.
He spent eight seasons as the TV and radio voice of the Lakers, and got to know a side of Bryant that the public doesn’t.
“One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had was how he would talk bluntly about things to help me with my insight,” Meyers said. “I would never attribute to him, of course, but the knowledge I got from him invaluable.
“He was exceptional to work with. I owe him a great deal.”
Another side of Bryant was revealed at last February’s All-Star game in New Orleans. He is a true citizen of the world.
Out for the season with a ruptured tendon after appearing in only six games but still voted to a starting berth on the West squad (Anthony Davis took his place), Bryant appeared at the press conference the night of the game.
While expressing confidence that he would return to the level of play that’s made him a 16-time All-Star, Bryant also deftly fielded questions about playing games in India and Brazil. He also answered one in Spanish.
Bryant’s also ultra-popular in China where he does an annual clinic tour for Nike and his jersey outsells Yao Ming’s.
But in America, maybe not so much. Black Mamba’s are not known for being warm and fuzzy and Kobe’s reputation for being tough on teammates and tougher on coaches not named Phil Jackson doesn’t serve him well.
It spoke volumes that the Lakers couldn’t lure a name free agent to play in Los Angeles on one of the league’s flagship teams.
Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday, born and raised in Los Angeles, calls himself a Kobe fan, but his favorite Laker is Magic Johnson. Magic retired when Holiday was 6.
“Well, first of all, Kobe probably doesn’t care about any of that,” Meyers said. “Part of it is that he plays for the Lakers — you either love ‘em or hate ‘em.
“But everyone has to appreciate Kobe because he’s one of the most gifted artists ever to play the game.”
Count Pelicans Coach Monty Williams among that number.
“Kobe’s the ultimate competitor,” he said. “Right now he’s undervalued because he’s playing in a tough situation but still giving it his all.
“He’s good for the game, he’s meant a lot for the league and I don’t think there’s anybody who loves basketball more.”
And while, Meyers’ belief aside, this may be the last season we see Kobe, at least in a Lakers uniform (“Soon, but not yet,” he tweeted.), Rivers is hoping that he gets to go against Bryant for a long time to come.
“I’m his competitor now, but I’m still a fan of the game,” he said. “I didn’t want to see Derrick Rose down last year, I missed that we didn’t get to play against Kobe last season and I hate that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are out right now.
“But Kobe’s going to be an All-Star again. He’s Kobe Bryant.”