CLEVELAND — His life seemingly flashed before Tyronn Lue’s eyes, all because he managed to do something few have ever pulled off. Lue blocked Kobe Bryant’s shot.
In his second NBA season with the Lakers (1999-2000), Lue played in a five-on-five scrimmage that in most circumstances would have suggested Bryant would pull off an endless highlight reel. Lue played on the reserve unit with Devean George, Brian Shaw, Mark Madsen and Slava Medvedenko. Bryant represented the starters that also included Shaquille O’Neal and Derek Fisher.
But as Bryant drove baseline for a layup, Lue recalled cutting from the elbow down toward the paint to block his dunk attempt against the glass. George then made a layup to seal the win. Shaw then teased Bryant for Lue’s scrimmage-defining block.
“He went crazy. Kobe wanted to fight me at first,” said Lue, who is now the Cleveland Cavaliers coach. “He wanted to play one-on-one after practice. He said, ‘We’re going to play one-on-one, me and you.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not playing you one-on-one.’ He was so mad. Then after that, every day we stepped onto the court and he just went after me every single day. It was crazy.”
When the Lakers (11-43) visit the Cleveland Cavaliers (37-14) on Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena, Lue predicted Bryant might become crazy again if someone brings up that episode.
“I hope he forgets. Hopefully y’all don’t bring it up because then he might not speak to me,” said Lue, who played with the Lakers from 1998-2001 and won two NBA championships. “But I let it go. I let it go. Bryan Shaw might bring it up and stir the pot a little bit. I try to keep it down.”
It seems unlikely no one will relay the word back to Bryant. Lue already shared the story publicly. Bryant has reflected on seemingly every moment of his career amid every stop in his last game at opposing venues in his 20th and final NBA season. But with Bryant in what Lue described in “a good place” during his farewell tour, it appears likely Bryant will laugh about the incident before providing his own version of events.
“He’ll come over probably give me a hug before the game and talk to me and say ‘Congratulations,'” said Lue, who became the Cavaliers’ head coach after David Blatt was fired about two weeks ago. “It’s such a great bond that I have with him.”
So great that Bryant gave Lue a signed No. 24 Lakers jersey nearly two months ago. When Lue became the Cavaliers’ head coach, Bryant also expressed optimism he would become prepared for the new gig, saying Lue would incorporate elements of the triangle system he learned under former Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Yet, Lue said he has not talked to Bryant since about two months ago.
“You talk to Kobe when you get a chance, but you don’t want to wear your relationship out with him,” Lue said. “Whenever I see him, whenever I call him or need to talk to him, he’s always there.”
All of which gave Lue insight on what makes Bryant tick.
Lue said that Bryant’s practice outburst reminded him of when he played on the Washington Wizards (2001-2003) with Michael Jordan. Lue called Jordan and Bryant the “spitting image of each other.” Lue argued LeBron James is “the same way” and touted him as the most intelligent basketball player because of his ability to play all five positions.
“It’s just they’re more vocal about it. They’re more demonstrative about it,” Lue said of Bryant and Jordan. “They’ll get on guys. They’ll cuss guys out. They’ll even fight guys if they have to, so that’s just the difference, but they still all have the same will to win and be able to take control of a game like that.”
Lue’s respect for Bryant grew Bryant when he witnessed Jackson singling him out in practice and film sessions. Lue reported he has applied the same tactic to James with similarly positive results.
“He always held Kobe and Shaq more accountable than anyone else on the team. It always starts at the top and trickles down to the bottom. If you can get the respect of your best players, everyone else will fall in line,” Lue said. “In film sessions, he used to kill Shaq and Kobe all the time, and it worked.”
Lue believed that Bryant kept James at a distance when he jumped from high school to the NBA in 2003 for one specific reason.
“He’s always had that situation where he had to be the best, every single night,” Lue said of Bryant. “He’s not going to open up to [James] and give him any leeway or give him any reason to try to come in and take his spot.”
Lue echoed Bryant’s clarity on the meaning behind his trademarked phrase, “Friends Hang Sometimes, Banners Hang Forever.” Bryant said that slogan did not mean he does not value friendships. Instead, it meant that Bryant would not allow friends to compromise his focus on his basketball craft.
“From a standpoint of winning championships, I think you’re always tied together. I don’t think you can ever lose that bond,” said Lue, saying he maintained friendships with Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Horace Grant. “When you win a championship with somebody, that’s a bond that can never be broken.”
And Lue has seen James try to emulate Bryant’s approach in delaying Father Time by becoming more attentive to recovery and his diet. The 38-year-old Lue added “it’s just a tribute” that the 37-year-old Bryant is still playing while Lue, Luke Walton (Golden State), Fisher (formerly of New York) and Shaw (formerly of Denver) had already entered the coaching profession. Whenever James enters the tail end of his career, Lue hoped he can “enjoy it” as much as Bryant has in his final season.
All of which marks a big difference from Bryant’s outburst toward Lue over blocking him in practice.
“He’s finally opening up to more people,” Lue said of Bryant. “His competitive nature wouldn’t let him open up to other guys and enjoy the game and enjoy the moment, it was always about winning, winning, winning and winning a championship and not opening up to guys. I’m very happy for him. It seems like he’s in a good place.”