Tayshaun Price was 16 and in high school in Compton, Calif., in 1996. He was, of course, a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan. He was also about to become a huge Kobe Bryant fan.
“He was where I wanted to be,” Prince said.
Prince, now one of the Timberwolves’ elder mentors at 35, is only a couple of years younger than Bryant, who made his final appearance at Target Center on Wednesday night. So, in a sense, he is a contemporary. And he has, many times, guarded Bryant over the years; he was part of the 2003-04 NBA champion Detroit Pistons that beat Bryant and the Lakers in five games. But as a high schooler with NBA dreams, Prince remembers watching Bryant play as a teen for the Lakers.
“Seeing what Kobe was doing, that was something I looked up to,” Prince said.
He’s not alone. Because he played for the better part of two decades, Bryant’s impact has been felt on at least two generations of NBA players.
That’s certainly true of the Wolves. Rising stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine were 1 years old when Bryant made his NBA debut. But all three grew up watching him play.
“I remember when he played the Sonics, and he threw the ball off the backboard and dunked it,” LaVine said. “I was 11 or 12 and I was like, ‘How do you even do that?’ I can do that now, but it was like, ‘Man, that’s crazy.’ ”
Bryant soon rose to the top of LaVine’s list of favorite players, which was why the first time the two met on a basketball court, it was kind of surreal — and memorable. In November last season LaVine scored 28 points in a one-point victory in Los Angeles and found himself being guarded by Bryant in the fourth quarter.
“I knew it was respect,” LaVine said. And after the game? “He just said, ‘Good stuff, young fella’ and patted me on the butt,” LaVine said. “He ain’t gonna give you much more than that.”
Ricky Rubio was 16 when he heard Bryant had scored 81 points against Toronto in 2006.
“I was in school and I saw how he scored 81,” Rubio said. “And I said, ‘That can’t be real.’ ”
Rubio has some history with Bryant. Rubio was on the Spanish team that pushed the United States in the gold medal game at the 2008 Olympics, and he watched Bryant take over that game late.
“I realized what Kobe meant, a guy who takes over big games,” Rubio said.
Four years later, Rubio sustained an ACL tear late in a game while trying to guard Bryant.
Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell was coaching the Raptors the night Bryant scored 81, but he has been loath to relive that game. Asked about it this week, Mitchell laughed and said, “I coach for the Timberwolves now.”
Lakers coach Byron Scott was a member of the famous Magic Johnson-led showtime Lakers in the ’80s, and his last season was Bryant’s first. Scott was asked how Bryant would have fit in with the Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-James Worthy Lakers.
“I know one thing, I’d be the sixth man,” he joked. “I wouldn’t be starting on that team.”
Scott was a player when Abdul-Jabbar made his farewell tour. Now, as a coach, he’s seeing it again for Bryant. “I enjoy that fans get to show their appreciation for one of the greatest players to play the game,” he said. “I don’t think it will get old.”
• Former Apple Valley High School and Duke star Tyus Jones played his first game for the Utah Stampede in the NBDL on Wednesday night. In 36 minutes, he scored a game-high 27 points on 11-for-22 shooting, dished out eight assists and grabbed six rebounds in a 102-96 loss to the Texas Legends.