Raja Bell is a basketball analyst for CBS Sports, co-hosts an NBA Podcast for The Ringer, and oversees the basketball program at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla. But during his NBA career he played on several teams iand went up against Kobe Bryant in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Utah. The two had a tense, competitive relationship on the court, but the respect for one another was mutual and strong. He remembered watching Kobe’s rise in the NBA and finally playing against him and becoming one of the few players who could successfully guard him.
But losing him meant losing a part of basketball culture for an entire generation. Still the player he was impacted the game so heavily that he easily qualifies as one of the greatest of all time in the eyes of fans and fellow players.
The first time I saw Kobe on the court was [when he was] in high school. I was already in college and I had heard a lot about him. I was up in the Northeast area and when I saw him, I just knew he was different. It didn’t necessarily translate into me knowing he was going to wind up being Kobe, but I knew he was different than the other kids who were on the court. That became clear. As I watched him play it became pretty clear that he was better than most of the people I was playing with or against, so you could tell he was a talent off the bat.
I was really interested to see what school he would pick. I wasn’t really in tune with him wanting to go right to the NBA or anything like that. So for a kid who was in college, watching him, I was just kind of interested to see which one of those major programs he’d wind up in.
The Early Days
Typically in high school, you see kids with all of that length and athleticism and they don’t necessarily have them on the ball and they kind of typecast them. So that always sticks out to me, even in my own case. When you have a guy [like Kobe] it looked like he was just levels above what he was playing against and he knew it. There were some guys where you could tell they’re levels above, but they’re, they’re working like, and not to say that he wasn’t working. It just looked really easy and relatively effortless.
I had no idea he was the son of a former NBA player [Joe “Jellybean” Bryant]. I didn’t know any of the background. You didn’t have all that social media stuff at your fingertips, so it wasn’t that easy to get a guy’s whole bio.
But playing Kobe for the first time was pretty exciting. I had played in the CBA, and wasn’t really fortunate enough to make an NBA team right off the bat. But I knew I wanted to go there and I was aspiring to play in the NBA. So as a fan, I was following the NBA and I watched what he and the Lakers had become and given the opportunity to play against him as my first real meaningful NBA minutes on the court was kinda surreal.
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I didn’t have time to be in awe of it or to really let the magnitude of the moment sink in. It was the NBA finals [Lakers vs. 76ers in 2001]. I just kind of had to get out there and go to work. But I knew who I was playing against. I knew the reason I was playing was because he was an impossible guard for almost everyone. As someone who was getting his playing time I would kind of take challenges defensively on that Sixers team. I was excited to get the opportunity to how my defense stacked up.
Kobe Stopper or Not?
I don’t know how “Kobe stopper” ever became the narrative, because I never stopped Kobe. He got what he got. There was very little, you know, you could do to actually stop him. I’ve always said my job was to make his job as difficult as I possibly could. So I was never disillusioned thinking I was stopping him. I just was trying to make him work for everything he got and try to affect the shooting percentages. Kobe and I had some, some physical battles and I think it was an organic thing. I played in the Western Conference most of my career after Philly. So my teams played the Lakers and the Lakers were the big cats on the block.
My job in most instances was to try to stop your best player, and Kobe was definitely the best player. So there were a lot of times where we had to lock horns and my style was physical, take no kind of crap style. Kobe’s style was a physical, if you let me bully you, I’m going to bully you, type of style. So there was an organic coming to a head of physicality there. We were gonna knock heads in that regard because he certainly wasn’t trying to be pushed around at all and, and I didn’t want to be pushed around. I think that just was what it was. Why people ever got to the point of saying a stopper I don’t know. I never considered it. I just tried to do my best.
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But yes, he and I got to a point where, you know, after we had our little altercation we mended fences and I had a lot of respect for Kobe. Whether I had to battle him on the court for every inch or not, I respected the fact that he was as good as he was and never satisfied with how good he was.
Impacting the Game
He certainly impacted basketball culture. At that time you were either a Kobe fan or you weren’t, there was very little middle ground. He was polarizing, and when our moment in time happened, I was hated by a lot of people. I mean, I had people in LA telling me what they were going to do to me literally on the street because I had run afoul of Kobe. And then I had other people in other parts of the country that just loved me. They had no idea who I was, but they liked what I had done.
In terms of driving the culture, I think the game was probably changing already, going away from the physical, late 80s, early 90s type of style. They were trying to clean it up and turn it into what it is now. So [the 2006 Western Conference Playoffs against Phoenix] was a little throwback moment that was cut from the old cloth. That was some old “Bad Boys” Pistons and Michael Jordan type of Celtics and Lakers type of basketball, man. It was, it was physical and it was a physical series.
What did Kobe do for basketball?
That’s a deep question. I think Kobe was a model for a generation of basketball players, like Jordan was for our generation and Kobe and what Dr. J and Magic Johnson were for another generation of players. And probably what LeBron James is for, for this generation of young basketball players. They were people, you know, across the landscape of today’s game that modeled what they do after Kobe Bryant. Jason Tatum’s talked about that and guys have talked about Kobe being their guy while Jordan was our guy. So Kobe’s ability to score the ball just have a bag if you will of things that he could go to, and a diverse skill set was something that you see a lot of guys come into the league with.
I definitely think there’s a void in the culture. Kobe from all accounts was already starting to do some really cool things and trying to kind of change the model that was the old NBA. He had help in that regard. I think the league’s in a good place with some of the guys that have the voices now, like, you know, LeBron and CP3 (Chris Paul) and some of the elder statesmen. But I do think there’s something missing there when Kobe is not around there’s definitely a void
— As Told To Madison J. Gray
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