Former Maryland star Joe Smith and former Towson standout Gary Neal have more in common than just playing for local colleges.
For one, they both had their own Kobe Bryant moment in the NBA.
Smith, a 6-foot-10 forward and the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, played for 12 teams from 1995-2011. His last stop was Los Angeles with the Lakers, who won 57 regular-season games in 2010-11 before being swept in the conference semifinals. Smith played sparingly for Bryant’s Lakers after coming over in a December 2010 trade.
Neal, a 6-foot-4 guard who played his high school ball at Aberdeen High and Calvert Hall, played for six teams from 2010-2017. The first three seasons were spent with the San Antonio Spurs, who won a championship in 2013, Neal’s final season in San Antonio, and were long a rival of Bryant’s Lakers.
Each player’s formal introduction to Bryant both came during the 2010-11 season — Smith’s right after he was traded to Los Angeles and Neal’s during the Rising Stars Challenge, the exhibition between the league’s top rookies and second-year players during All-Star weekend. Both interactions not only made a lasting impact on Smith and Neal, they changed their opinion of Bryant, an international superstar whose reputation had preceded him.
Bryant was one of the first players to greet Smith after he was traded over and dispelled anything Smith had heard about Bryant being a difficult teammate to play with.
“Just the interaction that we had when I first got there is something that I’ll never forget,” Smith said on Glenn Clark Radio Jan. 27. “After hearing all the things that you hear throughout your career about a person and how he doesn’t get along with certain people, just the interaction that you get is always something special and can always knock out all the talk that you heard about, all the negativity that you may have heard about. That’s what made me feel comfortable right off the bat with the trade and that’s what made me feel good about being a part of the team.”
Neal entered his encounter with Bryant with a preconceived notion about the Laker as well. How could Bryant, Neal thought, not figure out how to make it work with Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal after the pair had won three titles together? But when Neal met Bryant at Staples Center in February 2011, Bryant gave Neal a handshake and a huge and gave his wife a hug, too.
“To me, that just totally changed my opinion of him. It just totally changed, because I had an opinion, like how could you play with Kobe? This was before I met him,” Neal said on Glenn Clark Radio Jan. 27. “I was five months into the NBA at the time. I was like, ‘How could you not play with Shaq?’ Why wouldn’t you want to play with Shaq? I had just a total different opinion of him until I actually met him and he gave me a handshake and a hug, and he gave my wife a hug which he didn’t have to do. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know what the media’s putting out there about this guy, but that can’t be true.”
On Jan. 26, Bryant died at the age of 41 in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others. Bryant, drafted in 1996 out of Lower Merion (Pa.) High School, played 20 seasons with the Lakers and helped lead them to five championships. He is fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 33,643 points. Bryant’s legendary drive, commitment and work ethic have long made him a role model for basketball players all over the world.
Smith and Neal shared more of their favorite memories of Bryant and why he meant so much to them. Smith said playing with Bryant was “one of the most thrilling things that happened” in his career and explained why he looked up to the 18-time All-Star despite Smith being three years older than Bryant.
“I grew up a Lakers fan, so I always wanted to play for the Lakers at some point,” Smith said. “But to play alongside Kobe after all of his accomplishments and just learn from him what it takes to be successful, especially at the point of my career where it was my last stop — I was on my way out — just learning some life lessons from him on the plane, in practice and picking up some of the things that made him successful, it was a great thrill for me.”
Neal was a shooting guard, the same position as Bryant, so he became familiar with having to guard the two-time Olympic gold medalist, particularly when both were in the Western Conference. Neal described guarding Bryant as “an amazing feeling.”
“It’s crazy because you’re competing and you’re playing against him and you go to the scouting report and it says he’s going to shoot the fadeaway, he’s going to come right at you, just be super aggressive and you’re like, ‘Man, this is unreal,'” Neal said. “You’re guarding him and he’s trying to take your head off in a competitive way, but at the same time you’re like, ‘Man, I grew up watching this guy.’ It was just an amazing feeling for me. It’s hard to put into words, but it was an amazing feeling just playing against a guy that’s that talented, that’s accomplished so much and a guy that you actually grew up watching.”
Today’s generation of basketball players often refer to the “Mamba mentality,” a term popularized by Bryant that underscores the commitment and mindset necessary to be as successful as possible in life. Smith, who said Bryant “never let anyone outwork him,” explained how the “Mamba mentality” has trickled down to younger players:
“That not [only] trickles down to players like LeBron [James], but it trickles down to all the players in the NBA when they first come in and they’re seeing players like Kobe, like LeBron and seeing the work that they put in,” Smith said. “It’s going to be something that affects them and something that makes them want to work harder.
“You have to understand … that it’s not about just your talent, because at some point you’re going to come up against some stiffer competition and some talent just as good as you are. But how hard did you work and how much work did you put in to be that step better? That’s what Kobe always wanted to be, that step ahead and a step better.”
Neal was a career 38.2 percent 3-point shooter and shot 41.9 percent from long range in each of his first two years in the league. Neal shared one particularly memorable moment with Bryant guarding him:
“In the NBA they have tags for players, so I was called a high guy. You didn’t want me to a shoot a 3-pointer,” Neal said. “So he just ran by me and screamed at me — like ‘Ahhhh!’ — just to run me off the 3-point line. So I pump faked and took one dribble and shot the pull-up and I made it. He didn’t say anything. I didn’t look at him or say anything. I just went back and played on defense, but I do remember that. He ran by me and screamed at me.”
To hear more from Smith, listen to the full interview here:
To hear more from Neal, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Towson Athletics and Maryland Athletics