Friday, March 31 2023

Klay Thompson developed a ritual while he was rehabilitating from back-to-back ACL and Achilles’ tears over two-and-a-half years. 

Every day, he’d watch a video of Kobe Bryant calling him a “stone-cold killer.”

At a time when Thompson felt lost, Bryant helped him remember who he was as a player. And as we reach three years since Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020, he continues to have a profound impact on the Golden State Warriors shooting guard, helping him overcome the most difficult time in his life. 

Thompson distinctly remembers how he first felt when the Lakers legend — who is considered the embodiment of a stone-cold killer on the court — used those words to describe him and Steph Curry after an ESPN reporter asked him which players have a Kobe-like instinct in 2016. 


“I was elated,” Thompson told FOX Sports earlier this month. “I was just really excited because I just really idolized him growing up, especially growing up down there [in Orange County]. Everything I try to do on a basketball court, I try to emulate him. I just really loved his work ethic and style of play. For him to say that just made me feel really good about myself.”

Klay Thompson grew up around his idol Kobe Bryant, and the two remained friendly once Thompson made it to the NBA. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

A few years later, Bryant’s words went from being highly flattering to becoming a crucial motivational tool. 

Before Thompson did painful rehab exercises, he’d watch that video. Before he’d lift weights, he’d watch that video. When he was overcome by mental anguish, he’d watch that video. 

When asked recently what those words meant to him, Thompson had a difficult time summing it up. 

“It means so much, it’s hard to even put into words,” he said. “Kobe’s not the guy who just hands out compliments like that, so, for me to gain his respect, it meant everything to me. It inspired me to keep going and never be satisfied, just like he was.” 

*** *** ***

Bryant had a profound impact on Thompson long before injuries sidelined him for all that time. Thompson grew up watching Bryant play basketball. He used to wear Bryant’s shoes. He wanted to become just like him. 

“Kobe was the greatest player,” said Seth Tarver, Thompson’s friend from childhood. “Kobe was our [Michael] Jordan.”

In 2003, Thompson got to meet his idol after his father, Mychal, a two-time champion with the Showtime Lakers, accepted a job as a color commentator for his former team. Before games, Mychal would sometimes allow his sons and Tarver to shoot around at Staples Center.

When they saw Bryant take the court for the first time, the boys were awestruck. 

“I remember big Mychal was like, ‘Kobe, what advice would you give these kids?'” Tarver said. “And I remember Kobe was like, ‘There’s no secret. Work hard. Just work hard. That’s it.'”

Throughout that season, Thompson would tell his three sons stories about Bryant’s famous work ethic. He became a legend in their household. Bryant was the type of player who would have marathon shooting sessions in the middle of the night, then be the first player to arrive at practice and the last to leave, after challenging his teammates to play him one-on-one. 

Bryant went on to help lead the Lakers to the NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons that season. One night, following a team dinner at the hotel in Detroit, nearly everyone had dispersed except for Mychal and his sons. Bryant unexpectedly walked over to them to chop it up.

Mychal and Bryant picked up a debate they’d had all season over whether the Showtime Lakers with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy were better than the current Lakers with Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. 

“I would say, ‘You know, Kobe, if you played for our team, you and Michael Cooper would be coming off the bench,'” Mychal recalled. “He would get mad about that. He’d say, ‘No bleeping way.'” 

Klay Thompson didn’t say a word, but he soaked it all up. 

He saw the way Bryant carried himself. He heard his confidence. He witnessed how Bryant mined everyone for information, including his father, whom Bryant prodded for details about what it was like to play under Pat Riley and alongside Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy. 

Klay Thompson attempted to pattern his mentality around Kobe Bryant’s. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Thompson tried to become a student of the game himself. He attended Bryant’s Nike Skills Academy when he was 17, and he watched all of his games. 

Meanwhile, Thompson was becoming something of a star in his own right. He led Santa Margarita Catholic High to a Division III State Championship appearance, making a record seven 3-pointers in that game. He then committed to Washington State, where he set the school record for 3-pointers and finished No. 3 in points all-time from 2008-11. 

Bryant kept tabs on Thompson. 

During Thompson’s junior year with the Cougars, he was cited for marijuana possession after an officer smelled the substance while pulling him over for a headlight that wasn’t functional. Thompson, the team’s leading scorer, was suspended for the regular-season finale against UCLA

When Bryant heard the news, he didn’t want it to undermine Thompson’s otherwise implacable focus on the Pac-10 Tournament. He reached out to Mychal, telling him to deliver a message to his son ahead of the quarterfinals.

“He said, ‘F— that sh–. Go be yourself,'” said Thompson, who chuckled remembering his father, whom he said never curses, relaying those words to him. “And I did. I went and had a record-setting performance, although we did lose the game. Isaiah Thomas hit a game-winner over us. But I took that to heart and had a night at Staples, just like he would.”

Thompson scored 43 points in that game, setting the Pac-12 Tournament record. A few months later, he was selected by the Warriors as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2011 draft.

Before Thompson played in an NBA game, his path crossed with Bryant once again. During the NBA lockout his rookie season, Thompson was working out at the Equinox Sports Club in Irvine with two of his friends when Bryant entered the gym. To Thompson’s surprise, Bryant allowed him to stay.

“We said what’s up to each other and gave each other daps,” Thompson recalled. “I went back to my basket and started going even harder because I’m not going to disrespect this guy. I don’t know if he’s watching, but I’m going to go as hard as I absolutely can, so he might notice me.”

Later that day, Thompson told his father he got to work out alongside Bryant. Mychal still remembers the joy spilling out of his usually understated son. 

“He was like a kid at Christmas who got every toy he ever wished for,” Mychal said. “He was so excited to be able to work out with Kobe. That means everything. Imagine if you’re a musician, and you get to play alongside your idol. Or you’re a great singer, and you get to sing onstage with your idol. That’s the same thing.”

Bryant and Thompson would share a court many more times. Before Bryant retired in April 2016, he played against Thompson in 12 games. Thompson averaged 19.1 points against Bryant, including a 41-point performance on 14-for-18 shooting in 2014. 

After that game, Bryant congratulated Thompson, who was too excited to remember what he said. But Thompson does remember that during the game, he didn’t dare speak a word to Bryant. 

“I wouldn’t jaw with Kobe Bryant. I’m not an idiot,” Thompson said. “That wouldn’t end well for me.”

Regardless, Bryant, of course, wasn’t going to let Thompson get the best of him again. 

When he played the Warriors for his last game at Oakland’s Oracle Arena in January 2016, a 37-year-old Bryant completely smothered Thompson.

“I knew for a fact he was not going to let me go off for that game,” said Thompson, who finished with 12 points on 4-for-14 shooting. “I got his best defensive effort. I was like, ‘Man, I really can’t do anything against this guy.’ I couldn’t imagine what he was like in his prime.”

During their battles, Thompson had earned Bryant’s respect, an honor reserved for very few players. 

“That validated him as a legitimate NBA player and a possible Hall of Famer, if you can compete evenly with Kobe,” Mychal said. “And Kobe shows you the kind of respect that he showed Klay, you can’t get a higher achievement or award or reward than that.”

Klay Thompson eventually became one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league, similar to Kobe Bryant, who made 12 NBA All-Defensive teams. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

After Bryant retired, he gifted Thompson a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality,” in which he wrote a personalized note, something he only did for a handful of players, according to multiple people close to Bryant. 

Bryant’s message to Thompson was more of a challenge. 

He wrote: “Rings, rings, rings, rings.” At the time, Thompson had only won three championships, compared to Bryant’s five.

“I was like, ‘I have to fulfill this man’s prophecy,'” Thompson said. 

*** *** ***

Six months after Thompson suffered a torn ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, he was headed to Miami to see a doctor when he found out that Bryant died in a helicopter crash.

The emotions are still raw. 

“I don’t really like talking about it, to be honest,” Thompson said.

By then, Thompson had become a five-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA selection and one-time All-Defense player. Bryant’s imprint was all over his game.  

“I couldn’t do the things he could do — I couldn’t jump 40 inches, I couldn’t score 81,” Thompson said. “I just tried to take his love for the game and his passion for working out, especially the track days, the stuff in the weight room, the stuff that wasn’t fun. He mastered that stuff.”

Thompson embraced hard work and became known for his toughness. Before the ACL injury, Thompson had never missed more than nine games in a season. “He took pride in playing every game, just like Kobe did,” Mychal said.

He even made two free throws after tearing his ACL in the Finals against Toronto, just like Bryant had famously made two free throws on a torn Achilles’ in 2013. 

When Thompson was on the verge of returning from the ACL injury, he suffered another catastrophic injury, tearing his right Achilles’ while playing a pickup game in Los Angeles in June 2020. It meant after missing the entire 2019-20 season, he’d be sidelined at least another year.

It was devastating. 

He had to relearn to walk. He had to ask Tarver and his brother, Mychel, to drive him to physical therapy appointments. He had to be away from the sport he loved. And he had way too much time on his hands to wonder if he’d ever be the same player again. 

“What he went through those two years, [it took] a lot of inner strength and emotional strength,” Mychal said. “I can’t imagine at such a young age — it’s not like he was 35, 36 and this happened to him — he was in the prime of his career and this happened to him.”

For distraction, Thompson turned to video games, swimming in the bay and captaining a boat. And for inspiration, Thompson turned to Bryant, who fought his way back from the same injury at age 34, four years older than Thompson was at the time. 

“He went through the same thing and came back and scored 60 in his farewell game,” Thompson said. “That inspired me a lot. I just knew if I put the work in, I would be great again. It would just take some time.”

*** *** ***

After being sidelined 941 days, Thompson made his emotional return last January, receiving multiple standing ovations from the sold-out crowd at Chase Center. 

He continued to improve throughout the season, shaking off rust to average 20.4 points on 42.9% shooting from the field and 38.5% from beyond the arc, a slight dip from the 21.5 points on 46.7% shooting from the field and 40.2% from beyond the 3-point line he averaged before the injuries in 2018-19. 

That June, the Warriors, who were widely not considered title contenders at the top of the season, won their fourth championship in eight years.

“Without Klay, we wouldn’t have won the championship,” said Zaza Pachulia, Thompson’s former teammate and a current basketball operations consultant for the Warriors. “I’m telling you, it’s impossible.”

At the ESPY Awards, Thompson won Best Comeback Athlete. In his speech, he thanked members of the Warriors’ front office, his teammates, his parents — and Kobe Bryant and his family. “I read ‘Mamba Mentality’ every day during rehab,” Thompson said. “…He inspired me to be the athlete I am today.”

Klay Thompson still struggles to talk about Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

But throughout last season — and continuing into this one — Thompson has been constantly scrutinized over whether he’s as good as he was before the injuries.

In October, following a slow start, TNT analyst Charles Barkley said Thompson is “not the same guy.” It bothered Thompson so much that he chose to address that comment in a postgame news conference unprompted, telling reporters, “That hurt hearing that because it’s like, man, I put in so much freaking effort to get back to this point.”

Recently, however, Thompson said he has had a mental breakthrough. Similar to how Bryant has inspired him throughout his life, he has realized he has become an inspiration to people who are dealing with adversity. 

In fact, he said even if he could, he wouldn’t take back the ACL and Achilles’ injuries.

“No, everything in life led me to this point,” he said. “I’ve come to accept that it’s part of my story, and I’ve gotten so many great messages from young athletes that they use me as inspiration and that means more to me than, honestly, championships. Just the fact that I can be a playbook for how to navigate a tough time. As long as I inspire the generation behind us, that’s all that’s important to me.”

Thompson acknowledged it wasn’t always that way. 

For a while, he felt robbed of two-and-a-half years of his life. And when he returned, he was deeply cut by every negative word he heard about himself and each honor he didn’t receive. 

How could people not understand how much he went through, he wondered. 

“I used to be bitter,” Thompson said. “I used to be seeking validation from others, whether it be the [NBA] Top 75 list or an All-Star Game. Now I’m just out there playing freely, having fun. And all that other stuff will come. The big nights, scoring nights, the accolades, the championships. I know there’s many chapters to write, and I’m not going to harp on a couple of tough years. That made me stronger, mentally, and it allowed me to explore other things in my life. I’m a captain of a fishing vessel now, and I wouldn’t have been able to do those things if I didn’t have the time I did. So, it wasn’t all too bad.”

When asked what led to his shift in perspective, Thompson pointed to a recent conversation he had with Pachulia. 

During a game against the New York Knicks in late December, Pachulia was struck by Thompson’s body language. Thompson was having a tough game, shooting 5-for-12 from the field and 1-for-5 from beyond the arc. But what bothered Pachulia most was Thompson’s palpable sadness. 

When they returned to the Bay Area, Thompson asked Pachulia to let him into the team’s old practice facility in Oakland for a workout. Pachulia stayed at the gym, recognizing something very important. “I felt like he just needed a friend,” Pachulia said. “Not the Warriors employee.” 

Pachulia then tried to help Thompson see the bigger picture. 

“That day, I had my kids at the facility working out, and I told Klay, ‘They’re dreaming about being in your position,'” Pachulia said. “‘They’re dreaming about it every single day. They wake up thinking about it. They go to sleep thinking about it. You are in this situation already 10-plus years, won so many championships, been to so many Finals, All-Stars and everyone loves you. Let’s be honest, everybody loves Klay, he’s such a great guy. 

“But I guess it was a moment where he was maybe not feeling appreciated as much, maybe not recognized as much. Most importantly, he lost the most important tool: the joy.”

That message deeply resonated with Thompson.

It wasn’t too long ago that he was a kid himself, watching Bryant and dreaming of becoming an NBA player. At that moment, he decided to focus on gratitude. 

“I know it doesn’t last forever, so I’m just trying to embrace every day like it’s our last because you don’t know what can happen in sports,” he said. “They can be unforgiving.”

That change in attitude had an immediate impact on his game.

Thompson had a four-game stretch at the end of December and beginning of January in which he averaged 36 points on 48.3% shooting from the field and 41.8% from beyond the arc, including a 54-point performance against Atlanta, his fourth 50-point performance in his career.

Kobe Bryant | No. 6 | Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

The iconic shooting guard was league MVP, a two-time Finals MVP, and is still the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer.

He wishes Bryant were around to see it. But more than anything, he wishes Bryant were here for his wife and daughters and his millions of fans around the world. 

But even in Bryant’s absence, Thompson has vowed to continue to try to make him proud. 

“I just try to stay present every day because it’s been going by so fast — my career, that is,” he said. “I want to look back and say I gave it everything I had, just like Kobe did. I know Kobe can look back on his 20 years and say he maximized his potential. I want to do the same.”

And whenever he falters, he still has that video of Bryant to keep him going. 

To this day, he often re-watches his childhood hero calling him a stone-cold killer. 

“I hold those words dear to my heart,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see another player like him ever again.

“It really did mean the world and still does.”

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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