Kobe Bryant’s one-on-one game has always seemed so refined. But it didn’t come naturally. Bryant worked at it.
Shea Seals made sure.
“He and I had to play one-on-one every day before practice. Yeah,” Seals told The Franchise on Wednesday night, three hours before The Black Mamba took the floor for the final time as an NBA player — and then blew us all away with a 60-point effort in a 101-96 victory over the Utah Jazz.
Bryant’s prodigious skills were perhaps never greater than in his finale, as a broken-down 37-year-old in his swansong, a meaningless game that meant so much to so many, as he poured in basket after basket to rally his dreadful Lakers to one final victory.
No doubt some of the moves Bryant displayed on Wednesday night at the Staples Center had their genesis in those morning showdowns with Seals.
“That was something that Jerry West made sure we did to get better as young guys,” Seals said. “So if we had practice at 10 o’clock, we had to be in there at 8:30. So an hour and a half before practice started, me and him had to be lathered up like we just had a full practice already.”
“I think he (West, then the team’s general manager and a former NBA all-timer himself as a player) wanted both of us to develop our one-on-one game. He definitely wanted me to get better at it, and he wanted Kobe to work every day and compete against somebody.
“We didn’t have a lot of young guys. I was the only rookie on that team, and everybody else was at least five years in. So I was kind of one that had to go through the development process. And the older guys, I don’t think they were gonna take the time to be competing one-on-one with Kobe every day before practice.”
It was during the 1997-98 season. Seals was a 22-year-old rookie out of the University of Tulsa and Bryant was a 19-year-old high school prodigy in his second season out of the Philadelphia suburbs.
Seals left Tulsa as the school’s all-time leading scorer. With 2,288 points (a four-year average of 18.5 per game), he still holds that distinction 20 years later. As a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Tulsa McLain, he helped lead the Golden Hurricane to four consecutive NCAA Tournament trips — including two Sweet Sixteen trips under Tubby Smith — and just finished his fourth season as a TU assistant coach (two under Danny Manning, two under Frank Haith).
Seals’ NBA career was brief: he played just one season and got into only four games.
But he had other contributions to make — like those daily pre-practice battles with Kobe.
“That was kind of like my job. I embraced it,” Seals said. “I didn’t get to play in many games, but my games were playing Kobe one-on-one and in practice.”
Seals said playing Bryant was a unique challenge, though he never had to deal with Bryant’s signature shot, that lethal turnaround fadeaway jump shot from the baseline.
“He developed that later,” Seals said. “But at the time, he was so explosive and athletic. And unbelievable ball-handling ability for his size. That was one thing that really shocked me, was how quick he was, how long he was and how well he could handle the ball. His footwork was unmatched as a young guy at that age. You could tell he’d really developed that in Europe or working with his dad. But his footwork was really, really good at a young age.”
Seals watched a bit of Kobe’s late-night finale, but then woke up Thursday to learn his old practice rival had scored 60.
“How about that? Unbelievable,” Seals said Thursday morning. “He’s definitely one of the best, man, one of the greatest of all time. That’s something I saw early on. I figured he’d be one of the best. He just had that drive. To be so skilled and so athletic at that age, man, I knew he could do great things.
“It doesn’t surprise me what he been able to accomplish throughout his career. The guy scored 81 points in a game, for crying out loud. He’s done some mind-boggling, eye-popping things in his career.
“He had kind of solidified it already, but scoring 60 last night, that really puts the stamp on it.”
Twenty years on, after 10 years of playing professional basketball in exotic locales like France, Spain, The Philippines and China, and after 10 years as a head coach at his high school alma mater (McLain), his rival (Booker T. Washington) and at his college alma mater, Seals looks back on his Laker days with immeasurable pride.
And as Kobe has ascended into the highest reaches of basketball greatness, Seals has been only slightly amazed.
“I didn’t think it would get to that magnitude,” Seals said. “I knew he’d be a very special player. But for him to be up there with Michael Jordan and some of the all-time greats, I mean, it goes to show how dedicated he was to becoming one of the greatest of all time. You know, he put in the time, he put in the work, he was determined to be the best.”