Why Kobe’s 8 and 24 mean so much to these NBA players


WHENEVER JALEN WILLIAMS grabs his phone, he sees a collage of Kobe Bryant photos as his lock screen.

The first tattoo the 22-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder forward ever got was a portrait of Bryant’s face, steely eyed and biting down on the collar of his uniform. It covers the outside of his right leg from his ankle to just below the knee.

The Mamba merch in his personal collection includes sneakers, shirts, magazines, posters, action figures — and blankets. Plural.

When he’s not snuggling up in one of those, you can find Williams sliding on his No. 8 Thunder jersey, an homage to Bryant as he gets buckets for one of the Western Conference’s best teams.

“I wore 10, his [Team] USA number, in high school,” Williams told ESPN. “And then I got to college and I let somebody else take 10 because we had 24.

“I kind of wanted to switch up [in the NBA]. So I was like, ‘I’ll just do his rookie year thing. And I’ll do 8.'”

Williams’ allegiance to the Los Angeles Lakers legend might be extreme, but he’s far from alone in his decision to don one of Bryant’s two numbers when he takes the court.

Four years after his tragic death in a helicopter crash, Bryant’s legacy is being carried on by the league’s next wave of players.

While No. 23 might have been the number of choice for a previous influx of stars such as LeBron James whose basketball upbringings were primarily influenced by Michael Jordan, there are only 16 players who wear it today — James included.

This season, 39 NBA players have worn either No. 8 or No. 24, including up-and-comers such as Williams, the Chicago Bulls’ Zach LaVine, the San Antonio Spurs’ Devin Vassell and the Brooklyn Nets’ Cam Thomas.

On Thursday, the Lakers will unveil a statue to honor Bryant outside of Crypto.com Arena. It already figured to be one of the busiest days on the NBA calendar with the trade deadline expiring at 12 p.m. PT. Not to mention, L.A. is hosting the defending-champion Denver Nuggets at 7 p.m. that night. But fitting the statue ceremony in between at 3:30 was important for the numerology.

Thursday is Feb. 8, 2024 — 2/8/24 — a calendar date that not only includes both of Bryant’s numbers, but the No. 2 that his late daughter Gianna, who also died in the crash, wore as a budding basketball phenom.

If there’s any group that can appreciate the decision by Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, and the Lakers organization to hold the ceremony to that date, it’s this up-and-coming group of Kobe acolytes.

“He’s like our generation’s Jordan,” Thomas, the Nets’ third-year shooting guard, told ESPN. “How the other guys liked Jordan, that’s how we are with Kobe.”

BRYANT WAS LISTED at 6-6, 192 pounds when he was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the No. 13 pick in 1996. He never played a game for the franchise after the Lakers gave up center Vlade Divac to acquire him in what would become one of the most lopsided trades in league history.

Nearly 30 years later, Charlotte drafted another skinny shooting guard in the first round — the 6-5, 185-pound Nick Smith Jr. with the No. 27 pick in last year’s draft.

Smith wore No. 3 at Arkansas, but that was already taken by Terry Rozier when he was selected.

“I model my game after Kobe Bryant,” Smith told ESPN. “So, 8 was available. I was like, ‘F— it, why not?'”

Plus, there was the novelty of wearing the Hornets jersey that Bryant never did.

“That played a part in it too,” Smith said. “It was a thing that me and my friends thought of, so I just went with it.”

Dallas Mavericks shooting guard Josh Green has a similar story. He wore No. 0 at Arizona, but when he came to Dallas in 2020, that number already belonged to Josh Richardson.

For Green, who grew up in Australia, his decision was determined by his favorite childhood Christmas present: flying to L.A. to see Bryant and the Lakers host James and the Miami Heat when he was 10 years old.

“I wanted to wear No. 8 because that’s what Kobe started his career wearing. He was my favorite player growing up,” Green told ESPN. “Always cool just to see where your dreams can take you.”

Houston Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate, after going undrafted out of Ohio State and starting his professional career in Belgium and Australia, used his Bryant-fueled dreams to return to the States.

“No. 8 was available and that mentality, that Kobe mentality, was kind of what motivated me to get through those first couple years overseas,” Tate told ESPN. “Just trying to get back here.”

After two seasons abroad, he signed a free agent contract with the Rockets.

“I went from 8 to 24 when I was in Australia. Then when I came to Houston, I had the opportunity to go back to 8,” Tate said. “That kind of is something I just keep in the back of my head. Just that mentality, that everyday grind, that everyday work [ethic] that Kobe had. And when I got here my rookie year, I wanted to have that same hunger.”

Vassell puts so much meaning in wearing No. 24 that he has a tattoo on his left thigh featuring four jerseys side by side: his high school No. 24, next to his Florida State No. 24, next to his Spurs No. 24, next to Bryant’s Lakers Nos. 24 and 8.

“I definitely watch his highlights all the time,” Vassell told ESPN. “I watch his footwork. How he gets to his midrange spots, how he got to just his spots in general. It’s a great person to learn from and it’s tragic what happened to him, but the legacy he left behind will never be forgotten. Trust me.”

The Nets beat the host Lakers 130-122 last month, and Thomas had one of his finest games of the season by going 13-for-18 from the field for 33 points in 32 minutes off the bench.



Cam Thomas flushes no-doubter

Cam Thomas rips a three to give the Nets a 20-point lead over the Lakers.

Thomas, who wears No. 24 for Brooklyn and wore No. 8 in his first youth rec league, generated motivation by soaking in his surroundings.

“I sometimes glance up there when I’m sitting down on the bench,” Thomas said of Bryant’s numbers that hang from the ceiling. “Seeing that he has two jerseys retired, it’s always surreal to be in the arena and play there.”

PERHAPS THE MOST heralded rising star to wear No. 24 is Hornets rookie Brandon Miller, the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft.

At 6-7, 200 pounds with a scorer’s mentality, the Bryant parallels are easy to find. Only Miller dismisses the connection like Bryant rejecting a screen from Karl Malone in his first All-Star Game.

“I think everybody who sees 24 [figures that it] honors Kobe,” Miller told ESPN. “But I think my situation is kind of different.

“I’m, of course, a Paul George fan — Indiana Pacers Paul George. I think that was more his prime years. So I chose 24 for Paul George.”

Miller caught flak before the draft when he declared that George is his pick for the greatest of all time.

But his GOAT’s GOAT is Bryant — and the reason George wore No. 24, as he explained when his college, Fresno State, retired his jersey.

“Kobe was my inspiration,” George said at the ceremony in 2019. “The 24 was to honor him, the way he approached the game.

“It’s kind of how I fell in love with basketball.”

WILLIAMS’ CHOICE FOR Bryant ink isn’t the same look he’d pick for Thursday’s statue unveiling.

Among the players in today’s game linked by wearing Nos. 8 and 24, there’s considerably less consensus with what the statue should look like, than their shared reverence for the late Laker great. (The franchise has been protective of the details, acting in accordance with the Bryant family wishes.)

“The 81-point game where he’s pointing up,” Williams said, “or when he’s flexing the jersey [and] yelling.”

The jersey flex that Williams was referring to came in the 2008 playoffs against Denver — not to be confused with the suggestion by Justin Minaya, who wears No. 24 for the Portland Trail Blazers.

“That one where he’s ripping his jersey [to the side] and screaming,” Minaya said, referring to Bryant orchestrating an upset of the Phoenix Suns in the 2006 playoffs by hitting the winner in overtime. “That’s a pretty good iconic moment.”

Bruno Fernando, who wears No. 24 for the Atlanta Hawks, said the statue should depict Bryant lining up his picture-perfect pull-up jumper — the silhouette that inspired more than two million signatures on an online petition to replace Jerry West with Bryant as the NBA logo.

“That would make the most sense,” Fernando said. “That just describes Kobe Bean.”

Smith brought up the most epic achievement of Bryant’s career: that Game 7 win against the rival Boston Celtics to take the title in 2010.

“The pose? Probably the fifth championship vs. Boston, when he was standing on the scorer’s table,” Smith said. “Arms out.”

And as Bryant’s legacy will be solidified in statue form outside the House that Kobe built, the Nos. 8 and 24 will continue to run up and down NBA courts across the league.

“I’m playing basketball, so I feel like that’s a pretty therapeutic way to think about it,” Williams said. “It still seems surreal that it happened, but at the same time, just try and make do with what it is and just go out there and compete and try and live through him that way.”

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