Editor’s note: About 20,000 people gathered Monday for a public memorial service honoring Kobe Bryant at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the other seven victims of the helicopter crash with tears, memories and laughs.
It was a typical day preparing for another NBA game.
This time, former Neosho County Community College All-Conference student-athlete and Most Valuable Player Jannero Pargo was preparing for the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 26, on what would turn into a day of shock and dismay in sports history.
Pargo, 40, who is now an assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers, played basketball for the NCCC Panthers from 1998-2000, before going on to run the point guard position at the University of Arkansas and a slew of NBA teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and the Charlotte Hornets.
He used all this experience to methodically prepare a game plan on his laptop in his Portland home for his next contest versus a Victor Oladipo-less Pacers team. Pargo’s girlfriend was watching SportsCenter in the kitchen before turning down the volume.
“She was just like, ‘What happened to Kobe?’” Pargo said of his girlfriend. “I was like, ‘What? Nothing.’ And she was just like, ‘Yeah, I think something happened to Kobe.’ We immediately turned the volume up and we heard the news. It was disbelief at first. That can’t be true. Not Kobe, that can’t be true.”
But the truth of the matter was that Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, and seven other victims, perished in a helicopter accident in Calabasas, California, on the way to the gregarious athletic hero’s Mamba Sports Academy on that fateful morning.
As the news was confirmed, the proverbial sobs and tears trickled out in despair down the cheeks of Pargo, but he didn’t actually cry. He was in a state of shock, rather.
“I was very emotional,” Pargo said after he paused for a bit. “I knew Kobe personally. He’s inspired so many, but he touched my life in such a personal way, being a teammate and being a friend of his. He showed me personally just how to work and how to be a pro. And how to take my career to the next level and be a part of this league for 11 years that I played in the NBA. And I think a lot of times as a young player, when you go to an NBA team, you kind of gravitate to a veteran and Kobe was that for me. ... He was a guy I immediately gravitated to because I saw the way he worked every day, the way he approached the game of basketball, the way he approached life. I think he inspired me to be able to do the things that I’ve done, and to play 11 years in the league. And I think I owe him a great deal of gratitude for that.”
Pargo and Bryant – practicing, playing
Bryant’s philosophies would stick with Pargo well after being on the NBA radar. Pargo found his way to the league through his self-made determination and sheer desire to advance and triumph as a basketball player.
Along with achieving All-Conference accolades his first two years at NCCC and the MVP award in his second year, Pargo was at the forefront of two conference championships in his two years at the junior college. In his freshman year as a Panther, he averaged 14 points, while in his sophomore year he averaged 25. His talent and production earned him a full scholarship at the University of Arkansas in 2000. And in 2002 with the Lost Angeles Lakers, he finally got his chance at the NBA as an undrafted free agent.
After averaging 16.6 points on 46 percent shooting and 3.3 assists his senior season as a Razorback and playing with the likes of future NBA All-Star Joe Johnson, Pargo was invited to the Lost Angeles Lakers’ training camp to try out.
Eager to showcase his talents, Pargo flew to LA in September of 2002 to get a jumpstart on the triangle offense – a staple offensive system run by former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who also used it with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls amid their 90s championship dynasty. At the gym, Pargo attentively sat and watched Bryant practice for hours, then he would emulate the star’s tendencies in an effort to augment his talents in practice.
Pargo’s work ethic was noticed by Bryant, who would constantly relay advice to the then-rookie point guard. Bryant, who is one of the hardest-working gym rats of all time, gravitated to Pargo because it was evident how hard a worker the Chicago native was.
In practices leading up to the preseason, Bryant went out of his way to guard Pargo, and not a shooting guard, as the drive and willingness to be a better basketball player was as transparent in Pargo as can be.
Pargo’s relationship with Bryant ballooned into a friendship, including reciting Jay-Z lyrics together before games.
“The only way I was able to play at the University of Arkansas and have a chance to be in the NBA and eventually playing 11 years is one reason, and that’s hard work,” Pargo emphasized. “Kobe, everyone knows, is a strenuous worker. So anybody that comes into his environment, if you’re a worker, you have no problems with him. And I was a worker.”
That workmanlike mentality was on full display after a few preseason Lakers’ practices in 2002 – a time when regular practices were mandatory, as opposed to today’s game that comprises load management and practice during the season being limited. Pargo, using his quickness, speed and tight handle to score, was able to produce often against the likes of guards Derek Fisher, Brian Shaw and Kareem Rush. But Bryant at this point had enough, as the 18-time All-Star took it upon himself to guard Pargo, and the result was the 6-foot former NCCC point guard not being able to catch the ball for the rest of the practice.
Bryant’s competitive spirit assisted Pargo in playing that much more soundly. One helping hand was that he emphasized to Pargo the importance of working on shots likely attempted in the Lakers’ offense.
Pargo survived the first month of cuts, and in the first preseason game of the 2002-03 season versus the Clippers in Anaheim, Pargo entered the game in the fourth quarter having not played at all in the first three quarters. Pargo went crazy, scoring 16 points in the quarter. With the Lakers down by two points – Bryant, NBA Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal and the rest of the starters were resting on the bench – Jackson drew up a play for Pargo to win or lose the game with an attempted three, but Pargo’s shot caromed short.
Still, Pargo hearkened back to a valuable lesson Bryant taught Pargo on the fly.
“Kobe comes to me and says, ‘Yo, don’t be short,” Pargo recalled. “In situations like that, you have a last second shot, you can miss it, but don’t miss it short. And that’s something I preach to my guys here today, not only on last-second shots, but anytime you are shooting: don’t be short. It’s like golfing and putting, if you miss it short, you don’t have a chance, but if you miss it long, you never know, it can hit the backboard and go in, and you give yourself a chance to make the shot.”
Pargo took this advice to heart, and combined with his work ethic, Bryant ultimately helped one of the all-time best NCCC guards to earn a spot on the Lakers roster. Pargo went on to average 10 minutes or so a game, assisting the Lakers to a 50-32 record and a trip to the Western Conference Semifinals versus the Spurs, a team that ultimately won the championship that year.
Mourning a mentor:
Eighteen years later with an abundance of NBA knowledge attained, the news that Bryant and his daughter were killed in a tragic helicopter accident affected many. And players on the Portland Trail Blazers, who are invariably receiving these cultivated lessons from Bryant taught by Pargo, reacted to the incident.
“Everybody was down, and everybody mourns in different ways,” Pargo said. “I do remember (five-time All-Star Damian Lillard) saying that we shouldn’t even play this game tonight – all games should be canceled today. Just knowing that he said that, I’m sure that he was hurting. And the minds of every basketball player in the world was far from basketball on that day.”
Lillard, however, manifested the “Mamba Mentality” and scored a season-high 50 points in a win over the Indiana Pacers on Bryant’s tragic day.
It was seemingly a tribute to Bryant, who scored 50 points 25 times in his historic NBA career, which is only third all time to Michael Jordan (31) and Wilt Chamberlain (118). Bryant, who was drafted in 1996 at the age of 17 out of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, went on to win five NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, was a two-time Finals MVP, an NBA MVP (2008), a four-time All-Star Game MVP, an 11-time All-NBA First Team member, a nine-time NBA All-Defensive First Team player, a two-time NBA scoring champion, an NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion and is currently fourth all-time in points scored (33,643), among other well-known achievements.
His “Mamba Mentality” translated off the court, too, as Bryant in 2018 became an Oscar award winner for Best Animated Short film for his contribution as executive producer for “Dear Basketball,” owner of a media production company and a venture capital fund to invest in tech, media and data companies, as well as founder of the Mamba Sports Academy.
Pargo said he wasn’t surprised about his off-the-court success.
“I think the only sign was his work ethic,” Pargo said. “He was already one of the best players in the world, and yet he still worked harder than guys who were a role player, so if you apply that work ethic to all aspects of life, it shouldn’t be that hard to be that successful. It doesn’t really matter what you put your mind to, or what he put his mind to, if you are going to put that type of effort into it, it’s going to be hard not to be successful.”
Most importantly, the mourned 41-year-old public figure was by all accounts a successful father to his children, including Gianna Bryant, his teen daughter who picked up some of the same traits from Bryant, including intelligence and basketball acumen. Gianna started playing basketball when she was 9, all the while picking up many other talents.
“She had the best laugh,” Bryant’s wife, Vanessa Bryant, said at ESPN’s 2-24 Kobe Bryant tribute. “It was infectious, it was pure and genuine. Kobe and Gianna naturally gravitated towards each other. She had Kobe’s ability to listen to a song and have all the lyrics memorized after listening to the song a couple of times. It was their secret talent. She was an incredible athlete. She was great at gymnastics, soccer, softball, dance and basketball. She was an incredible dancer, too. She loved to dance, swim and jump into our swimming pool and loved her Tik-Tok dances. Gigi was confident, but not in an arrogant way. She loved helping and teaching other people things. At school, she offered the boys basketball coaches to help give the boys basketball team pointers, like the triangle offense. ...”
O’Neal helped the Lakers master that triangle offense, but when he left in 2004 to join the Miami Heat, Bryant had no choice but to keep things going for Los Angeles. From afar, Pargo took notice of the grander legend winning two more championships after O’Neal left, and the persevering spirit of Bryant while he was living and in death is instilled in all of his contemporaries, including Pargo.
It took quite a few days for the Trail Blazer coach to put things in proper perspective after learning the harrowing news.
“I think the main thing we have to do now is try to keep his legacy alive, and just try to live the way that he would want us to live, by working hard at whatever it is that you do, put the time and the effort in and just do not stop at anything,” Pargo said. “Whatever it is that you want to do, you can do it. Put your all into it, and compete at whatever it is you want to do and be great.”