Like many players from the 1990s and 2000s, Raja Bell had his fair share of battles with Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. Bryant and Bell specifically had a couple of memorable matchups in the postseason when Bell was a member of the Phoenix Suns. Bell was memorably ejected from Game 5 of the first-round series between the Suns and Lakers in 2006 for clotheslining Bryant in what he said was a retaliatory act for a prior elbow to the face. The two also squared off against each other in the 2001 NBA Finals when Bell suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Like all of his peers, Bell was shocked and saddened when he learned that his former rival hadin Calabasas, CA on Sunday morning.
"I think we're all having a hard time processing what is the reality -- that he's not here anymore," Bell said on CBS Sports HQ. "And not only him, but his daughter and the seven other people in that helicopter. I was with my kids at a basketball tournament, and that was kind of eerie for me. And I found out -- a kid in the backseat of the car kind of said what he had read -- and my first reaction was to say, 'Stop playing.' That's one of those things you hear of, or it's one of those hoax videos that goes around or something like that. And then, obviously, when I dug in a little bit more, we found out it was really true. Anytime someone gets snatched in their prime, so to speak, or before you would think it was their time to go, it hurts.
"This one hurts, and hits home especially hard. Because he was a friend and a competitor, and he was bigger than basketball. He was the type of guy that when you put your mind to something, and you put your mind to do something, not only you do it but you do it well. And that's something that any father would want their child to kind of look up to. It's a great life lesson, and I think he was a true champion, and he will be missed."
Bryant's legacy is built on the success that he had on the court, but he will also be defined by the impact that he had on the generations of players that came after him and used his renown focus and determination to motivate themselves. Here's what Bell had to say about how Bryant's patented "Mamba Mentality" changed the game:
"I think Kobe is one of the throwback type of players. This was pre-social media, pre we all play together on the AAU circuit and we're all friends. This was pure competition and wanting to be the best. And I'm not saying it's changed for the worse, but it has changed. I think Kobe introducing some of those younger players to the mindset he approached the game with, and the greats before him approached the game with, was really important because it's a true competitor's mindset. It is an alpha mindset. It is a I-want-to-be-the-best mindset. And, ultimately, when you're playing a sport, it's competition. That's what you're there for. You're there to win; you're there to try and conquer. And I thought it was great for Kobe to do that because it's a rite of passage type of thing -- someone did it for him. I thought it was great for those young guys to get a true voice of wisdom in there and let people know what it was really about."
It's not a stretch to say that Bell's battles with Bryant boosted his rep around the league, and as such he appreciated every opportunity that he had to square off against one of the game's all-time greats.
"I relished every opportunity to get a chance to play against the greats just because I had been a fan of the game for so long, and Kobe was that," Bell said. "Kobe was in the same breath as [Michael Jordan] for me. So there was always an excitement that I would get before I got to go up against him, and then obviously an understanding that my night would be really, really long... It was always a pleasure and always a level of excitement on my part, and I'd like to think that the fact that I competed, and scrapped, and clawed with him even when I had limited success guarding him, there was a level of respect that he had just for the effort. So we got to a place that when we played that there was a mutual respect... I certainly had a lot of respect for him. So, again I'm at a loss for real true words to eloquently say how sad I am."
When it comes to his legacy, Bell thinks Bryant will be remembered as one of the best to ever do it, largely because his career spanned over three different decades and thus he was able to influence multiple generations.
"Kobe is going to be, I don't know, top-five all-time, I would imagine -- in my book, certainly,' Bell said. "Again, you talked about his ability to cross generations there, so you'd have that generation that was kind of just leaving the league that knows what he was as a young No. 8 coming into the league with a really gifted Lakers roster, and they won championships. And then you have a generation later that remembers what two-four looked like, and he scored 60 in his last game, or 61 -- whatever it was -- against the Jazz. And they'll know what the 'Mamba' was. He was able to touch a lot of people on the basketball court -- and that's purely basketball -- because off the court it's a whole 'nother conversation. He'll go down as a top-five player of all-time, and for me, it's hands down the most gifted and most competitive player that I've ever played against. And that's just a fact. I've played against some greats, but that's just a fact. I didn't get to see MJ in his prime -- I got to see him when he was a Wizard already. Kobe was like no other."
Bell and Bryant didn't always see eye-to-eye. In fact, Bell previously admitted to "hating" Bryant during their playing days, but the respect was always there, as it was with seemingly every player that Bryant played with or against. Bryant's dedication to the game of basketball both on and off the floor is the stuff of legends, and his legacy will continue to live on through the players, like Bell, that had an opportunity to share the court with him.