The late great Kobe Bryant was one of the fiercest competitors in sports history. Early in his career, Bryant created an alter ego known as the "Black Mamba," one of the most venomous and dangerous snakes in the world.
It was through this alter ego and his notorious "mamba mentality," that Kobe was able to strike fear into the hearts of his opponents and earn the respect and admiration of millions of fans.
However, that same mentality often alienated Bryant from his teammates. If you shared his intensity for winning, he respected you, allowing your relationship with him to flourish. If you didn't, he could often make life miserable for his teammates.
Los Angeles native, Ryan Hollins, grew up idolizing Bryant. Born in Pasadena, Hollins went to nearby John Muir High School and then to UCLA before eventually turning pro in 2006.
"In high school, I waited three hours outside the Glendale Galleria to get a signed Kobe Bryant basketball," said Hollins. "I used to play the Kobe Bryant video game. I tried to wear No. 8 in high school so I could try and be Kobe Bryant."
Hollins was drafted by another childhood idol of his, Michael Jordan, who was the owner of the then Charlotte Bobcats (now known as the Hornets). Over 10 NBA seasons, Hollins, who learned a lot playing for Jordan's team, competed against some of the best in basketball. But he will never forget the times he competed against Kobe Bryant.
"Playing against him was always a special time because you want to compete against the best," said Hollins. "You knew when Kobe was coming into town. You would check that off the calendar a month or two in advance."
Hollins recently sat down with NBC LA reporter Michael J. Duarte and Nitecast Media radio host Nick Hamilton on the "BLEAV in Lakers Podcast" on the BLEAV Podcast Network. According to Hollins, Kobe's "mamba mentality" not only made him a legend, but one of the greatest villains of all time when it came to his opponents. In fact, Bryant was so intimidating that players on the opposite team would call out sick when they knew they had to face Kobe head-to-head.
"Kobe in his heyday had this villainous bad-boy presence," recalled Hollins. "I've seen teammates call out sick, and not want to show up for the game. He wouldn't talk to you. Before the jump ball, he would walk past your bench and have the craziest stare on his face that read: 'It's on!' He went into every NBA match with this killer mentality. He would get you before he even got you. We hadn't even jumped the ball yet and you were thinking about Kobe Bryant. He was an absolute dog. Kobe was on another level."
One of Hollins' greatest memories of competing against Kobe was when he was playing for the rival Clippers and he went up to contest a Kobe dunk attempt. Although he was called for a foul on the play, Hollins said he earned Bryant's respect by getting in place to take the charge. A respect that was difficult for many in the league to earn.
"To get Kobe's respect was darn near impossible," said Hollins. "We could count on one hand the number of teammates that Kobe respected. Trevor Ariza was a guy who Kobe respected. Ronny Turiaf, Lamar Odom, Pau…I remember one time I was on the Clippers and Kobe spun off Matt Barnes and went to the hole. I get over early, I slide over two feet and get my hands straight in the air perfectly, and I go to stop Kobe. Kobe jumps into me, throws the ball up, and the referee calls a foul on me. I was in perfect position. Mamba comes down after the foul is called and gives me a slap on the butt as if to say, 'good job kid, you were there, but I'm Kobe.' That was a big moment and I was happy."
Including the Clippers, Hollins played for nine different NBA teams during his 10-year career in the NBA, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Memphis Grizzlies. Although he never played alongside Jordan, Kobe or LeBron James, he competed against them constantly, including in the NBA playoffs. That gives Hollins a front-row seat and a unique vantage point when it comes to the G.O.A.T debate.
"LeBron does not have the dominance of Michael Jordan. Six rings. Six championships. Has not lost in his era. We don't even think of any other stars in his era. He owned an entire decade of basketball," said Hollins of Jordan. "So when I say that LeBron is the greatest player that ever played, I believe that is something that he grew into. I believe he got to a point where he surpassed Michael because of the way the NBA is played.
"LeBron plays in an era in which five guys have to work in synergy or four guys around one player, in which that player has to make everyone better. The difference that I see between Michael, who is the greatest scorer, and LeBron, who is the better player in my mind, is how LeBron can both score and share the basketball and make guys play above their level. That's where I give the difference in that Michael was more dominant, but LeBron is the better player because of his passing ability."
Where does Kobe Bryant fall into that debate? Hollins says he's right there with them in the conversation.
"We love Kobe, and some may argue that Kobe played against tougher competition than what Michael Jordan played against," said Hollins. "Keep in mind, Michael Jordan was five notches ahead of all the centers that he played against in his time. Michael Jordan knew that with his charisma, swagger, and name that if he went to the hole and wanted to live on the free throw line he could do it.
"Kobe and LeBron play in a game that is not as physical, but the pace is faster. I believe it's coming to fruition even more that people are beginning to consider that LeBron is the greatest of all time. He's on pace to win a championship this year, and if he fools around and pulls a Tom Brady and wins another one the year after, those Jordan fans might have to come over. "
You can listen to the full podcast and interview with Hollins below: