'Best statue I've ever seen': Magic Johnson on Kobe Bryant statue unveiling by Lakers (Exclusive)

Magic Johnson, Caron Butler and other Kobe Bryant friends graced his statue unveiling this evening
Magic Johnson, Caron Butler and other Kobe Bryant friends graced his statue unveiling this evening

Shortly after seeing Kobe Bryant’s likeness immortalized on a 19-foot high, 4,000 bronze statue, Magic Johnson shook his head in amazement and laughed.

Not only did Bryant join Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal, and Elgin Baylor as the lone Lakers players to have statues outside of Crypto.com Arena. Shortly before the Lakers featured Bryant’s statue that featured him wearing No. 8 (1996-2006) Vanessa announced that Bryant will eventually have two more statues featuring him wearing No. 24 (2006-2016) and with his daughter Gianna. The Lakers said they have not yet determined the dates for those statue unveilings.

After experiencing a day that he called “bittersweet” since Kobe and Gianna died in a helicopter crash four years ago, Johnson then found a reason to smile. That’s because he predicted Bryant would have bragged to Johnson that he eclipsed him for more statues.

“No question about it. He would definitely tell me that,” Johnson said, laughing. “That’s beautiful. That’s what it’s all about.”

After winning five NBA titles while climbing to seventh on the league’s all-time assists list (1979-1991), Johnson then willingly doled out another assist.

The subject matter: How Bryant’s statue ranked with the other statues.

“I love it,” Johnson said. “It’s the best statue I’ve seen.”

Bryant’s statue, sculpted by Julie Rotblatt Amrany, captured the Lakers’ star in a pose raising his right index finger after following his career-high 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006. The statue depicts Bryant wearing a wrap around his right index finger, a band around his left arm, and a brace on his right knee. Vanessa shared that all of their daughters’ names are tattooed on Bryant’s arm, including Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri.

“I wish I knew from what picture that was, but what I did like about the picture is they caught his index finger,” former Lakers forward Lamar Odom told Sportskeeda. “That makes it realistic and adds realism to it.”

The statue features other elements, too. The base includes a box score from Bryant’s career-high performance. The side of the base quotes Bryant saying, “Leave the game better than you found it. And when it comes time for you to leave, leave a legend.” And the entire sculpture is surrounded by his five championship trophies on a triangle-shaped base, in nod to the triangle offense the Lakers ran under Phil Jackson and assistant coach, Tex Winter.

Underneath the statue, Bryant’s full name and self-named moniker “Black Mamba” is etched on the base. Bryant’s various accomplishments during his 20-year NBA career are listed below along with a QR code, which will enable fans to watch highlights on their phone.

“I love the five trophies. But I love the stone below him with all of his accomplishments,” Johnson said. “I think that was special. Vanessa did an amazing job because a lot of people that never saw him play in terms of young people. They can [watch his highlights]. A lot of times when young kids come up, they can come up and see my statue, but they never have seen me play. I don’t have all of that.”

Johnson listened to Bryant’s widow (Vanessa), the Lakers’ governor (Jeanie Buss), a former teammate (Derek Fisher), a Lakers luminary (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and a former coach (Phil Jackson) tell stories about Bryant’s competitiveness that enabled him to win five NBA titles and climb to No. 4 on the league’s all-time scoring list. Johnson chuckled the most when Bryant reflected on his 81-point game in a tribute video. Then, Bryant shared that Odom challenged him that he couldn’t score 80.

“He shouted me out. I guess it was meant for me to be here,” Odom told Sportskeeda. “It happened just the way he said it was. I remember wiping the sweat off of his head because he was feeling it and trying to get some of that energy. I’m glad I was here for that day and I’m glad I was here for this day. He was here right now with us.”

Those who knew Bryant felt his presence in different ways.

Plenty of Lakers and NBA luminaries attended Bryant’s statue unveiling. That included the former Lakers general manager that acquired in a draft-day trade from Charlotte (West), other Lakers legends (James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes), former teammates (Odom, Pau Gasol, Robert Horry, Metta Sandiford-Artest, Jordan Farmar, Mark Madsen, Matt Barnes, Larry Nance Jr. and the Lakers’ former trainer (Gary Vitti). NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, other former NBA players (Dwyane Wade, Jamal Crawford), and other former WNBA players (Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker), attended, too.

The Lakers didn’t announce Bryant’s unveiling until last summer, but Vanessa shared that Kobe had shared his vision of what his statue would ultimately look like. Before the Lakers retired Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 jersey numbers in the 2017-18 season, Bryant entertained the idea of having a statue featuring both of his numbers.

Kobe picked the pose you're about to see,” Vanessa said moments before the unveiling. “So if anyone has any issues with it, tough shit.” Butler told Sportskeeda he considered Vanessa’s words to be “the quote of the day” because he imagined Kobe saying the exact same thing.

I can only imagine what his words would’ve been like on this day,” Butler told Sportskeeda. “So I used that just like the Hall of Fame speech. I processed what he would’ve said in those moments as a competitor.”

What would have been Bryant’s message?

“‘Just continue to be great,’ Butler said. “This is his legacy. This is what greatness looks like. I think it’s an inspiration for so many other young guys that’s trying to reach those margins and reach that bar and how you scale your career. Dwyane Wade is coming up next. He laid the standard. Everybody got a statue. He got three. Now everyone is going to want three for a statue. That’s a true legacy.”

Therefore, Bryant undoubtedly would have gloated to Johnson.

“I wouldn’t take it as a slight or anything. I know that’s who he is,” Johnson said. “That’s what made him special. When we talk, nothing was about putting each other down. It was more about, ‘Hey, I want more than you.’ I admire that about him. But we would just end up even with the championships, even though he three-peated and we didn’t. So he always said that.”

Bryant also said other things to Johnson.

“‘My Lakers would beat your Lakers.’ Then I said, ‘My Lakers would beat your Lakers,’” Johnson said, laughing. “This is how we’re going to do it. He would go in and do his thing. I said, ‘Kobe, you couldn’t beat my Lakers.’ But we had that banter back and forth.”

Just like with his statue, Johnson conceded on a few things. Before Bryant played the final game of his 20-year career, Johnson stood at center court and settled an ongoing debate among Lakers fans.

Johnson called Bryant “the greatest to wear purple and gold” before then seeing Bryant score 60 points in his last game. Johnson reiterated that point after Bryant’s statue unveiling, saying, “I will always give him credit like that.”

Interestingly, Bryant proclaimed West as the greatest Lakers during the 2010 NBA Finals because of his body of work as both a Lakers’ player and general manager. After helping the Lakers to their first NBA championship in Los Angeles (1972), West also constructed the Lakers’ championship rosters around Johnson during the Showtime Era and around Bryant before eventually resigning (2000). After his final game, however, Bryant proclaimed Johnson as the greatest Laker and gushed about watching him play when he grew up in Italy.

“He always complimented me on the work that it took to be a successful businessman. He admired that. That tickled him,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Man you and Michael. He always talked about, ‘I watched you when I grew up. That made me feel good. They always talked about how he idolized Michael but I didn’t know growing up he was idolizing me. It was a beautiful and touching moment.”

Same thing when the Lakers beat the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals in a seven-game series.

“I’m proud to say that I had so many special moments with him crying in the locker room after that Celtic Game 7 victory,” Johnson said. I had told him before the series this would be the hardest series you would win. When we came into the locker room, that’s what he said to me. He said, ‘You were absolutely right.’ He just fell into my arms. It was a beautiful moment. I would never forget moments like that with us going back and forth.”

Safe to say Johnson won’t forget about Bryant’s statue unveiling, either.

“Very few athletes get to be beloved. Very few. But he was one of those,” Johnson said. “I can probably count two or three basketball players in the world that is beloved. Kobe’s one of them. Michael Jordan is one of them. Then there’s one or two more, but I won’t say their name.”

Johnson then laughed some more with the same enthusiasm as he had when he imagined Bryant gloating about his three statues at his expense.

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportskeeda. Follow him on X, Instagram, Facebook and Threads.

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Edited by Jeet Pukhrambam