Jim Eyen has been on an NBA bench for more than three decades, preparing for some of the most elite players in history as an assistant coach for the likes of the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, Blazers and Kings.
But no one took more effort than the late Kobe Bryant.
“Kobe was the ultimate competitor, especially when you are looking at him from the other side of the bench as an opponent,” said Eyen, a UCSB graduate who has also coached at his alma mater, SBCC and Dos Pueblos High School.
“You knew what you were going to get from him, his preparation — mental and physical — you knew you weren’t going to have somebody that just showed up. He was going to compete at the highest level. That pushed me to make sure I was preparing, as taking him lightly was a mistake you wouldn’t recover from.”
It took until just after Eyen’s 25th year in the league to see the stars align, with the Lakers bringing him back for a second stint as an assistant coach.
No more preparing for Bryant — it was time to get a glimpse under the hood. And he wasn’t disappointed.
“When I was fortunate to be on the same team with him for two years, I saw the same things. A lot of times, you see a player from afar, you have a certain vision of him. What happens often, if you end up coaching that particular player, you may see him in a different light,” Eyen told the News-Press, just hours after Bryant lost his life in a fiery helicopter crash in Calabasas that also claimed the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
“There was no different light with him. He was that same competitor and had that same drive, regardless of what age he was.”
While Eyen did work with Bryant over the final years of his career, he did learn what made him tick — an unwillingness to accept mediocrity.
“What I saw from my point of view, this willingness to do whatever it took to succeed. To be as good as he possibly could be. To be the best. That drive. There wasn’t a limit to his work,” Eyen explained. “He was going to spend whatever time was necessary. Whatever energy it took. You saw that throughout his career.
“I think in his mind, it was more an unwillingness at the end of the day to know personally that he didn’t do everything possible physically that he could have done to succeed. If he didn’t do that, if he didn’t succeed, he couldn’t live with himself. He’d do all that he could, and let the results lie where they may.
“It’s just a mentality — he liked to refer to it as the Mamba mentality.”
Eyen said that during those two years with Bryant, he saw a star that had shifted his focus from being the man in the spotlight to teaching those around him on what it took to move into one of their own.
“No doubt. It was hard for him, as it is with those that have his type of exceptional ability, to imagine that others wouldn’t think the same way. At times, it was frustrating for him. But that was a goal of his, a vision of him to have young players accept the game, the competition, the challenge, as he did,” Eyen said. “His example, his competitiveness in practice, his willingness to do whatever it took to increase the level of competition during scrimmages, he was going to do whatever it took. Not only verbally, but provide the example on how to do it as well.”
And Bryant did it under the biggest of microscopes — that’s what comes when you play for the Lakers organization, and in one of the most critical cities in the world.
Bryant didn’t just thrive in the environment, he didn’t want it any other way.
“He embraced it. There are guys that are awfully talented that when the lights go on, they don’t excel as others do. He was one that when the lights were on, he flourished,” Eyen said. “So, to be in the spotlight of a place like L.A., he wasn’t going to shrink from the challenge. He just loved challenges.
“And L.A. was just another challenge met for him.”
While fans lined Staples Center to pay their respects and stars from all walks of sports paid emotional tributes, Eyen knows that the world will feel Bryant’s impact for years to come — that’s what happens when legends live up to their billing.
“He’s right up there with the names that people often throw around, with the Michael Jordans and the Magic Johnsons and the Larry Birds — and the Kobe Bryants,” Eyen said. “Different generations have those different names that pop into people’s heads, those were the names of my tenure, and to have his name in that group would be my ultimate compliment to him.
“Undoubtedly he was one of the greatest. There is no other way to view it.”