Gordon Hayward was attending a wedding in the Newport Beach, Calif., area in the summer of 2016 when someone mentioned that Kobe Bryant owned a house nearby. Hayward, who had just completed his sixth season with the Jazz, did not know Bryant well. The last time he saw Bryant, earlier that spring, the Lakers star was pouring in 60 points against Utah in the final game of his historic NBA career.
“I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, it would be sweet if I could somehow get in a gym with him,’ ” Hayward recalled. “But I had no idea how to get a hold of him.”
Hayward reached out to Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who spent one season as a Lakers assistant (2011-12), and Snyder tracked down Bryant’s contact information. Hayward sent a simple text message asking Bryant if he would let him come to California to work out with him that summer.
He didn’t have high hopes, but he also knew it wouldn’t hurt to try.
“I don’t know why I didn’t think he would say yes, but when I asked him, I wasn’t banking on him accepting and being willing to train me,” Hayward said. “I knew he was really busy and just figured he had other things he’d rather do.”
But Bryant was already easing into the next phase of his basketball life as a mentor and ambassador. He told Hayward to come see him. And later that summer, the two spent three days doing basketball workouts in a small gym at a Newport Beach school.
“I was just struck by kind of the simplicity of all the stuff he did,” Hayward said. “It wasn’t anything crazy. it was a lot of work, but it was a lot of simple stuff. There were no crazy drills or dribbling or anything really complicated. He was into the simple stuff, but he was into doing it over and over and over again.”
Hayward took some of those small lessons into the following season and became an NBA All-Star for the first time. And that year, Bryant was no longer a distant icon to Hayward. He no longer had to scramble just to get his cellphone number.
That season they texted and exchanged e-mails and talked on the phone. When the Jazz faced the Clippers in the opening round of the playoffs, Hayward called Bryant and asked the five-time world champion how he prepared for these games that mattered so much more. He also soaked up Bryant’s advice about how to have success against the Clippers, his longtime division and city rival.
“It was like we were game-planning,” Hayward said. “We talked about how the Clippers defended things, how he thought I could attack and what I could’ve done to make the game a little easier. That was all very helpful, but more than anything, just talking to him gave me confidence.”
That postseason Hayward averaged 24.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assists as the Jazz won a seven-game series against the Clippers before being swept by the Warriors in the conference semifinals.
Hayward signed a four-year deal with the Celtics that summer, but his first year in Boston ended after just five minutes when he suffered a grisly ankle injury in the season opener against the Cavaliers. That night Bryant, who had a devastating Achilles’ injury in 2013, posted a long, encouraging message to Hayward on Instagram.
It said, in part: “It’s a long journey, but, if you focus on the mini milestones along the way, you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple thing that prior to this injury were taken for granted.”
Hayward continued to exchange texts and e-mails with Bryant throughout his recovery process, and he said they helped him through those tough times.
Hayward still has all of his e-mails from Bryant, partly because they are from an NBA legend, and partly because the lessons inside are timeless. Hayward said that sometimes when he is struggling or in a rut, he goes back and reads through them for a boost of confidence.
Now, it just stings that there are no more new e-mails. Hayward was rocked by Bryant’s death just like so much of the NBA community was. But he believes that Bryant’s legacy lives on in players like him and the countless others that Bryant mentored.
“For him, I think it was a way to help out some of the younger generations,” Hayward said. “He didn’t talk about it a lot, but he was imparting some knowledge on people, and that helped people out. And I think he would see the success we had after he helped us, and that gave him a good feeling as well.”