Luke Walton reminisces about former teammate Kobe Bryant on Staples Center return

Mark Medina
USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — Once he settled into a city that he played in for most of his NBA career, Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton arrived too late to do much. Well, except for one thing.

It was not too late for Walton to stop by L.A. Live, the business concourse across the street from Staples Center that has accommodated hundreds of mourning Kobe Bryant fans to set up various memorials.

“There was a group of people chanting ‘Ko-be, Ko-be’ at two in the morning,” Walton said, shaking his head. “You're looking around and seeing how many people he touched, and the flowers and the candles and the messages and the handwritten notes. It was an emotional setting.”

Walton returned here for Thursday’s game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings at Staples Center, marking the first NBA game played here since Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Sunday.

That left Walton having flashbacks on his Staples Center return after playing with Bryant on the Lakers (2003-2012). When he saw L.A. Live, Walton kept reflecting on when the Lakers hosted championship parades here in 2009 and 2010. When Walton strolled down a Staples Center hallway before Thursday’s contest, he remembered that Bryant’s wife (Vanessa) and two daughters (Natalia, Gianna) often waited in that area after games. And when Walton saw the basketball court, he had flashbacks of Bryant completing a pregame warmup.

Those memories left Walton feeling both nostalgic and remorseful.

“A part of the game's missing right now,” Walton said. “I know that'll get better with time. But for all of us who are around my age and the players that are in the league, we grew up watching Kobe for 20 years in almost every playoff series. Every time we turned on the TV, he was a huge part of what you were watching. That's gone, and that hurts.”

Luke Walton was a part of two title-winning Lakers teams during his time as a teammate to Kobe Bryant.

MORE:LeBron James and Anthony Davis honored Kobe Bryant with new tattoos

MORE:Giant Kobe Bryant mural cut into grass at California park

Walton seemed in better spirits once he talked about Bryant.

He recalled having Bryant autograph a family ticket stub after posting a career-high 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in the 2005-06 season. He marveled at Bryant’s disciplined recovery regimen, which often entailed waking up in the middle of the night to ice his body. And he offered some stand-up comedy to explain why he got along with Bryant while the two played for Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

“I passed him the ball,” Walton said, grinning. “It was a simple philosophy for me: ‘If Kobe's open, throw him the ball.’ There were times that Phil would yell at me to make the right pass. Then I would look at Kobe, and he would tell me the right pass is to throw him the ball.”

Walton and Bryant connected for reasons beyond enabling Bryant’s desire to score. Bryant had often praised Walton for his strong understanding of the triangle offense. Therefore, Bryant and Walton often conversed on how to read coverages and counteract any opponent’s adjustments to their schemes.

“That’s one of the things that allowed him to be the player he was,” Walton said of Bryant’s basketball IQ. “He was gifted with these incredible features as far as his height, athleticism and quickness. But he also had the work ethic and skill set. He had the brain. He was as smart and understood the game better than anyone else I’ve ever played with.”

Bryant thought the same thing about Walton. Therefore, Bryant often predicted Walton would become an NBA head coach well before coaching the Lakers (2016-2019) and Kings (present). When Bryant made those remarks, he often cracked that Walton was similar to Jackson because both were “average players with a bad back.”

Walton became used to Bryant’s barbs. Bryant once humiliated Walton in a scrimmage after realizing that he showed up to practice hung over after a long night of drinking. Bryant also talked trash in other scrimmages to the team’s bench, which featured Walton.

“There were times he'd get heated and yell at Phil or yell at us, but it made us better,” Walton said. “We knew there's a lot of people who'll do that in practice and they won't do it to the opposing team. We knew once we got on the court, that he was on our side and he was going to do that same thing to the players we were playing against. It gave us a lot of confidence as a group.”

Years later, Walton has preached to his young players about adopting Bryant’s mindset and work ethic. He has often reminded himself to approach his coaching role the same way.  Lately, though, Walton has struggled thinking about Bryant only through that lens.

“It’s still really hard. There’s still a lot of emotions and memories that continue to come back,” Walton said. “I try to focus on what an inspiration he is to me and millions of others and how much positive change he has made for people. That helps.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram