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Column: Remembering Kobe Bryant's UNC ties, relationships with Jordan, Dean Smith

Bulls Kobe Rumors Basketball
**FILE** Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant is seen during a basketball game against the Houston Rockets in Los Angeles in this Oct. 30, 2007 file photo. Chicago Bulls general manager John Paxson basically squashed the notion that Bryant will wind up in Chicago, saying, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007, the teams were never on the verge of a deal and talks were over for now.(AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

When Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Sunday, he died as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Many are aware that he was almost one of the greatest UNC players of all time, too.

Bryant was born in 1978 and grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, among other stars, before becoming a touted high school prospect of his own. He spurned the college game to go straight to the NBA in 1996, and the subject of where he would have attended school sparked much discussion in later years.

In 2007, the Laker legend told that “there's no maybe about it,” he would have become a Blue Devil, playing alongside the likes of Corey Magette and Elton Brand. As a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2013, though, Bryant changed course, saying that he would have attended North Carolina for the chance to face off with Vince Carter every day in practice. That 1996-97 UNC team, the last coached by Dean Smith, also featured Antawn Jamison, Shammond Williams and Ed Cota.

Then, in a 2017 Twitter Q&A, Bryant again insisted he would have attended Duke, at least in part because Smith stopped recruiting him, thinking he would go pro. “Coach K kept at it,” Bryant said.

Regardless, it’s clear that Bryant appreciated the Tar Heels’ brand of basketball and kept them in consideration while Smith was pursuing him. In 2012 he recounted a story about a recruiting letter from Smith, one that “jutted out above the rest”: 

“I couldn’t wait to read it, but I didn’t want to do it with people looking over my shoulder,” he told the New York Post’s Peter Vescey. “So I opened it quietly during English class while the teacher was talking.”

Smith wrote that he knew it was a foregone conclusion that Bryant would turn pro, but that “if you change your mind, I want you to know I’m holding a scholarship for you.”

When asked if he still had the letter, Bryant replied, “Are you kidding, bro? Of course I still have it. It’s from Dean bleepin’ Smith!”

Throughout his 20-year pro career, Bryant drew countless comparisons to Jordan — who said Sunday that Bryant was “like a little brother” to him — and rarely shied away from them, while making his respect for the former UNC guard eminently clear.

“It's not one game or one play, in particular; it's just his aggressiveness,” Bryant told Bleacher Report in 2014. “It takes a lot of work, a lot of conditioning, skill and thought to be that aggressive and that assertive. He was relentless, man. He just kept coming after you.”

Early in his second season, Bryant, unfazed, approached Jordan, a Tar Heel from 1981-84, during a break in game action and asked about the intricacies of the latter's post moves and famous fadeaway jumper.

"I'm not scared of anybody," Bryant said. "I want to learn ... I'm not afraid to ask questions about things that I don't know.”

Bryant will be remembered in part for his unabashed passion for the game of basketball, as well as a relentless desire to improve. In Chapel Hill, he’ll also be remembered as one of the best to almost wear a North Carolina jersey, and someone who nonetheless had plenty of memorable interactions with Tar Heel greats.


@DTHSports |

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