PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — When Kawhi Leonard returned to the Los Angeles area to play for the Clippers, he called his friend and mentor Kobe Bryant for advice.
Still in disbelief and trying to process Bryant’s death, Leonard recalled Wednesday how he talked to Bryant about everything from basketball to where to live to commuting in Los Angeles. Bryant lived in Newport Beach and talked to Leonard about using a helicopter.
“I talked to him about it before our transition to playing in L.A.,” Leonard said after practice. “Just seeing how [he] got back and forth from Newport, and he said he was doing it for about 17 years or so.”
Leonard, who has a residence near Staples Center but stays at his home in San Diego when he can, said he not only adopted that mode of transportation but also shared Kobe’s pilot, Ara Zobayan.
Leonard hasn’t been able to think about whether the helicopter accident Sunday that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, Zobayan and six others has given him pause about continuing to use that mode of transportation.
“I feel like that … I mean … the things that you hear, you don’t know what’s real yet,” Leonard said when asked if he has any trepidation now. “I can’t really speak on it. I don’t know. I don’t know yet. It’s a lot of thoughts in my head.”
Leonard, who grew up in Southern California’s Moreno Valley and played college basketball at San Diego State, knew Bryant personally for about seven years. They shared the same intensity and love for the details of basketball, they had friends in common and they used the same mode of transportation at times.
“Yeah, same pilot, everything,” Leonard said. “The whole situation, this whole program, the setup, how [Bryant] was traveling back and forth was the same way I was getting here from San Diego.”
Leonard said he flew many times with Zobayan, who sometimes flew Bryant and Leonard on the same day.
“Great guy. Super nice. He was one of the best pilots,” Leonard said. “That is a guy who you ask for to fly you from city to city. It’s just surreal still.
“He will drop me off and say he is about [to] go pick up Kobe, [and] Kobe said hello. Or he’ll just be like, ‘I just dropped Kobe off, and he said hello.’ Vice versa. So it’s a crazy interaction. He’s a good dude, and I’m sorry for everybody.”
Leonard said he worked out with Bryant before the start of the previous season, thought about his friend “every game” as motivation during the Toronto Raptors‘ title run and celebrated with Bryant on the phone in the locker room after winning it all.
Like so many others, Leonard said he wants to believe the news is not real.
“It’s sad every day,” Leonard said. “You know, you kind of feel like life isn’t real once you start seeing these little monuments or the pictures that people are putting up with his face and the year he was born and the year he died. It’s not all come together yet.”
The Clippers were supposed to play the Lakers on Tuesday, but the NBA postponed the game. The Clippers agreed with the decision.
Like Leonard, Paul George grew up in Southern California. George, who hails from nearby Palmdale, said the Lakers star was the reason he picked up a basketball and was his inspiration to overcome a gruesome broken leg injury suffered during a scrimmage with Team USA in August 2014.
“We from here. It’s different when you talk about what guys thought of him from another state,” George said. “We grew up here. We saw him every day on TV. He’s the reason all of us played the game, so it’s different. It hits different for us, from Russ [Westbrook], DeMar [DeRozan], myself, Kawhi, just all the SoCal guys, it just hits different. He was our MJ [Michael Jordan]. He was our hero. He was our GOAT. It’s just going to hit different for us.”
Leonard and George visited Bryant at his camp in nearby Thousand Oaks before this season, even though they were both recovering from injuries and didn’t participate.
“From idolizing him as a kid to developing a friendship, a brotherhood,” George said, “to now having conversations with him this summer at his Mamba Academy and talking about fatherhood.
“Just some s— you can’t get over.”
Leonard said that he and Phil Handy, who was an assistant with Toronto last season before he became an assistant with the Lakers this season, were close with Bryant.
“Just the competitive drive, just wanting to do everything you can — on and off the court — to be a better player,” Leonard said of what he will take away from his talks with Bryant. “I mean, it’s so much. It’s just hard to think of the conversation we had together right now, just summing up in a sentence. Just everything he did.
“It’s just that motivation. I thought about him every game. He [was] a sense of a drive for me last year, trying to get that championship.”