BOSTON – Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward share more than just the same March 23 birthdate.
They also share a connection with Kobe Bryant who for years was a pain the Celtics you-know-what, but since retirement has been a voice of encouragement and assistance to past Celtics, such as Isaiah Thomas, as well as Green Team newcomers.
One of the many reasons the Celtics made Hayward a top priority this summer when he became a free agent was because of the steady growth in his game that, in part, was aided by Hayward spending time with Bryant last summer.
Part of that growth came about last summer when he spent a week working out with Bryant.
“He's one of the best to ever do it," Hayward told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “And it was one of my best weeks ever."
Hayward wanted to become a more diverse, more efficient scorer.
In addition to averaging a career-high 21.9 points per game, which garnered Hayward his first All-Star selection, he also shot a career-high 50.6 percent on his 2-point attempts.
And as Hayward struggled with the tough decision between leaving the Utah Jazz after seven seasons to play elsewhere, Bryant (as well as LeBron James) was part of a six-minute video put on by the Celtics highlighting how great a sports town Boston was, even for visiting foes.
That would eventually become one of the many influences that ultimately played a factor in Hayward’s decision to sign a four-year, $127.8 million deal with the Celtics.
As for Irving, his relationship with Bryant really took off in 2012 when Bryant was part of Team USA and Irving was on the Team USA select team of younger players who practiced against Team USA.
Irving’s respect for Bryant was evident from the very beginning.
But don’t get that confused with deference or fear of the Black Mamba, whom Irving challenged to a game of 1-on-1.
Bryant wasn’t interested.
“He thinks he’s talking to a high school kid?” Irving says into the camera.
“You just came out of high school, kid,” Bryant said. “You played two games [it was actually 11] in college.”
That exchange set the foundation for a mentor/mentee relationship that has led to Irving reaching out to Bryant in his highest moments, like having a FaceTime moment with Bryant in 2016 when the Cavs won the NBA title or in 2015 when foot and knee injuries made him ineffective in Cleveland’s second-round series that year against Chicago.
“During the Chicago series he was the first person I called when I had my knee issues," Irving told reporters. “I asked him a few things. He knew a little bit about [Tom] Thibodeau's defense and how they are going to corral me and what they are going to do knowing I'm hurt and he just told me how to be more effective in the scoring areas as well as on the defensive end.
Irving added, “We talked for about 30 minutes and he gave me as great a talk as I needed at that time. I was in a terrible mental space knowing I couldn't be as effective as I wanted to be. He was the first person I called and we've had a great dialogue over the last few years so it's been great."
During Thomas’ amazing playoff run for Boston shortly after the untimely death of his younger sister, Bryant was once again assisting a Celtics player.
Thomas described how Bryant would help him break down video to see things that, frankly, only Bryant would see.
“He’s definitely helped,” Thomas said during the Celtics’ second-round series against Chicago last season. “Tells me what he sees and what I should be watching for on film.”
Other players throughout the league have from time to time called upon the Black Mamba for assistance.
But to know how passionate the rivalry between Boston has been before and during Bryant’s time with the Lakers, it’s refreshing to see he’s not the least bit stingy with his basketball wisdom.
“Every time we played since I was a rookie, I was just trying to earn his respect," Irving told reporters earlier. "Guys that have come before me, I never forget their groundwork. Even guys that have come before Kobe, that allowed him to leave a legacy on this game that will last forever."