Former Lakers coach Rasheed Hazzard on imparting Kobe Bryant's lessons to Cape Town Tigers at BAL

ByLeonard Solms ESPN logo
Monday, April 24, 2023

CAIRO -- Cape Town Tigers head coach Rasheed Hazzard, who was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers when Kobe Bryant was their star player, told ESPN that he learned more than 'Mamba Mentality' from Bryant and that working with him was a lesson in humility.

As the Tigers begin the Basketball Africa League Nile Conference in Cairo this week, Hazzard said that he would be imparting all the lessons from his time at the Lakers, and at the New York Knicks, to the South African side, which includes Zaire Wade.

Most notably, Hazzard said, Bryant and then-Lakers coach Phil Jackson taught him to suppress his ego and to remain open-minded to new ideas, and that Kobe's famous work ethic and grit were definitely not overblown myths.

Hazzard, now 46, was a young scout and assistant coach with the Lakers between 2006 and 2011, and was taken aback by how receptive Bryant and Jackson were to his coaching, despite his seeming inexperience.

READ: Everything you need to know about BAL 2023

He told ESPN: "I'll say this about Kobe, and I want every young player to lock into this: he was never late, he never did a workout halfway, and he was always open to coaching even though I wasn't Phil Jackson.

"I wasn't a 20-year NBA vet -- but he respected my knowledge of the game and he respected my hunger, how I went after it and how I approached it.

"I think that's what bonded us and I think that a lot of these young players today need to subjugate their egos and if they want to be like Kobe -- maybe you can't mimic his work ethic, but you can subjugate your ego and be eager to learn like he was.

"That's something that Phil Jackson and Tex Winter imparted to us -- it's a concept called the beginner's mindset. You have to always have the beginner's mindset no matter how successful you become or how high you climb in the game."

Hazzard, whose father, Walt Hazzard, was an NBA All-Star in 1968 with the Seattle SuperSonics and also had a stint playing for the Lakers, grew into a well-travelled and well-respected coach in his own right. He had another stint as an NBA assistant coach with the New York Knicks from 2014 to 2017.

Afterwards, he served as a head coach for Japan's Veltex Shizuoka in 2020 and associate head coach for G League Ignite in 2020-21 and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2021-22.

However, in all his years in basketball, he has never seen another player quite like Bryant, and says no player today can compare. But some, like Greek Nigerian star Giannis Antetokounmpo, come close.

Hazzard added: "I won't compare any of these guys to Kobe, because I don't think any of them has earned it. The only people who, to me, have come close are Giannis -- he is a guy who I know Kobe had a great deal of admiration for and he really respected his rise and his ascension and how he went about putting his work in, and I know they had a relationship.

"The other person who I would say is Kyrie [Irving]. Kyrie was the person out of all these guys who Kobe was probably closest to."

Hazzard said that one of the big differences between players today and Bryant was that the latter didn't particularly care what anyone thought of him and his only job was to play basketball, and that tended to rub those in basketball circles the wrong way.

He opined: "Since he's passed, I know it's a lovefest for him. A lot of these guys... they didn't love Kobe while he was alive. They almost vilified him for his approach.

"They disrespected him for his nastiness and his tenacity, but since he's passed, with all due respect to them and credit to them, they've changed their tune, but it wasn't the same conversation when he was alive.

"That's why I say Kyrie and Giannis are the most like Kobe -- the only guys that I would even mention in the same breath in terms of the work ethic and what they put into the game and how they approach it.

"Guys want to talk about 'Mamba mentality'. That's where it starts. It's not about being all friendly with guys and buddy, buddy with guys on the court, making deals. Kobe might like you, but when he showed up to that arena, he was trying to kill you."

The highs and the lows of life in the NBA prepared Hazzard perfectly for his current task. The Cape Town Tigers are not champions like the Lakers were, but they showed they have great potential after reaching the BAL quarter-finals at their first attempt last year.

South Africa have not competed at a major international men's basketball tournament since AfroBasket 2017 and there is a shortage of local competition that can prepare the Tigers for fixtures against Africa's best teams, so a winning mentality in training and warm-up matches is of the essence.

By Hazzard's own admission, he has had to work to change the mentality of the players: "The first thing was to just try to change the culture. If we're really pursuing a championship, we first have to understand the work and everything it takes that goes into being champions.

"It's about attention to detail, it's about respect for your teammate, it's about me as the head coach -- being kind of the head of the slate -- sharing responsibility. I have two great assistant coaches with Coach Florsh [Ngwenya], who is the coach of the South African [men's] national team and Coach Vince Ntunja, who is from Cape Town - [a] legendary point guard from Cape Town."

Tigers CEO Raphael Edwards sits on the bench at Tigers matches and has a hand in coaching the team, but the presence of local assistant coaches Ntunja and Ngwenya was a major reason for Hazzard taking the job.

"For me, it was [about] coming in and showing my respect for the [South African] nationals and showing my humility and helping the team understand that that's what's going to create that championship atmosphere. We can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't have the culture, then it's all for nought," he said.

When he worked with Bryant and Jackson at the Lakers, Hazzard was not the star name in the organisation. At the Tigers he is, but he makes a point of treating Ntunja and Ngwenya with the same respect that Bryant and Jackson treated him.

"I'll never lose the beginner's mindset -- that humility that you need to attain in order to keep ascending in this game -- because the game changes. These young guys play differently; they have a different mentality and you have to adapt," he said.

"Keeping the beginner's mindset and tapping into Coach Florsh and tapping into Coach Vince, I think, is really important, because while I come with the name and all those things, I still have to empower them to be the best versions of themselves as well, so that we can be the best versions of ourselves as a coaching staff.

"When you have excellent people who are great at their jobs, you can't interfere with them; you have to let them be great. I think that's my job as the head coach. It's not a thing of them working under me. We work together."

The Tigers have an array of American talent on their roster, but can only take four foreign players with them to the BAL, including only two non-African players and excluding their BAL Elevate draft pick from the NBA Academy.

Hazzard revealed that at present, the Tigers are planning on taking former NBA players Josh Hall and Mike Gbinije along with Evans Ganapamo, who last year had a stint with the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Summer League, and Zaire Wade-- son of Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade.

Hazzard believes he can draw the best out of Wade, who the coach feels has been utilised by past coaches as if he were his father and not his own man: "Zaire's a tough young player. He's going to be our backup point guard going into Cairo and I think he's going to turn some heads with his performance.

"He's a young point guard -- not just in age -- but all his coaches in the past, I think, have tried to make him a mini version of Dwyane Wade and we're just focused on making him the best version of Zaire Wade.

"We think the best version of Zaire Wade is at the point guard position. He can guard the ball, he has incredible court vision, his speed and athleticism are very underrated, and now it's just a matter of teaching him the poise and some of the other things that it takes to be great at the position.

"He's been so coachable and so accepting of information that I have no doubt that he's going to do well."

Hazzard has struck up a good rapport with the South African players too. Winning the locals' trust was an important task for the coach, as the bulk of his roster at Cairo's Nile Conference will be South African.

"I'm most proud of the growth of the nationals. I know when I got here, maybe around the league, they weren't held in such high esteem. We were considered the team that maybe had some of the weakest nationals, but I don't think anybody would say that now," Hazzard said.

"I'm really proud of their growth and how they've bought into what I've been teaching and it's been an honour to help those guys. That's how we're going to help the game grow in South Africa.

"We can't just put all the emphasis on the imports, because when we leave, the nationals are the guys that are going to carry this culture and this championship mentality that we built back into their townships.

"They're going to carry that back to Thembisa, Soweto and to Alexandra -- the places where it's most needed. Hopefully, by doing that, they're going to give the next generation hope that they can be professionals, so that's really been my goal since I got here."

The BAL airs on ESPN's channels in Africa.

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