He Bonded With Kobe as a Competitor, Then as Another #GirlDad

Zach Randolph and Kobe Bryant were contemporaries in the N.B.A.’s Western Conference for more than a decade. They were teammates in two All-Star Games. They even shared a workplace during Randolph’s brief stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, who played in the considerable Staples Center shadow of Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers.

They crossed paths often enough to develop what Randolph described as “a mutual respect.” Yet there were no hints back then that the relationship was destined to take on a coach-parent dynamic — that Randolph, in his first year of retirement, would ask Bryant to make room for his eldest daughter, MacKenly, on Bryant’s Team Mamba.

“Who could imagine it?” Randolph said.

Until the summer of 2019, when Randolph relocated from Memphis to Southern California, all his go-to Kobe stories centered upon Bryant’s maniacally competitive nature and what it was like to experience it firsthand. Those showdowns go back to the start of Randolph’s career in the early 2000s during his turbulent start with the Portland Trail Blazers, long before his run as one of the most successful and popular players in Memphis Grizzlies history.

The recollections that flow now from Randolph tend to focus heavily on Bryant’s coaching ways as opposed to their N.B.A. encounters, memories cherished from the few months MacKenly was able to work with Bryant before tragedy intervened. On his way to a Team Mamba game on Jan. 26, 2020, Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif.

The crash, nearly one year ago on a foggy Sunday morning, killed all nine people aboard — including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, her Team Mamba teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester and the assistant coach Christina Mauser. The catastrophe has left Randolph fixated on the image of Bryant as the girls’ ultra-organized, practice-obsessed and, in stark contrast to his playing persona, reserved-during-games coach.

“He’s one of the best to ever do it,” Randolph said, referring to Bryant’s coaching rather than to his standing as the fourth-leading scorer in N.B.A. history.

Randolph marveled at the N.B.A.-inspired lengths to which Bryant, alongside Mauser, went to train and teach his team of seventh- and eighth-graders. Bryant scheduled his players for yoga sessions, beach workouts, sprints and laps at the track, and frequent film study to supplement specialized on-court work to master footwork concepts and defensive principles. Conditioning and strength training were prioritized. Practice and travel schedules were comprehensive. Bryant also made a point of asking his players to name the colleges they dreamed of attending and playing for to establish that as a formal goal.

“He put his all into it,” Randolph said. “He ran it like a real organization.”

MacKenly Randolph had become aware of Team Mamba and the basketball-crazed Gianna Bryant through Instagram. At MacKenly’s urging, Kobe Bryant was one of Zach’s first calls after the family left Memphis and took residence in Encino, Calif. Zach asked Kobe if he was open to coaching MacKenly.

“We’ll see,” Bryant told Randolph. “Let’s get her here and see how she mixes with the other girls.”

MacKenly might have been the 6-foot-tall daughter of a former 6-foot-9 N.B.A. star, but Bryant promised nothing. She was not granted a starting spot right away — not even with Team Mamba in need of a center. Practices were often held Monday through Friday in Orange County, where most of the team’s players lived, meaning that MacKenly was expected to make the long commute from the San Fernando Valley. After practices, she had to run extra to “catch up to the other girls,” as Zach recalled Bryant saying.

None of that, though, stopped Randolph from calling it “a perfect fit.”

“Like a puzzle, man,” Randolph said. “My daughter was just so ecstatic. It’s all she talked about.”

He said MacKenly was “mesmerized”; MacKenly said he was exaggerating. Though she said she was “super nervous” at first about being coached by Bryant, “After like a week it was, ‘Oh, he’s just a regular person.’ ” While some of the girls on the team called him “Coach Bryant,” MacKenly said she “really just called him Kobe.”

Where father and daughter readily concur: Bryant helped MacKenly improve immediately.

“I work with her a lot, but you could tell the difference with Kobe,” Zach said. “When Kobe was speaking, he didn’t have to say, ‘Pay attention.’ ”

“He basically taught me how to play defense and how to rotate,” MacKenly said.

Asked to describe Bryant’s coaching demeanor, MacKenly added: “You would know when he’s mad, or he’s not playing around, but he would never, like, yell at you.”

The pandemic has delayed the start of MacKenly’s freshman season at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, Calif., but her game continues to develop. Even though MacKenly shoots right-handed and Zach is a lefty, comparisons to her father’s combination of strength, guile and a deft scoring touch inside are frequent. Such is MacKenly’s potential that she has received verbal scholarship offers from Louisville and Arizona before playing a single high school game.

“She’s extremely talented,” said Alicia Komaki, Sierra Canyon’s coach. “She’s very mobile and agile and she’s really worked on developing her guard skills, because I think she’s been locked into the post as a youth and she really wants to expand on that part of her game.”

MacKenly has been helped along by games of one-on-one against her father in which Zach permits her only three dribbles before shooting. She also trains occasionally with the former N.B.A. All-Star Gilbert Arenas, whose daughter Izela is another highly rated freshman at Sierra Canyon. (The school’s boys’ team received national acclaim last season with a roster that included LeBron James Jr., who is known as Bronny and is the eldest son of the Lakers star LeBron James. He’s now a sophomore.)

Although strict Covid-19 regulations in California have restricted Sierra Canyon to just a handful of practices and individual workouts in recent months, Komaki already sees improvement in MacKenly’s 3-point shooting and ball handling.

“You can tell she’s been working on those skills,” Komaki said.

Less clear, Zach Randolph said, is how to coach MacKenly through the many layers of grief that have been mounting for the Randolphs in recent years. Mae Randolph, Zach’s mother, died in November 2016. Roger Randolph, Zach’s younger brother, was shot and killed in June 2018. Then, less than two years later, the helicopter crash.

A week before the crash, MacKenly made the same helicopter trip with the Bryants from Orange County to Ventura County after spending the night at their house. She and Gianna had bonded quickly as teammates, MacKenly said, because Gianna, sensing the newcomer’s unease about joining an established team, went out of her way to help MacKenly fit in.

“She was super nice,” MacKenly said.

Team Mamba played two games on Jan. 25, 2020, on the opening day of the first Mamba Cup, which Kobe Bryant had organized to attract top teams from California and other states. MacKenly Randolph said she thinks often about how “three of my best friends were here one day and then the next day, they were gone.”

“It was tough for my baby — still is — but I’m proud of her,” Zach Randolph said. “She’s 15, but she’s strong, man.”

As the one-year anniversary of the crash approached, Randolph said he was still processing his own emotions. It has stuck with him that Kobe Bryant, anticipating years of working with MacKenly, said on more than one occasion: “Z-Bo, just wait until I get done with her.”

On the morning of the crash, Zach Randolph was driving north on U.S. Highway 101 to get to Bryant’s academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to watch MacKenly. She was already there with several teammates awaiting a noon tipoff against a team from Texas coached by Jason Terry, another former N.B.A. player.

“When I got the news, I had tears in my eyes,” Zach Randolph said. “I looked around and everybody on the highway in their car was crying, too. It was like everybody got the news at the same time. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

A hint of comfort, Randolph said, came from having the chance to connect MacKenly with Bryant on Team Mamba like she wanted. He has been open about being raised without a father in Marion, Ind., how that might have contributed to some of the troubles and controversies he faced in his teens and his 20s, and “coming up in poverty.”

Another bit of solace: Randolph said he did get to tell his old rival how grateful he was for all Bryant had taught MacKenly.

“He loved them girls,” Zach Randolph said. “He loved my baby. He told me, ‘I love her, man.’ When he told me that, I told him, ‘We’re brothers for life.’ ”

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