In 2007 Kobe Bryant was midway through a Hall of Fame career, 29 years old, hell-bent on making the arduous transformation from being the league’s best player to becoming a legend of NBA lore.
He did that of course, but getting there required Bryant to pave some of his path to basketball immortality through a Big West school in his backyard: UC Irvine. Back then Irvine had almost no winning tradition in men’s basketball. It had never made an NCAA Tournament and was, at best, the No. 5 program in an eight-team mid-major conference.
That didn’t matter to Bryant who, a decade-plus after bypassing college basketball, nonetheless developed a connection with college sports. Irvine’s campus is a 10-minute drive from the Bryant household in Newport Coast, California. And in ’07, after the seventh-seeded Lakers were eliminated in the first round by the Phoenix Suns, Bryant was in high dudgeon, plotting a potential LA exit because of his lack of faith in the Lakers’ capacity to build a championship-level roster.
Someone in Bryant’s circle reached out to one of Irvine’s associate athletic directors to inquire about the star getting in early morning workouts during the offseason. That’s how the story of not only Kobe Bryant and UC Irvine begins, but it’s what led to a friendship that has made the past two weeks particularly difficult on UCI’s athletic community.
“It’s been stunning for everybody to experience this,” UC Irvine men’s basketball coach Russell Turner said. “You feel like you’ve lost somebody who’s a neighbor. Kobe’s an icon, a superstar and an incredible presence. He’s that everywhere, but he’s especially that when people see him as a neighbor, father, a guy in the community. We’d see him at Chipotle near campus, and he come on campus some, because he was incredibly private and we all knew that. The best thing about the way it was for him and us: we allowed him to be that guy. There are very few places in the world where he could be that. I never felt like he was overwhelmed here.”
Ryan Badrtalei was a 26-year-old director of basketball operations making $17,000 in his second year at Irvine. Since he was the young one on staff, grunt work fell to him. When UCI got a call from Robert Lara (head of both Lakers security and Kobe’s personal detail) inquiring about Bryant potentially — but not definitely — wanting to get workouts in on campus, the seemingly far-fetched request was passed down to Badrtalei.
At the time, no one really expected much to come of it or had any idea of what Bryant was envisioning.
“Kobe shows up with who I thought was Rob Lara, but the person that was with him that night was who he planned on keeping with him and training him,” Badrtalei said. “Kobe was planning to go to Chicago. He communicated with Michael Jordan, who was helping him figure out, ‘Who are you and what do you want to do in the second stage of your career?'”
By then Bryant was training with Jordan’s longtime trainer Tim Grover, in addition to another workout specialist named Tom Evans.
“I was there the first night he shows up and I’m like, jeez, he’s actually here,” Badrtalei said. “I didn’t think he’d come.”
Badrtalei gave Bryant the tour of the UC Irvine’s then-mediocre facilities, which included an unadorned weight room. The Anteaters might have lost out on prospects because of their undistinguished facilities, but the joint was good enough for one of the best basketball players in the history of the planet. Bryant asked Badrtalei for his number. Badrtalei didn’t think Kobe Bryant would actually call him or commit to anything. A few hours later, that’s exactly what happened. Since Badrtalei didn’t put Bryant’s number in his phone, he let the unidentified call go to voicemail.
Hey, Ryan, this is Kobe. Let’s do it. I’ll be at the gym tomorrow morning at 6 o’clock.
“Tom Evans was running his workouts, he was from Chicago, didn’t really know anybody, and over the course of the first few days, Kobe eventually learned I was on the coaching staff,” Badrtalei said. “So he’s going through a shooting routine on the floor and looks over at me and goes, ‘You’re just going to sit over there and not help us? I thought you coached basketball.’ Three days in, that was my introduction. From then on I was with him.”
“He’d be icing his knees next to other student-athletes. He looked like a college student: hood over his head, laying back on the table.”Ryan Badrtalei
Badrtalei became Bryant’s strength and conditioning coach, amongst other things. For most of the rest of Bryant’s career, almost no one in the NBA or college knew that one of Bryant’s trusted workout partners was a Big West assistant who never played college basketball. Because of how intensely private Bryant was for most of his NBA career, Badrtalei kept his connection to Bryant largely concealed. For the better part of a decade, his friends, family and fellow coaches didn’t truly know how Badrtalei grew to be a confidant of Bryant’s. Whether or not Bryant for sure wanted it that way, Badrtalei nonetheless made sure it stayed that way.
“I didn’t talk about it, almost never talked about it, out of respect for him, Vanessa, his family, his daughters,” Badrtalei told CBS Sports, speaking on the record for the first time about his complex and cherished friendship with the Lakers legend.
For years, starting in late April and going into October, Bryant would drive himself to UC Irvine’s gym between 5 and 5:30 a.m. When training camp was on the horizon, two-a-days would start: workouts until almost 9 a.m., then back again late at night, after Bryant put his daughters to bed or would leave Staples Center. He could be spotted in the ice tub or laying on training tables. Badrtalei was burning the candle at both ends, sometimes spending 17 hours on campus in one day.
“It got to the point where him being around was normal, especially with our student-athletes,” Badrtalei said. “They got used to seeing him in the training room. The teams that saw him working out in the morning or night knew to give him his space. But he’d ask about women’s volleyball. The coach at the time was an Olympian. She played in Italy and they’d speak Italian to each other. He’d be icing his knees next to other student-athletes. He looked like a college student: hood over his head, laying back on the table.”
Kobe Bryant approximately a decade ago with the UC Irvine women’s volleyball team.
UC Irvine Athletics
This all could have been short-lived. Badrtalei was brought on by former coach Pat Douglass, who was fired in 2010. When the school hired Turner, who came from the NBA and lacked college connections, he kept Badrtalei on staff. That kept Kobe around campus. Turner explained one story, which is a variation on 20 others he could have used.
“When I first got to campus my son was really young, Kobe was one of his favorite players, like everyone else,” Turner said. “One day, I hear Kobe’s playing open gym with our guys. So I called my wife, told her to bring Darius and make sure he brings his Kobe jersey. We went into the gym, Kobe was there, Vanessa was there, his daughters were there and Kobe was playing but had his shirt off. He looked like just another guy. And my kid’s young and Kobe goes up to him and is such a nice guy. I didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it didn’t occur to me that my son didn’t think it was Kobe [since he had no jersey on]. I asked, ‘What did you think about meeting Kobe?’ He goes, ‘I did?’ You can imagine how that was in the eyes of a 4- or 5-year-old kid at that time. You can also imagine how it was for our players running up and down in a shirts-and-skins game with Kobe Bryant. It’s hard to measure the impact of that.”
When Bryant got to Irvine in 2007, he was the NBA’s best player in search of something more. Thanks in no small part to Badrtalei, Bryant went on to win NBA MVP the very next season. Then a gold medal in Beijing a couple months after that. In 2009 and 2010, the Lakers won back-to-back titles.
The two became close. And as they trusted each other, they tested each other. Badrtalei would leave workouts bloodied, his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame having endured a beating in the post after battling Bryant for hours. Badrtalei would make semi-frequent trips to Bryant’s house and beyond, doing whatever he could to keep Kobe in the best shape and mindset possible. But they had their arguments. Like Bryant did to most who came into his orbit, he challenged Badrtalei and had him questioning his motives.
“There was stress and pressure and eventually I leaned in on that challenge — but Kobe would mother**** me,” he said. “He wore on you and I saw a lot of people come and go. Whether it was personal assistants, managers, PR people. It was, ‘This is what I’m doing, what I need to get to where I want to go and either you’re with me or you’re not. That’s kind of how he felt about his teammates and everything he did. He was so laser-focused on what his objective was. … Kobe was in a contract year every year.”
But Bryant had his sarcastic, funny, childish side, too. He could be a goofball. He would let his guard down, and when he did, you were in. Badrtalei remembers one of the purist examples of this being back in 2011, when he and Bryant hopped in a Mercedes, zoomed down the Autobahn and spent a day in Amsterdam. Bryant was world famous but not so much he couldn’t just walk amongst the Dutch. Bryant basked in that he could be in public and not have sunglasses, a hat or hood on. Those opportunities diminished with each year he got older.
Kobe Bryant and Ryan Badrtalei in Düsseldorf, Germany in 2011 for Regenokine treatment.
They were in Amsterdam to begin with because of Bryant’s ambitious leap to get treated in Germany. When word got out and raised eyebrows that Bryant went to Germany for Regenokine neuromuscular therapy — to get treatment he couldn’t get in the United States — Badrtalei’s family asked him why he was even going.
Bryant wanted the cutting edge. Then 33, and two years before tearing his Achilles, Bryant was trying to keep up with guys 10 years his junior. If Bryant’s body or his game wasn’t right, Badrtalei would feel responsible — but want none of the credit.
“The excitement allure was very cool for our programs,” Badrtalei said. “There was a pride and excitement in Kobe Bryant choosing to be around. When it came the amount of hours just outside being in the gym. Recovery was a critical component of what he was doing. He’d be in the ice bath every day and was in the weight room and shared it with student-athletes. As far as work ethic and what it takes to be at that level, every person knew what he invested. Everyone has a 4 a.m. Kobe story. We saw it every day.”
When in public, many surmised Badrtalei was a personal bodyguard, so he assumed that role at times as well. He’d be the guy to tell people to leave Bryant alone so Kobe didn’t have to be the jerk. Over the years, they’d go to Angels baseball games. Or they’d be out for dinner, and Badrtalei would find himself at the table with two other people: Kobe and David Beckham, just taking it in as those two talked about married life. On another occasion, it was Bryant and Tom Hanks, who was in “awe of Kobe.”
And then there was the time when Kobe told Ryan he was showing up for his birthday with his parents, then-fiancée and others. Badrtalei told no one in advance, not knowing for sure if his buddy was going to show. With his back to the door, Badrtalei knew it instantly when it happened. It’s Kobe Bryant. The temperature and frequency of the room changes when he walks in.
Kobe Bryant celebrating Ryan Badrtalei’s birthday with Badrtalei’s wife, Drue.
“There’s a bunch of experiences I almost forgot, but all this has brought it back to me,” he said.
Bryant was terrible at using or adapting to technology, so even after he’d get the latest iPod (custom-made and gifted to him by Lil Wayne with music of Lil Wayne’s on it almost no one had ever heard) he’d still give the thing to Badrtalei and ask him to upload Nirvana albums.
Bryant and Badrtalei were separated by two years, their birthdays only two days apart. While Bryant was married in his early 20s, Badrtalei would joke that Bryant’s dependence on him for so many early mornings was going to cost him his would-be wife. But it didn’t. When Ryan and the love of his life, Drue, were married, Bryant directed the couple to their honeymoon destination: Bora Bora, the same place Kobe and Vanessa went on theirs. Each of Ryan’s groomsmen received personalized/embroidered Kobe VIs to match their wedding colors (purple and white), courtesy of Kobe. Bryant was even considered for the wedding party, but Badrtalei did not want to put that on his friend.
“I knew he’d think, I don’t want it to be about me, so I never really pressed him on it and that’s one of my regrets, because we got really close,” he said.
The custom Kobe VIs that Bryant had made for Ryan Badrtalei and his groomsmen.
Their relationship early on was about basketball, but then it was about life. Having kids, becoming a devoted father.
“There wasn’t a second I was with him where I ever felt Kobe put them second, as much as he committed to the game,” Badrtalei said.
Family factored in first, always. That’s why he was thrown for a loop on the morning of the Lakers’ 2009 parade. Badrtalei got a call from Kobe. His presence was requested for a “family breakfast.”
“So I get to the breakfast and they’re assigning people numbers, and it’s fine, but I also notice it’s only the players and their family members — what am I doing here?” Badrtalei said. “I get up to try and leave and Kobe goes, ‘Where are you going?'”
Next thing he knows, the Lakers’ championship parade is cruising through LA and Badrtalei’s on the damn bus. Before he can fully absorb that, he’s on stage at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in front of tens of thousands of people, standing there with Bryant, Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom — all of them. A couple days later, Rob Pelinka — Bryant’s agent — calls up Badrtalei asking for his ring size. Badrtalei did not know it and refused the offer.
As Bryant’s family expanded, his career extended but his body wore down. After the 2013 Achilles injury Bryant didn’t train as much at Irvine, but he still remained connected to Badrtalei.
“One of my last basketball-lasting memories of him was when he asked me near his last game, ‘You thinking about coming?'” Badrtalei said. “But I said no. ‘I know it will be a circus for you. I’d rather just be at home. It will be weird for me.’ He’s like, ‘Well, how about you come with me to the second-to-last game?’
So he did. Badrtalei believes the helicopter he took with Bryant on April 6, 2016, on the way to Bryant’s penultimate home game was the same chopper Bryant took on his final day, his final flight. They talked about a career in basketball. The work, the sweat, the glory. Then Bryant handed his phone to Badrtalei and showed him the children’s books he was working on.
“There was a pride and excitement in Kobe Bryant choosing to be around. Everyone has a 4 a.m. Kobe story. We saw it every day.”Ryan Badrtalei
“It was really interesting to see how excited he was for this next phase and how he excited was for his opportunity be inspirational to young people,” Badrtalei said as he began to cry. “We spent a lot of time talking about family. He was a fan of life and was ready for that next phase.”
They also talked about the final game, which was a week out because the Lakers had three road games before closing up on April 13 against the Jazz.
“How’s that gonna go?” Badrtalei asked with a lace of friendly skepticism.
Bryant looked at him — if not past him — and let out the Mamba.
“I’m going to get 50.”
And then he got 60.
When UC Irvine upset Kansas State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, earning its first NCAA Tournament win in program history, of course Badrtalei got back to his phone to see texts from Bryant. At the request of those in the Lakers organization who know him, Badrtalei was on hand with Drue for the Lakers’ first game after Bryant’s death on Jan. 31. It was hard, but he knew he had to be there. Badrtalei’s team has helped him in the past two weeks; they’ve all been grieving with, and around, him. One of his UCI players is as influenced by Bryant as any college basketball player you’ll meet.
Badrtalei now coaches and trains as Kobe helped and tutored him — and vice-versa — for so many years. There are a lot of terrific assistant coaches in college basketball. Only one of them can claim to have molded and helped redefine the legacy of one of the 10 best players in the history of the NBA.
UC Irvine’s connection to Bryant wasn’t well known when he was playing, but it was deep and cherished. Bryant was around that community for almost a decade. A beloved neighbor. Badrtalei is why.
As the world’s shock wears away over the stunning death of Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven others aboard that helicopter, a 39-year-old man still tries to find a grip over the loss of a friend. He searches for context on what was there, what was private and what is now public. It can’t be easy to keep a valued friendship close to the vest for more than a decade, only to publicly reveal that friendship through grief because of death.
In 2016, two weeks after Bryant retired — his locker cleaned out, the din around him fading — he called up Badrtalei again. Bryant needed him to come down to his office. It wasn’t an abnormal request — just a quick drive from UC Irvine. Badrtalei shows up. Kobe had been waiting years for this. He always knew this day was coming.
Kobe pulled out the box. Badrtalei was clueless. Then speechless.
Championship ring given to Ryan by Kobe, which Kobe held on to for six years and gave to Ryan after his retirement.