Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant will always be linked as members of the NBA’s legendary 1996 draft class.
They were contemporaries on the court who had the utmost respect for one another off it. That’s why Sunday’s passing of Bryant hit the 76ers legend hard.
“Words cannot express how I’m feeling today,” Iverson wrote Monday in an Instagram statement. “The only 2 words that ring in my head -- devastated and heartbroken. I cannot seem to shake this feeling no matter what I’ve tried to do since hearing this yesterday.”
The Hall of Famer learned that Bryant, a future Hall of Famer, was among the nine people killed Sunday in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles. Bryant, 41, was traveling to a youth basketball game with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, among others.
“People will always remember how we competed against each other in the league, but it goes so much deeper than that for me,” Iverson said. “The story of us being drafted in arguably the deepest class of its kind ever in the history of the NBA can be debated for many years to come.
“However, his generosity and respect for the game is something I witnessed first-hand every time we stepped on the dance floor to compete.”
The Sixers selected Iverson first overall in the 1996 draft on June 26. Bryant was selected 12 picks later by the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac on July 11.
Iverson has one memory he couldn’t stop thinking about. The Sixers were in Los Angeles to face the Lakers on Dec. 29, 1996 during their rookie season.
“He came to my hotel, picked me up, took me to a restaurant,” Iverson said. “When we returned before he left, he asked me, ‘What are you going to do tonight?' My reply was‚ ’I’m going to the club. What are you going to do?' He said, ‘I’m going to the gym.’
“That was who he always was, a true student of the game of basketball and also the game of life. He prepared relentlessly. There is something we can all learn from the ‘Mamba’ mentality and from the way my brother lived his life.”
Iverson added that Bryant will always have his respect as a competitor, as a friend, and as a brother. The 44-year-old said his thoughts and prayers are with Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, their three children and the families of all the victims.
Bryant won five NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVP awards, two Olympic gold medals and was an 11-time first-team All-NBA selection. He’s fourth on the NBA all-time scoring list at 33,643, trailing Kareen Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928), and LeBron James (33,655).