Raja Bell still manages to get asked Kobe Bryant-related questions 12 years after an on-court incident with the five-time champion. During a first-round playoff matchup between the Lakers and Suns in 2006, Bell took a page out of the WWE handbook and clotheslined Bryant, who was driving to the basket. Bell, who served a one-game suspension for the incident, returned during Game 7 as the Suns eliminated Bryant and the Lakers.
Now, both players’ playing days are in the rearview mirror – Bryant is enjoying retirement and repeatedly shutting down questions about ever returning to the game of basketball and Bell is hosting “Off the Bench with Kanell and Bell,” a daily podcast on CBS Sports HQ with former NFL player Danny Kanell in which the duo discuss top stories in sports from the lens of professional athletes.
We recently caught up with Bell to discuss the importance of former athletes giving their perspective on sports topics, athletes as brands, today’s NBA, and, most importantly, his favorite Kobe memory.
You’ve been on both sides of the camera as a player and now as a member of the media. From the media side, was there anything you had to get accustomed to early on?
Raja Bell: Just being able to kind of speak freely. When you’re playing, you’re doing your best to toe the line because you don’t know who can be a potential employer, so you kind of want to be little bit more politically correct. When you’re in the media, you have to have more of an opinion… let it fly a little bit more than you would when you’re playing.
How important is it that former athletes give their insights on the respective sports they’ve played?
RB: I think it’s important because your average fan doesn’t know what’s going on in the locker room, on the plane or on the bus. You know, what the situation is with a head coach and a player or head coach and a GM is like. A lot of guys that are in the media can’t really speak because they’re not in those meetings, in those planes or on those buses either. Having two former players doing it, it’s giving you real insights. This isn’t what I think is happening, this is what I’ve lived, what Danny’s lived, so we can speak to exactly how those things kind of play out and a lot of other guys, quite frankly, are guessing how those things play out.
Nowadays, the whole landscape of the athlete as a brand has changed. What’s it like to see guys like LeBron James have his hands on so many things off the court?
RB: It’s really cool. The NBA had just started to educate us on these business, savvy-type stuff like building your own brand… They offer wide ranges of internships and things you can do in the summertime to figure out exactly what you want to do other than basketball. To see some of these guys start to be these media moguls and be these massive global brands, I think it’s really, really cool and it’s a testament to when the NBA, NFL and [MLB] come around and educate the fruits of the labor, so I think it’s pretty cool.
Another thing that’s changed is the focus on things like mental health and more NBA athletes are advocating for it. Is that something you wish was around during your time?
RB: I have to wish it would’ve been around during my playing days because I have to imagine there were guys that were struggling with it then like there are now. Mental health has always been an issue; it’s just it was kind of a taboo subject, right? Guys didn’t really address it because it may show a sign of weakness and so you didn’t want to admit to that. So for those guys that may have been dealing with it during my day, certainly, I wish [help] was around and they had the resources at their disposal to help them with it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, but again, that’s the progression of the NBA. They’re usually on the forefront of stuff like that and they’re way more accepting of it and things culturally. I applaud them any chance I give them on the pod or on the show just to let everybody know that the NBA is right when it comes to things like that and mental health. They take care of the players and listen to what they think about the social climate and things like that. I wish it was around [in] our day, but it wasn’t, man. It is what it is.
Not to be too personal, but did you ever deal with any mental health issues?
RB: No, I didn’t really deal with things like that. I didn’t really have anxiety about playing. I came up as an underdog, so I always had a chip on my shoulder. You had your natural nerves when you were younger and before big games and things like that with butterflies in your stomach, but I was fortunate to never have to deal with anything like that.
A common question among ex-NBA players is playing in the Big3. Is joining the league something we could see in the future?
RB: [Laughs] Man, it’s funny you ask because my sons are huge fans of the Big3. They really are. They don’t love NBA basketball, but they love the Big3, so I’ve been getting a little pressure from home to see if I can get myself in shape. For the most part, I hung my shoes up. I haven’t really thought about playing in a long time. My body feels really good now that I don’t play as much as I used to and I’m kind of enjoying that. I would never say never because my kids are at an age where I do wish they could’ve seen me hoop and it’s more as do as I do and do as I say … but if I could go out there and show them, it’d be cool if I can go out there and show them and say do as I do.
Is there any player and/or team you’ll be keeping close tabs on this upcoming season?
RB: I’m interested to see what’s happening out there in L.A. in that situation with LeBron and company, and some of those other guys that get overlooked. They’re obviously not LeBron, but I think there’s really good players like Lance [Stephenson] and JaVale [McGee] are really good role players and have proved that they can play on winning squads. So I’m interested in seeing that core of really interesting young players that they have. In the East, I want to see what the Celtics look like. I got to see what Kyrie [Irving] looked like a little bit when I was with Cleveland [in 2014]. I know Gordon [Hayward] because he was one of my rooks in Utah. I’m a big fan of Brad Stevens and what they do up there. Brett Brown’s dad, Bob, recruited me when I was at Boston University. I’m always looking forward to what Brett and company are doing up there in Philly.
The game has obviously changed with this super-team/buddy-ball era. What are your honest thoughts about today’s game?
RB: Look, man, I’m always cognizant of the fact that when I played, there was somebody sitting around talking junk about us and the way we were doing it. It’s just the nature of the game … In our day, it wasn’t normal to bounce around for those stars. Quite frankly, there wasn’t that much player mobility when Michael [Jordan], Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird were playing. That wasn’t my era, but they didn’t have opportunities to do that. I’m all for player power, so with these guys and some of the power that they have and terms that they can dictate if that’s by the law and it’s in the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) then why not? I don’t have a beef with guys trying to find the best environment that they want to play in typically like the Golden-State-with-Kevin-Durant situation. When I first looked at it, I heard what people were talking about in terms of joining the team that you had just lost to, but I was never … for one cat to find a better place to live for him and his family; a better work environment. Maybe he wasn’t having fun– I don’t know. Having played in the NBA as long as I have and having seen good and bad situations, I’m for guys finding the best for them.
In 2010, you turned down an offer to play with Miami. Was it more than financial and you not wanting to take the “easy” way to a ring?
RB: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t about the ring. They had spent a whole lot of money that summer and I felt I really wanted to play at home, but when they spent all that money and they wanted me to play for the minimum I felt that was a bit of the slight at that point because I wasn’t really … in value. I wasn’t interested in chasing a ring because, to be honest, a ring wasn’t going to pay my mortgage and that’s the way I looked at it. If I could’ve played for a championship I would’ve, but the price had to be right and it wasn’t right.
With Kobe Day last week, I have to ask: Is there a favorite Kobe memory you have?
RB: There were a lot on the court. We traded a lot of elbows and a lot of smack-talking and whatnot, but some of my favorite memories are when I go back and we were skewing through the media at that time. I don’t know how Kobe felt, but I genuinely hated the cat at that time. I really didn’t like him. Then the coolest part about it for me was, once the time had passed and I saw him the next time, we started to develop a little bit of respect. There was a relationship that started to develop. We never became besties or anything like that, but there was a time when I’d reach out and see if he needed anything or somewhere to be for Thanksgiving if they were in town or I’d ask about his family and just check in. I felt that was pretty cool. That was my favorite part about that whole thing. There seemed to be a respect level that we got to and when you can say you did that with one of the best players of all-time, that’s pretty cool for me.