"Inside the NBA" hosts Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson spoke in an exclusive interview with TODAY's Craig Melvin Friday about the Lakers legend and how he will be remembered ahead of the NBA All-Star game this weekend.
"It was very hard,'' O'Neal said, recalling the moment he heard the news of Bryant's death on Jan. 26. "I've never seen anything like this before. I was at the house the day it happened, and my son brought me the thing, and you know how the internet is.
"(I said) 'Stop playing with me. Get out of my face with that right now. Just stop.' And then I got the calls. I lost a sister couple months back. Never imagined that my little sister would be gone before me, and then to have a guy who helped me become as big as I am. We will always be forever linked."
Barkley said that although he and Bryant were not friends, he was devastated by the loss. Bryant’s daughter Gianna, 13, was among the nine victims of the crash.
"Me and Kobe were not close,'' Barkley said. "But I just started crying when I got the news. I felt like I had lost a member of my family."
O'Neal, Barkley and Smith also weighed in on whether it was appropriate after Bryant's death to report on the 2003 sexual assault charge. The criminal charges were later dropped, and Bryant settled a separate civil lawsuit with his accuser out of court.
"Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest basketball players ever, and he had a flaw that we all know about,'' Barkley told TODAY. "You have to tell the picture in totality. We're not trying to make Kobe out to be no hero.
"We're celebrating his basketball excellence. We understand what happened in Colorado. That's fair. But two things can be true."
Smith said he believed fans related to Bryant's ferocious commitment to the game — his "Mamba mentality."
"He challenges people," Smith said. "So do I think it was appropriate or inappropriate? I think we all are imperfect. But I think what he has done and challenged the world to be, we all saw."
O'Neal, who won three straight titles with Bryant as a member of the Lakers in the early 2000s, recalled how the two boosted each other on the court: "The only experience that made sense to me is that we challenged each other to make history."
"So a lot of people thought we had problems," O'Neal said. "It wasn't real life problems. Same problems me and Charles have, same problems me and Kenny have when we are at work"
"But the key thing that we always had for each other was respect. Because I always tell people, after we won our first championship, who's the little guy that jumped in my arms? Roll the tape. Once we figured it out, that's all that mattered to me."
The NBA plans to honor Bryant's basketball legacy throughout this weekend leading up to the All-Star game in Chicago on Sunday.