Remembering Kobe Bryant, a Los Angeles Institution and Global Icon

It’s March 2003. A Southern California kid goes to his first Los Angeles Lakers game at Staples Center. He’s seen Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal lead the Lakers through their three-peat, but only from afar. Through their dominance, he’s gotten to experience the joys of vicarious victory for the first time, then the second, then the third.

Now, here he is, watching his heroes, dressed in their Sunday whites, in a regular-season rematch with Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in downtown LA. The Lakers win handily. Kobe and Shaq combine for 67 of the Lakers’ 106 points. Kobe, in his No. 8 jersey and with his signature afro, nearly logs a triple-double.

After the game, the kid wanders into the gift shop with his family. He can have any jersey he wants, they say, but only one, so choose wisely. The kid agonizes over his options, as flipping through colors and numbers.

Shaq is awesome, and a No. 34 O’Neal jersey would be cool, but the kid knows the odds of him growing up to be Shaq are slim to none (especially as the scrawny 13-year-old that he is). Kobe’s No. 8 would be a popular choice, but there is and will only ever be one Kobe.

So the kid turns his attention to another option: Derek Fisher’s No. 2. He could be 6’1” someday. Growing biceps like Fish’s would be tough, but doable, with enough pushups and protein. More importantly: if he could grow up to be Derek Fisher, that means he’d get to hang out and share a backcourt with Kobe.

The kid leaves wearing a white No. 2 Fisher jersey. It’s the only one he’ll ever own. And while a No. 8 would’ve given him more reasons to gloat over the ensuing years, the one he’d chosen left open the possibility of becoming a sidekick to greatness.

It’s July 2003. A kid is with his family in New York City—his first trip to the Big Apple. One day, while sitting inside, hiding from the sweltering heat, he turns the television to ESPN. SportsCenter is on, and there’s breaking news. Kobe Bryant has been arrested in Eagle, Colorado, as part of an investigation into a sexual assault claim.

The kid wonders, What is sexual assault? What is rape? Did Kobe do these things? If so, why? Kobe is a hero, and heroes don’t do villainous things. He shares these questions with his parents, precipitating some uncomfortable conversations.

As the kid processes the news, follows the story as it evolves and watches Kobe’s somber press conference alongside his wife, Vanessa Bryant, he starts to realize that professional success doesn’t equate to personal virtue, and vice versa. That heroes are human. That they make mistakes and can hurt people, too.

That, maybe, Charles Barkley was right when he said, “I am not a role model”—at least, not a perfect one.

It’s August 2013. A writer sits inside the gymnasium at King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in Watts. He and everyone else in the building are there, ostensibly, to watch Hank’s Blazers and Kings LA—two teams comprised of NBA players, overseas pros and weekend warriors—decide that year’s Drew League championship.

But as the game proceeds, fewer and fewer people are paying attention to what’s happening on the court. Instead, like the wave going around an arena, heads are turning toward the back entrance. And as those heads turn one way, a buzz begins to flutter outward.

A security guard walks in along the far baseline. Then another, and another, and another. They’re all there, as part of a group of at least 10 security guards, to escort Kobe Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, into the building.

As Kobe saunters over to his sideline seat, greeting familiar faces en route, fans cheer and chant, “KO-BE! KO-BE! KO-BE!” The game stops. The cheers and chants go on.

Kobe is no stranger to the summer basketball scene, in LA and elsewhere. After the Lakers acquired him via trade in the 1996 draft, he famously went to Venice Beach to play pickup—and, in doing so, just as famously broke his wrist. During offseasons early in his career, he would show up at UCLA to work out with members of the men’s basketball team and scrimmage with other pros in the men’s gym. In 2002, he put on a show at Rucker Park in New York City.

In 2011, during a protracted labor dispute between the NBA’s owners and players, Kobe came to South Central LA to play in an exhibition game organized by the Drew, at his behest. He and James Harden, a son of the Drew who idolized Kobe as a kid, went back and forth. Naturally, Kobe hit the game-winning shot.

In his return, Kobe is in no condition to step in and steal the show. He’s mere months removed from undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. But he’s here because he’s still a hooper and forever an adopted Angeleno. He’ll be back on the court eventually.

For now, he’s a spectator, surrounded by admirers who, frankly, aren’t accustomed to seeing him near the hardwood, but not on it. Instead of hitting the clincher himself, he watches as Frank Robinson, a Compton native and European pro, rises up for three to deliver the title to Hank’s Blazers.

After the game, Kobe and his entourage make their way out of the building, slowly but surely. He’ll head back to his home in Newport Beach, to continue his rehab and plot an eventual foray into business, media and entertainment.

It’s September 2013. A writer arrives at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. He’s seen images of the team’s media days before—the scrums stretching back as far as the lens can see—and will now experience one for himself.

Except, the practice court doesn’t seem to be teeming with reporters and cameras like it normally would be. After all, hopes aren’t exactly high in Lakerland.

That summer, Dwight Howard had left to join the Houston Rockets in free agency. Steve Nash couldn’t seem to shake the leg injury that had derailed his Lakers debut in 2012. Kobe would be back on the court at some point, though there was no telling how long that would take, or what condition he would be in after tearing his Achilles.

For at least one writer, the room to roam is an opportunity. He has a word with Nick Young, a LA native who’d starred at Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda and looked up to Kobe before signing on to be his teammate. He connects with Jordan Farmar, another local, who had won two NBA titles alongside Kobe.

Eventually, the media in the room coalesces into one mass of humanity. Kobe is in the building. He’s in uniform, but still months away from game-ready.

But his injury hasn’t infringed his ability to express himself. Nor has it dampened the fans’ interest in hearing what he has to say.

So the media dutifully swarms, a mass of extended arms and heavy equipment, hoping to catch even a whisper of audio on their recorders, let alone get in a question. If that crowd is an orchestra and the fans at home are the audience, Kobe is the conductor, directing a narrative for the season ahead with the confidence and ease of another day at the office.

It’s March 2016. A writer roams the tunnels at Staples Center. Kobe has just played his 17th-to-last NBA game, and his final one opposite LeBron James.

The two basketball icons had come close to competing in the playoffs, but never had—and, given the Lakers’ place toward the bottom of the standings that season, never would.

Despite the absence of a real on-court rivalry, there is no less anticipation before, during and after LA’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Staples Center. Following the game, Kobe speaks as eloquently and lucidly as ever about facing off with LeBron, savoring the moment and soaking up what’s left of the spotlight.

After doing his duty dropping dimes on the assembled media, Kobe steps out of the press room, a silver blazer draped over a black t-shirt and black jeans. He takes Vanessa by the hand and begins to stride toward the loading bay and, eventually, back home to Orange County.

But Kobe’s otherwise steady gait is reduced to an interrupted shuffle, time and again, by people who have been waiting for him. Kyrie Irving is there to exchange pleasantries with his idol-turned-mentor. LeBron is there to dap up a fellow legend.

Kobe doesn’t just stop for NBA superstars, though. He greets friends and acquaintances, and takes time to pose for pictures with fans, including a dapperly dressed elderly woman in a wheelchair.

The clock creeps towards midnight, and Kobe is still going, still saying hello, still posing for photos. He’ll have many more of these before he hangs up his sneakers for good, before he drops 60 points on the Utah Jazz in his final game. But his own time as an NBA player is winding down, and, as always, he’s determined to make the most of it.

It’s late March 2016. A writer sits inside the Conga Room at L.A. Live, munching on glazed salmon lettuce wraps (and going back for seconds and thirds).

Kobe settles into his seat on stage, regaled by rapturous applause. With the end of his career two weeks away, the Lakers eliminated from postseason contention and his body needing every bit of rest he can muster to ensure a photo finish, he’s taken the night off to sit with TNT’s Kristen Ledlow as part of American Express’ “Teamed Up” event, geared toward fans and cardholders.

The two chat about his impending retirement, the ups and downs of his career, and what’s driven him for 20 years. He tells tales of times spent with his teammates during the Lakers’ championship years before two of them, Robert Horry and Rick Fox, surprise him. A Black Mamba may be lethal, but it is neither all-seeing nor all-knowing.

Robert and Rick take turns sharing stories about Kobe—how he used his skills and intelligence to get them open shots, how they taught him to play spades—and welcome him to the “old club.”

After more laughs and banter, Robert and Rick leave the stage and, once again, cede the spotlight to Kobe. He offers up more anecdotes about Phil Jackson. He speaks directly to his fans about how they “grew up together” in LA, from the time he was 17. He talks glowingly about his daughters, Natalia and Gianna, and the extent to which they’ve explored their own interests and passions.

Shortly after the event, the beat reporters in the room huddle together and groan. The news of a burbling beef between Nick Young and D’Angelo Russell begins to surface. Those reporters all know what’s coming: a crunch to cover a nonsensical, social media-centric story. A diversion from recounting a night spent seeing Kobe drop hints about his post-playing life as a father and storyteller.

Kobe, though? He’s above the fray. There is no time or need for squabbles, only warm reflections on the past and anticipatory turns towards the future. The Mamba, after all, is almost out.

It’s August 2016. A writer drives out from mid-city LA to Newbury Park.

The month prior, he had heard about a brand-new athletic training facility northwest of Los Angeles County.

So here he is, at Sports Academy, ready for a tour of the future.

The full-size courts for basketball and volleyball, among other sports. The sand-filled courts for beach volleyball. The indoor track. The state-of-the-art workout equipment. The juice and snack bars. The rooms for recovery, yoga, meditation, eSports, tactical training and more.

The facilities aren’t even finished yet, but high-profile clients are already trickling in. Members of the Los Angeles Rams, the NFL team which has just recently moved back from St. Louis, are becoming regulars there. Eventually, Jamie Foxx and Terrell Owens join, as do some pros from baseball and basketball.

Still, the facility’s proprietors are looking for ways to get the word out, to bring more big names and youth events alike to Newbury Park and transform Sports Academy from a shiny gym to an institution in Southern California, and a brand that can travel.

Then, in December 2018, comes an announcement. Sports Academy will be re-branding. Come January 2019, it will be known officially as Mamba Sports Academy. Kobe will be the face, the ambassador. He will use the facility to further his newfound mission of not only coaching Gianna, his second daughter and basketball sidekick, and her AAU team, the Mambas, but also teaching the game to people of all ages and at all levels—from girls and boys to superstars of the NBA and WNBA.

Here, he will become Coach Kobe, in a building that bears his nickname and insignia. And with the help of Kobe’s credibility, “Mamba” will become not only a mainstay in Ventura County, but a draw for athletes of all levels, disciplines and ages across the country. By the end of 2019, Mamba Sports Academy opens a second location in Redondo Beach, roughly 50 miles southeast of the original.

Kobe and girls 3

Kobe Bryant coaches girls at the "Her Time To Play" event at the Mamba Sports Academy. (NBAE/Will Navarro)

It’s November 2016. Halloween has just passed, but Día de los Muertos is still in full effect. A writer steps into an exhibition space in LA’s Arts District, just east of downtown. There’s a candlelit shrine to Kobe’s NBA career, a series of sneakers hanging from the ceiling, a neon sign referencing his “Five Rings,” even an ice cream cart painted black with a mamba emerging from a purple-and-gold letter “K” to snap at a skull.

On the wall, it reads in capital letters dripping with gold paint:

LET US ALL GATHER AROUND AND BID OUR FAREWELLS

TO THE BEAUTIFUL GAME OF THE BLACK MAMBA.

GONE ARE THE DAYS OF A LEGENDARY FADEAWAY

AS HE FADES AWAY BACK TO BLACKNESS.

After attendees are left to take in the holiday-themed installation and enjoy some refreshments, Kobe settles into a director’s chair, alongside a moderator, to unveil the first sneaker of his retirement: the Nike Kobe AD. It’s an ode to his “death” as an athlete and “rebirth” in retirement, after that metaphorical death.

“It’s an appreciation of the light and the dark. You can’t have one without the other,” he says. “It’s life and death, and finding the beauty in both of those things because we do have to appreciate both things, you know?

“It’s kind of, you’re a little worried, a little afraid when the end is coming, but if you can find the beauty in the end, then I think you’re much better off for it.”

Kobe brings a similarly sage perspective to a roundtable with reporters that follows. He describes some of the finer points behind his new sneaker, explains that fans will never see retro re-releases of his old shoes because, as in all phases of his life, he’s always moving forward with his products; and deftly dodges attempts to box him into an explicit endorsement of any candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

Before departing, Kobe takes a few moments to catch up with a couple of reporters he knows from his playing days. He trades advice with one of them about the impending arrival of his third daughter, Bianka, to whom Vanessa would give birth that December.

For all of the imagery and symbolism about death with which this event is imbued, Kobe remains fixated on and obsessed with life—from what’s in store for his own and the ones currently in his family, to the ones he has yet to welcome into the world.

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.