In Venice Beach, hoopsters honor Kobe Bryant by trying to channel him on the basketball court
Marcus Bowen dribbled the basketball twice between his legs and fired up a shot over his older, taller brother, Dante.
The ball bounced off the rim, hitting the blue-painted outdoor court at Venice Beach, just missing a sea gull. The brothers — Marcus, 13, and Dante, 16 — laughed. It was OK. Kobe Bryant missed shots, too.
Marcus wore a purple Lakers hat and tried, with some success, to copy Bryant’s classic pump fake. When the boys played one-on-one, they would see who would be the first to score either 8 points or 24 points, in honor of Bryant’s jersey numbers.
“When we shoot, we’ll say, ‘It’s for Kobe,’ because, like, he’s not here to play anymore, so sometimes we do it for him,” Marcus said.
Here at this streetball mecca beneath the palm trees, play has become sacred in the days since Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.
As the world grieves, hoopsters here, young and old, have been taking part in the timeless tradition of mimicking the moves of their athletic idol. The pickup basketball courts last week have played host to amateur versions of Bryant’s fadeaways, dunks and pump fakes. Visitors have seen players in gold Lakers jerseys and purple Kobe sneakers. There’s been plenty of trash talk, in Kobe’s honor, of course.
These courts were significant to Bryant, who named a brightly colored version of his Nike Kobe 8 signature shoe “Venice Beach.”
Bryant was barely 18, a prize rookie just out of high school, in early September 1996, when he fell during a pickup game at Venice Beach and broke his left wrist.
The injury benched Bryant for most of the preseason training camp. In his debut Lakers game that November, he was scoreless, playing six minutes off the bench against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It was a lackluster performance, but became an instant record setter as Bryant at the time became the youngest person to play in an NBA game.
“It’ll be neat one day to sit with my grandkids and tell them I was the youngest player in NBA history,” the teenage Bryant said after the game.
At Venice Beach on Friday afternoon, Orlando Bowen photographed Marcus and Dante, his sons, playing on the court. They weren’t much younger than Bryant when he became a professional athlete.
Bryant’s death at age 41 hit Bowen, who is 44, hard.
The Bowen family flew in Monday, the day after the fatal helicopter crash, from Toronto so Bowen, a former professional player in the Canadian Football League, could speak at an entrepreneurial business conference.
“One of the things I’ve always thought about was life after the game, and the importance of some of the bigger things, like being a dad and giving back,” Bowen said. “One of the reasons I think I felt so profoundly impacted by Kobe’s passing was that he was doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Bowen beamed about his sons: Dante the lacrosse player. Marcus the basketball player. Fifteen-year-old Justice, the trombone player.
When they got to Los Angeles, the Venice Beach basketball courts were the only place they wanted to come, he said.
“They’ll be able to say they played here; they played on the same court that Kobe played on,” Bowen said. “And they did it together, as brothers. It’s layered for me. Many happy papa moments out here.”
Nearby, a woman shot hoops in a pair of white sneakers and a blue bikini. Barefoot surfers in wetsuits walked by between pickup games toting their boards. The smell of saltwater hung in the air.
On one court, Chris Staples — a former Harlem Globetrotter, a professional slam dunker and onetime contestant on “The Bachelorette” — shot a YouTube video in a pair of purple and gold Kobe Nikes and Lakers shorts.
For Staples, the Venice basketball courts, where the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” was filmed, represent both basketball dreams and Hollywood aspirations — fitting, perhaps, since Bryant won an Oscar in 2018 for producing and writing the animated short “Dear Basketball.”
As an actor, Staples starred as a basketball player trying to remake his life after being released from prison in the 2017 movie “Slamma Jamma,” with scenes filmed on the Venice Beach courts.
On Friday, Staples, 33, said he had noticed lots of people playing in Kobe shoes and clothing in recent days. There is not usually much NBA gear on the pickup courts, but this felt right, he said.
The day of Bryant’s death, Staples came to Venice to honor him in the best way he knew how: by playing ball.
“I knew that if I stayed in the house, I would have just looked at my phone, looked at the news all day, getting more and more sad,” he said. “So coming out here took my mind off things for a little while. ... It healed me for the moment.”
Standing near the Venice Beach Boardwalk, as Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” blared on a nearby loudspeaker, Ramin Molaie and Artin Azimi, friends visiting from San Jose, chatted while wearing Lakers jerseys.
For Molaie, a diehard Golden State Warriors fan, it was purely a sign of respect to wear Bryant’s No. 8 jersey for the first time in public.
“I hate the Lakers,” Molaie, 26, said.
Molaie’s grandmother got him the jersey during a trip to Los Angeles when he was about 8 years old.
“She was like, ‘I got you a basketball player’s jersey! It’s your favorite player,’” Molaie said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Oh, really?’ ... And she brings me back Kobe. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible.’ ”
But even then, Molaie couldn’t throw the jersey away. He saw Bryant play in Oakland and booed as he hit three-pointers against the Warriors. But as he grew older, Molaie knew he respected Bryant’s game and now describes him as “the best player of our generation.”
“Deep down, all the hate was respect!” said Azimi, 26, who was wearing a LeBron James Lakers jersey.
Just off the court, John Lackey wiped the sweat from his forehead after more than an hour of pickup basketball. As he took a break, people wanting their turn in the game yelled, “I got next!” “I got next!”
Lackey, a 20-year-old who had played ball for the Jordan High School Panthers in Long Beach, grew up idolizing the “Black Mamba” and would cut his hair to look just like Bryant’s.
“I would just sit down in the living room, do math homework, watch Kobe,” Lackey said. “I called them all: ‘Get it, boy! All the way!’ Kobe’s just the man on the court. I tried to be like him since middle school.”
When Lackey was 12, attending a game at Staples Center with his dad and uncle, he got a high-five from Bryant. Lackey stands 6 feet 4 now, but back then, he thought Bryant, who stood 6 feet 6, was impossibly tall.
He looked at his dad, elated: “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s about to drop buckets.’”
Last week, Lackey wept over Bryant’s death.
On Friday, he looked up at the sky. It was a perfect winter afternoon. Seventy degrees. A pink and orange hue as the sun started to set. So different from that chilly day last Sunday, when the helicopter carrying his hero went down in the dense, patchy fog.
“Today would have been the perfect day for Kobe to fly,” he said. “He could have gotten over that mountain.”
Then he went back out on the court to play.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.