NBA Finals: Local fans root for Kobe

Once every so often, Hans Khademi receives a phone call asking if Kobe Bryant is coming to his restaurant anytime soon.

"Like I'm supposed to know," says Khademi, who owns La Fogata Rotisserie Chicken in Corona del Mar.

Even if Khadmemi knew he wouldn't tell others because Bryant is one of his favorite customers and he doesn't want the Los Angeles Lakers star to be bothered. Khademi wants the famous Newport Coast resident to feel right at home.

Khademi has been a Lakers fan since the days of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. He was thrilled when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would eat at his restaurant, and he's just as ecstatic to have Bryant dine there with his family.

Khademi is one of many local business owners or residents who feel they have a special interest in today's NBA Finals Game 7 against the Boston Celtics. Their favorite basketball player - for some a great customer and to others a good guy - is playing for his fifth NBA championship ring.

Bryant has lived in Newport Coast since 2002. He has found a home. He's certainly comfortable at La Fogata (The Bonfire), Khademi said.

There's a photo of Bryant in the restaurant. When he enters, he'll usually speak Spanish to some of the employees and give them a high-five, Khademi said.

"He's a very good tipper," Khademi says. "When he comes here everyone is so happy. It's not because of the money. It's because he is so nice and the guys who work here they love sports. We are so lucky to have a team like the Lakers and to have him live close by. He's a great guy."

Apparently, Bryant likes Mexican food. He also eats frequently at Javier's Cantina & Grill in Newport Beach.

"This is his favorite place to eat," Pepe Fernandez, a manager, said somewhat jokingly. "He's very friendly with all the people."

Bryant also has a sweet tooth. He likes to go to Wonderland Bakery to pick up goodies for his wife, Vanessa, and their two daughters, Natalia, and Gianna, said Allyson Ames, an owner of the bakery near Bryant's home in Newport Beach.

"He usually comes in around once a month," Ames says. "He really likes our chocolate covered strawberries and our cupcakes."

Ames says Bryant is, "super nice," and has seen him pose for pictures with others and provide his autograph.

She says the bakery's employees are planning to wear purple and gold today.

"We are rooting for the Lakers," she said.

There are plenty of Lakers fans at UC Irvine, where Bryant has been known to work out and also shoot around in the gym. He's also helped the Anteaters with marketing. Before the 2008-09 men's and women's basketball season, he provided the opening for UCI's video introduction of the teams.

"I just want to introduce, bring to you right now your men's and women's basketball teams who are going to kick some serious ass! Rip Em Eaters!" he says in the video that's on youtube.

"It was really gracious of him to take the time to do that," said Robby Ray, the assistant athletic director for corporate relations.

Not too far from UCI, Bryant has also been known to charter a helicopter that leaves out of John Wayne Airport and goes to Staples Center in L.A. or the Toyota Center in El Segundo for practices.

A Costa Mesa resident, who would not reveal his name, is an employee for the helicopter service Bryant had used before switching to a different company this year.

The reason Bryant switched? The Costa Mesa resident thinks it was because the service he uses now is closer to the freeway exit.

"Seconds matter when you're a multi-millionaire," said the helicopter service employee who also didn't want to say the name of his company.

The employee noticed a difference in moods when Bryant was leaving for a game as opposed to a practice.

"For practices he seems more relaxed, but he has some of that intensity about him," he said. "And he has more of it for the games. But he's very friendly, not very arrogant. He's a nice guy and keeps to himself for the most part."

Bryant will no doubt be intense for Game 7 tonight.

"I've said the whole season, you don't win a championship, it's a failure," he told The Los Angeles Times. "It's as simple as that."

Away from the court, Bryant turns off the intensity, well, usually he does.

Marcus Franco, a Costa Mesa High teacher who is an umpire for softball games, has seen Bryant cheer loudly for Natalia at her games. Franco first met Bryant when Natalia was playing for her Newport-Mesa Girls' Softball team last month when the Lakers were about to sweep the Utah Jazz.

Franco said Bryant was extremely nice and down to earth. During a game, Franco spent time between innings talking to Bryant, topics such as CSI Miami and how the Lakers made fun of Pau Gasol for his cameo on the show.

During a different game, Franco showed some integrity by calling a strike on Natalia amid a Bryant shout of, "Oh!"

Later, Franco talked with Vanessa Bryant, and Franco said she playfully ended the conversation with, "Marcus, that was not a strike."

Even after that, Franco said Kobe Bryant was nice enough to pose with Franco for a photo.

"I told him that in my classes, I like to talk about individuals who achieve," Franco said. "I told him, I really like who you are about."

Franco said he grew up a Warriors fan, but he now follows Bryant and the Lakers. When Bryant took in a hard foul against the Jazz, Franco said he shouted at the TV, "Get off my boy!"

Franco has great respect for Bryant, as he saw him as a good father and a nice man.

Franco has heard stories of Bryant spraying silly string at Natalia's teammates after a game and he's seen the NBA All-Star play catch with some of the girls.

He said he also saw Bryant and his wife cuddle and show affection during games.

"He's very kind; he's wonderful," Franco said. "My personal experience with him was wonderful. I just love how he treated people."

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