Column: Expecting to see Kobe play one last time, a fan ended up with a lot more
He was like many other lifelong Lakers fans during this winter of the fantastical farewell.
David Moya just wanted one last look at Kobe Bryant.
The warehouse worker from the Modesto area bought tickets two months ago on EBay, for last Sunday’s game against the Phoenix Suns. Moya had not been to Staples Center in four years, and would not be able to return before Bryant retired, so when he handed the shiny Kobe-adorned cardboard strips to his 11-year-old son Christian on Christmas morning, they both cried.
A week later Moya carefully pulled a Ron Artest jersey over a right shoulder that aches from years of heavy lifting on the night shift. He rented a car to ensure safe passage for the five-hour drive from Northern California. When he arrived at Staples on Sunday afternoon, he saved a few bucks by parking on the other side of the freeway.
After downing a Long Island iced tea at Ford’s Filling Station at L.A. Live, Moya rushed through the arena entrance with his son in hopes of watching Bryant during pregame warmups. Kobe wasn’t there.
Later he and his son settled into their seats clutching salted pretzels with butter and cheese, waiting for Bryant to appear during the announcement of starting lineups. Still no Kobe.
When the game began, they searched for him sitting on the end of the bench, yet Kobe still couldn’t be found. They soon learned he was absent with a sore shoulder and the trip of a lifetime was in vain.
“Yeah, we were disappointed,” said Moya, who grew up in the Los Angeles area. “We had come all that way, and we knew we wouldn’t be getting back down here again, and we never even saw him.”
As anyone who has hugged or high-fived a stranger this season after a Kobe Bryant fall-away three-pointer can attest, the flashes of greatness on his farewell tour have been contagious.
Little did David Moya know that, on this night, that glimpse of magic would be found in him.
The miracle started with a request.
As Moya and his son were walking through the Staples Center doors, he was approached by Lakers service coordinator Jessica Hampton with the oddest of offers.
He was asked, did he want to attempt a midcourt shot for $95,000?
It was no joke. Moya, 35, was being asked to participate in the MGM Grand Big Shot Jackpot, a shot between the third and fourth quarters that has become the team’s most popular in-game promotion since its inception in 2006.
I couldn’t imagine doing it, I asked them to use my son instead because he’s a much better shooter.
— David Moya
But it felt like a joke. Moya is 5 feet 5. He has never played in an official competitive basketball game. He had never attempted a midcourt shot on any court. He has a basket nailed to the outside of his house for his three children, but his driveway is slanted.
“I couldn’t imagine doing it,” Moya said. “I asked them to use my son instead because he’s a much better shooter.”
Yet minors are prohibited from taking the shot, which is one of the few rules of this wonderfully random contest. Before every home game, the Lakers assign a club employee to stand near one of the general admission entrances and pick somebody who looks like they can make the shot and would have fun trying. Wearing Lakers gear helps. Wearing tennis shoes is a must.
Moya was wearing his blue Kobe 9 Perspectives. And yeah, it was a little bit of that Kobe inspiration that made him agree.
“I finally thought, there’s always a chance at anything in life, right?” Moya said. “So why not?”
In the contest’s 10 years, only three people had made the shot, and one of them was former Laker Vlade Divac, who donated the money to charity.
“When it happens, the positive energy from 20,000 people is amazing, everybody loves it, everybody roots for it to happen,” said Allison Howard, the Lakers executive director of corporate partnerships. “But it’s almost impossible.”
The miracle continued with a prayer.
During the game, an increasingly nervous Moya put a prescient post on his Facebook page, set against a Staples Center background.
“Going to literally throw up a prayer in a couple hours here…” he wrote.
By the time Moya took the court between the third and fourth quarters of the eventual Lakers victory, he was so stressed, he continually rubbed his wet palms on his red souvenir Big Shot shirt. When he was handed the ball, he took three dribbles, hoisted the ball on his sore right shoulder, and fired.
It was a Mamba Moment. It was a trademark dagger. For one mystical moment, the guy who futilely drove 300 miles to see Kobe Bryant actually became Kobe Bryant.
The crowd roared. Some Lakers joyfully surrounded him. Moya staggered around the court as if dazed, then lifted up his red T-shirt to show his No. 37 throwback Artest jersey, an old-school Lakers fan never forgetting his roots.
“I didn’t think it would go in … I was like, are you serious?” he said. “You know, that’s the biggest ovation I’ve ever had.”
Later Moya and his son hauled the giant red cardboard souvenir check to the rental car on the other side of the freeway, stuck it in the back seat, and drove five hours through the night back to Modesto, where the party continued.
The $95,000 is more than his annual salary, and will be used to fix a bathroom that has been broken since a flood last year, maybe pay off a car, and fund his children’s education. He had initially announced he was going to use the money to buy tickets for Bryant’s final home game April 13 so he could actually see him once more, but Lakers were so moved by the statement that they are giving him the tickets.
Then there was the celebration dinner Monday night at Applebee’s, where Moya excused himself to go outside and talk about, who else?
“The reason I want to see Kobe Bryant one more time is, I think he has these absolutely beautiful glimpses of his greatness still left in him,” Moya said. “Even though he’s not great every night, there’s great moments that are still left, and worth the price of a ticket to see those moments.”
See them, and live them.
Follow Bill Plasckhe on Twitter @billplaschke.
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