Michael Balzary remembers seeing the teenage basketball player for the first time at a movie premiere in Los Angeles, red carpet and all.
Balzary had already established himself as Flea, the bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when he introduced himself to a future one-named wonder of sorts.
There was only brief chatter with Kobe Bryant, who likely had no idea who Flea was. This was fine. Flea barely knew who Bryant was.
“I went up and said hi to him and shook his hand and stuff,” Flea said. “I just knew he was a kid who played high school ball in Philly and we got him from Charlotte.”
It’s hard to find a more dedicated Lakers fan in celebrity circles than Flea. Since moving to Los Angeles as an 11-year-old in 1972, the Australian-born musician has rarely missed a game, catching them in person, on TV or via other means.
“Before the Internet happened, I would be on tour in Europe, I would call up my girlfriend and have her put the phone by the TV and I would listen to Chick [Hearn],” Flea said. “The long-distance bills were intense.”
Flea gladly grants an interview about Bryant, whose 20-year career ends with Wednesday’s season finale at Staples Center. He’s watched with fascination since Bryant declared his retirement intentions last November.
“It’s a really poignant thing,” Flea said. “It’s been beautiful to see, even though the farewell tour, sometimes I didn’t really like it because it just distracted the development of the team. And I think even Kobe as a young player wouldn’t have liked it because he would have wanted all of the focus to be on winning the game.
“But it is what it is. I remember Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and when he went out it was a winning team. It was a much different vibe.”
The always-animated Flea will do more than attend Wednesday’s game. He will play the national anthem Jimi-Hendrix-style before the Lakers (16-65) play Utah.
With Flea doing his part, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have remained relevant since the 1980s, an uncommon occurrence in the music industry. Flea sees many similarities with Bryant, whose impact also spanned decades.
“The main thing that’s always inspired me the most about Kobe is the diligence and discipline and selflessness that it takes to develop that sort of craftsmanship,” Flea said. “Being a diligent person with my own craftsmanship, I really relate to it.
“It’s like, ‘The rest of the world be damned, I am dedicating myself to giving everything I can in the moment.’ Every single night that you go to do your job, you’re willing to sweat blood, do whatever it takes at harm to your own self to be as great as you can, with disregard for your own personal care. That’s just awesome.”
Flea is biased. He knows it. So is Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis, another fixture at Lakers games.
The group, after all, released a song in the late ‘80s called “Magic Johnson,” an ode to the leader of the Lakers’ Showtime era.
Flea has been a Lakers season-ticket holder since 1997, two years before Staples Center opened. He doesn’t understand the Kobe haters. He makes this clear on the phone from his movie trailer in Atlanta, where he’s waiting to shoot his role as a bank robber in the upcoming film “Baby Driver.”
“I knew many anti-Kobe [fans], especially people who didn’t like the Lakers, they just hated him,” he said. “Even Lakers fans to this day still express disappointment over his shooting too much or being too hard on his teammates, always saying he’s about me, me, me. I just don’t buy it, man.
“First of all, he got five rings and clearly it worked. Shaq [O’Neal] left, he got two rings [without him]. You can’t do that without being a leader, without understanding team dynamic.
“He was kind of this savant guy, so focused on basketball, and just not a politician, not concentrating on people skills in terms of saying all the right things to make people happy. I don’t care about that stuff. I love basketball. It’s a great, great gift to the world, like any kind of art form or intellectual writing or theater or science.”
Bryant has pledged not to cry on his final night. You have to wonder, though, if Flea won’t be a little emotional.
“Kobe gave us so much. I just feel grateful to have been able to enjoy it,” he said. “I felt a lot of despair and anxiety and pain in his career and I felt enormous amounts of joy and awe and just personally being greatly inspired by the gifts that he gave us.”
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