The stories came pouring in from friends, family and complete strangers who wanted to pass on their encounters with Kobe Bryant. Most of them began the same way, “I only met Kobe one time, but …”
It would be normal to romanticize those moments in the immediate aftermath of the death of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash two weeks ago, but they all made me smile because they perfectly reflected the man I grew to know over the last 20 years.
Bryant would be the first to tell you he wasn’t exactly the most humble person at the beginning of his career. At an early age, he knew he was special. He knew he had both the God-given talent and the relentless work ethic to become one of the greatest basketball players ever. He had no problem letting you know you were in the midst of greatness when he was trying to establish himself.
As he grew older and his place in basketball history began to crystallize, he realized the platform he had created for himself allowed him to let his guard down. He became more open with the media and began to cold call, text and email people he wanted to talk to. He reached out to everyone from authors and actors to entrepreneurs and musicians he respected.
He knew you knew him, and even though he didn’t know you personally, he made you feel like he wanted to. One of the most viral stories following Bryant’s death was from ESPN’s Elle Duncan, who relayed her one and only meeting with him — a 30-minute conversation two years ago — where he told her how much he loved being a “girl dad.”
We all saw Bryant grow up before our eyes as a teenager who arrived in Los Angeles straight out of high school to a 41-year-old husband and father of four girls. Everyone has their favorite moments of Bryant’s 20-year career on the court, but in my time covering him, these are the off-the-court moments that stand out most.
“I want you to be around for a long time”
The last time I sat down with Bryant was in his office in Costa Mesa before the Oct. 22 season opener between the Lakers and Clippers. I had seen him one year earlier when I was one month into my current weight loss journey. I was more than 300 pounds during his final season, and as he was leaving Staples Center, surrounded by cameras and reporters, he stopped me and said, “You look incredible. How much weight have you lost?”
I had lost 43 pounds at that point, and he wanted to know what I was doing, what I was planning to do and if I needed any help.
When I saw him again about three months ago, I had lost 130 pounds, and he just looked me up and down, smiled and gave me a hug.
“Look at you,” he said. “Keep it going. I want you to be around for a long time.”
‘I don’t need sleep’
Going into Game 5 of the 2009 NBA finals in Orlando, I was staying at the team hotel and came down to the hotel lobby bar around midnight to find Bryant sipping on Coronas with a few friends. I had never hung out with him socially, but he invited me to join them for a drink.
We finished our drinks around 2 a.m. and went our separate ways. I have a hard time sleeping on the road so I woke up around 5 a.m. and went to the lobby to grab a snack and saw Bryant leaving the hotel gym in a full sweat.
“Did you sleep,” I asked him.
“I don’t need sleep,” he said.
The Lakers clinched the championship that night, and at the team’s after-party at the hotel, Bryant celebrated with his wife Vanessa, and his daughters Natalia and Gianna while wearing the same champagne-soaked uniform he had at the arena.
‘Rudy? The movie? That movie changed my life.’
Prior to a game in Sacramento on April 23, 2011, a man and his 13-year-old daughter walked up to Bryant and asked for a picture.
“I’m Rudy Ruettiger and this is my daughter Jessica Ruettiger,” the man said. “She’s singing the national anthem before the game.
“Rudy?” Bryant said as a smile came over his face. “The movie?”
“Yeah,” Ruettiger said.
“That movie changed my life,” Bryant said.
Bryant was a sophomore at Lower Merion High near Philadelphia when he first saw the movie “Rudy” in 1993. He would see it at least a handful of times in theaters and, by his estimation, “a hundred” times on tape. Bryant said the film motivated him to work harder than he ever had before.
“When I saw it, I told myself if I can play as hard as Rudy with the talent I have, anything’s possible,” Bryant said. “I’ve met a lot of people in my life, but that one there, man, that one ... me up.”
As Ruettiger walked away after they took a picture together, Bryant turned to a Lakers staffer who had just walked onto the court and pointed to Ruettiger.
“You want to meet the person who’s had the biggest influence on my life?” Bryant said. “That’s Rudy. The real Rudy Ruettiger.”
‘I almost won an MVP with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown on my team’
No athlete was more fun to cover than Bryant at the end of his career. While the Lakers struggled on the court and he struggled to come back from various injuries, Bryant’s media sessions became the highlight of covering the team. Prior to a preseason game against Portland in Ontario on Oct. 10, 2012, Bryant was reminiscing about the 2006 and 2007 teams he carried to the playoffs.
“I almost won an MVP with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown on my team,” he said. “Smush Parker was the worst. He shouldn’t have been in the NBA, but we were too cheap to pay for a point guard. We let him walk on.”
“I was shooting 45 times a game. What was I supposed to do? Pass it into Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown?”
‘Mamba Army don’t ... around’
One of the more amusing Bryant stories actually didn’t involve him. On Christmas Day in 2014, a Bryant fan drove to Temecula to fight a Bryant hater in one of the more entertaining exchanges on Twitter. A couple of days later, I showed Bryant the tweets and he just laughed.
“Mamba army don’t ... around,” he said. “They take after their captain.”
‘Thank God, I’m not from this world’
Bryant was infamously hard on his teammates during practices when they weren’t playing up to his expectations, and one of the few times I saw that in person was during a scrimmage on Dec. 11, 2014. Bryant was loudly cursing and telling the team they were “soft as Charmin.”
During that practice Nick Young told Bryant, “Nobody in the world can guard me one-on-one.”
When I asked Bryant about Young’s comment, he smiled and said, “Thank God, I’m not from this world.”