To this day it seems so eerie to even think about. It’s December, the world is only weeks away from entering the havoc otherwise known as the year 2020, and I’m tasked with providing an original piece of reporting on Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.
In retrospect, the fact I was essentially writing my farewell piece to the five-time NBA champion still blows my mind. Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other individuals would die in a helicopter crash a few weeks after, shocking the world of sports.
But back in December, my mind was preoccupied with a completely different dread. What can possibly be written about the great Kobe Bryant? Every aspect of his illustrious career and life had probably been explored already.
Meanwhile, his venture into the creative industry — providing a platform for the fabled Mamba Mentality to inspire when his ailing body could not — was often kept within his closest circles.
The children’s book writers he worked with did not want to risk their unlikely partnership with one of the greatest Lakers of all time by opening up about it.
So I embarked on my journey — starting in Boston, mind you — in search of Kobe stories that would reveal something new. The same Kobe stories that would soon mushroom over the internet following his death.
How shockingly easy it was to find them was beyond me considering his fame and star power. I was also stunned how vivid those memories were, prompting me to wonder how unique Kobe Bryant encounters must have been.
It quickly became clear Bryant was a sports superstar unlike any other. An inference that comes back like a boomerang on his birthday and Kobe Bryant Day.
Some of the places I looked for in search of Kobe stories were pretty obvious, his alma mater Lower Merion High School to name one. Bryant’s former coach Gregg Downer quickly recalled the very fundamentals of the Mamba Mentality.
He said even then the future 18-time All-Star would hold his teammates accountable if their intensity didn’t match his own — long before Shaquille O’Neill and Dwight Howard experienced it first-hand in the NBA.
“He didn’t tolerate shortcuts. If he noticed a lack of focus, lack of work ethic, lack of vision, he would have a hard time with you,” Downer said.
Similarly, it was easy to anticipate Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell to have a few memorable Kobe encounters well-preserved in his mind. Trudell quickly recollected his ping-pong duel with the Lakers great during Thanksgiving in 2013. Bryant did not play to relax.
He played to win.
But what also stuck with Trudell was how Bryant would require him to bring his A-game during every interview, as if the on-court challenges were not enough for his competitive spirit. “You have to make sure that what you’re saying makes sense because, you know, he’s not going to pretend otherwise,” Trudell said.
“He is very sharp and very informed. He’s going to really think about it and give his actual answer.”
The above applied to conversations even when the camera was off.
Bryant would remember private chats with acquainted reporters and then initiate discussions about mutual passions outside of basketball. All the while remaining the same level of competitiveness. “I think there was a part of Kobe that wanted to be different and special,” Shira Springer, the former Celtics beat writer for the Boston Globe, said.
“And one of the ways you could do that off-the-court was by engaging in these sorts of conversations that went well beyond baskets.”
Springer, a Harvard graduate, said Bryant would often engage in mind games to challenge her but also hoped to be challenged — as if wanting to unleash his intellectual curiosity around her. Their conversations would go as far as into Israeli politics.
Bryant’s mind was without a doubt intricate. But as Kobe stories show, its sharpness manifested itself perhaps even more distinctly in person.
When Bryant watched Sabrina Ionescu’s Oregon team beat USC 93-53 back in 2019, Ducks head coach Kelly Graves was overwhelmed by his analytical prowess. The Lakers great offered detailed feedback even to his fringe players following the game.
And he told the Ducks “not to shoot themselves in the foot” even though they just chalked up a 40-point win, offering a taste of his Mamba Mentality. However, Graves recalls him being “gracious and humble” throughout.
“At that moment, he didn’t think he was too cool for what he was doing,” he said.
Funnily, Graves admitted he had feared Bryant would have been “stuck up, conceited, and arrogant” ahead of his visit. But he was not the first person to misjudge the Lakers legend’s character.
Franco Graceffa, owner of Boston’s famous Dolce Vita restaurant, imagined Bryant to be “a little snobby” when his assistant confirmed the NBA star would come to visit for the first time. But that label would soon change, too.
Bryant would return to Dolce Vita on numerous occasions, indulging in conversations with Graceffa in fluent Italian. One of those visits was immortalized in a photo with another customer — a Celtics fan — and his daughter which they posed for after the Lakers star settled their bill.
And just like that, in Graceffa’s mind “snobby” quickly became “down to earth.”
Bryant’s trademark snarkiness was, probably, to blame for those misconceptions of his character. His quips might have been too much to handle to some. Others, however, would burst out laughing.
Bryant paid a surprise visit to Boston College students in 2014. It was not until one of marketing professor Nick Nugent’s pupils turned back and spotted the Lakers star, casually taking notes among them, that they became aware of his presence and “lost it,” according to Mary Kate Hart, one of the students.
“He made a joke about how we’re all on our phones all the time so no one looked up. Which was true.”
Yet another Kobe story found on the obscure streets of Boston. To this day I don’t know what supernatural force prompted me to pursue that Bryant piece only weeks before his tragic death.
But as we celebrate “Mamba Week,” it now makes me wonder how many more of Kobe stories exist; each of them unique, inspiring and providing insight into his fascinating mind.
And I like to think they exist for a reason.
The helicopter crash cruelly derived the world from Bryant’s second act as a storyteller. But that does not mean his stories cannot still be told. By us.
I cannot think of a better way to honor Mamba’s genius and preserve his memory forever.
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