THE NIGHT I MET THE GREAT LAKERS LEGEND KOBE BRYANT IN NEW JERSEY

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[Remembering Kobe Bryant]
"Over the last few days, as I’ve listened to all those who were touched positively by Kobe, a particular night years ago came back into focus for me...On this night, I met and spoke to Kobe.
Photo: Facebook

Kobe Bryant was a unique iconic athlete who believed in developing his intellectual talents, like writing.

Last Sunday, the sports world lost one of its brightest lights when Kobe Bryant was tragically killed along with eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, when the helicopter they were flying in crashed during foggy weather conditions in Calabasas, California.

The impact of his loss is still reverberating. Like so many others, I’ve been thinking about Kobe’s untimely death. 

Over the last few days, as I’ve listened to all those who were touched positively by Kobe, a particular night years ago came back into focus for me. It was at the Meadowlands Arena, in New Jersey, when the then New Jersey Nets played the Lakers.

That night, I met and spoke to Kobe.

During this time period, there was still a lot of negative portrayals of Kobe in the media. There was anger toward him because of the rancorous departure of Shaq. The feeling then, by many, was that Kobe was ungrateful, arrogant, and had driven Shaq away with his behavior. I disagreed with this punditry regarding Kobe.

Several of my friends couldn’t understand why I defended Kobe. My view was Kobe had earned the right to be featured more in the Lakers offensive scheme. Friends told me I was supporting a spoiled selfish narcissist.

That night after meeting and interacting with Kobe, I felt vindicated in defending him. This encounter happened when I was writing sports stories for the Black Star News.

I must first start by apologizing to readers for not being able to give a more approximate date of this encounter. I’ve been searching over the past couple of days, without success, in my files for references from that night. However, it was only a few years removed from Shaq’s departure from the Lakers.

On this particular night, after the Nets\Lakers game, Kobe had just finished speaking with some people outside of the visiting locker room. I approached him and asked if I could have a few minutes of his time for an interview.

Kobe stared scrutinizing me for several seconds. When he finally spoke, he said something like I’ve got something to do right now but if you could wait. I said no problem.

He left and went inside the locker room. After about twenty or thirty minutes he came back and said he was ready to speak.

During the interview, I asked questions about the Lakers playoff prospects and his thoughts on where the Lakers organization was heading. His prognosis on these questions were all positive. But that isn’t the important part.

The important part was I remember him carefully analyzing me as he mulled over and answered the questions. I detected this: Kobe was evaluating me through my questions to gain insight into what kind of a journalist, and perhaps person, I was.

By the end of our talk, I knew I had won him over. He was smiling with me. I remember us both wishing each other well as we parted company.

Over the past couple days, several people have noted that Kobe did not believe in wasting time. This clearly also meant he was careful about those he spent his time with—including journalists.

I realized this after examining my meeting with him. I believe he initially viewed me with skepticism because he was probably wondering if I was any different from the many typically shallow sports journalists that athletes encounter far too often. Here, I can’t help but think of how Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich would berate reporters for asking dumb questions. I believe I gained Kobe’s respect because I didn’t waste his time with dumb questions.

That night also told me what many saw as arrogance in Kobe was nothing more than his supreme belief in himself. Didn’t many misinterpret Muhammad Ali in a similar manner? The great ones usually have an unshakeable confidence in themselves that is often misconstrued.

Ironically, I never saw pomposity from Kobe like I witnessed from a certain superstar player on the then Nets. This individual—who I will refrain from naming—on our first encounter refused to give me an interview, before immediately turning around to give a White reporter an interview, while turning his back when he saw me trying to take his picture.

During my relatively short sports beat stint covering the Nets, and Knicks, there were a couple of particularly memorable meetings with superstar players.

I remember how welcoming Patrick Ewing made me feel when he visited The Garden on one occasion. He kept shaking my hand. That experience, and others, made me realize many Black players are too often operating in an uncomfortable media environment of homogenized whiteness. I’ve had several interesting encounters with my hometown hero Tim Duncan. On our initial meeting, I sensed Duncan was also trying to figure out if I was a trustworthy journalist.

Before talking to Kobe, it was evident to me he was special. He represented a personality we don’t see enough of: the cerebral scholar-athlete.

As a writer, one of the things I took note of when I was first hearing about Kobe was that he was into writing poetry. How many male sports figures do any of us know who write poetry? In fact, many would look at this as anathema in the ultra-masculine arena of professional sports. This made it obvious he was dedicated to the intellectual side of life.

Imagine, this 18-time all-star after winning five championships, two Olympic medals, and all the other basketball accolades, then wins the 2018 Academy Award for Best Short Film, for “Dear Basketball,” based on one of his poems. How many actors and actresses go through their whole careers and never even achieve a nomination for the Academy Award? And yet, only a few years removed from retiring, Kobe was able to achieve this lofty goal that many would give an arm just to be nominated for.

As someone who loves the spoken word, the evolution of Kobe as a writer is what I was most looking forward to seeing. Because of Kobe’s relentless pursuit of perfection, we can only wonder about the heights he would’ve reached with his writing. Unfortunately, we will now never know.

Kobe’s loss is heartbreaking. We should all continue to pray for his family. Kobe’s parents are to be commended for raising him to become someone who inspired so many people worldwide.

My main memory of Kobe will always be of that night in New Jersey. RIP.

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