I don’t remember the year. But it was toward the end of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious career. He was doing a postgame news conference in an interview room at Staples Center.
As usual Kobe was impeccably dressed, and he answered every question with expansive, articulate responses that went far beyond the cliches you typically hear in these settings.
Not just in English, either. Kobe was fluent in Spanish and Italian and had a decent handle on other languages as well. He never hesitated to offer answers to media from across the world in their native tongues.
There was always something beautiful about that to me.
But it wasn’t Kobe I was watching. Having known him since he was a 17-year-old high school phenom — I was at his first NBA Summer League game at the Long Beach Pyramid when he dropped 20-plus points on a bunch of much older NBA players and prospects — observing him as he owned a room with his intelligence and eloquence was nothing new to me. Kobe Bryant was the brightest, most well-rounded athlete I’ve ever covered.
Instead my eyes kept circling back to the two older men standing in the back of the room, who I learned beforehand had previously served as White House press secretaries. They were hanging on every word in stunned admiration.
To this day I still imagine them talking to each other afterward, wondering what it might be like working with a candidate so bright and articulate. And maybe, just maybe, making a call to him to gauge whether he’d be interested in running for office after retiring.
Kobe was far beyond just a basketball player. His work ethic and brilliance and curiosity could have taken him to the highest point of any post-NBA endeavor he pursued.
I’m thinking about that right now as I try to comprehend the news of Kobe’s unexpected death at age 41 along with that of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna on Sunday morning in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Like so many others, I’m having a hard time accepting and processing the heartbreaking news.
Kobe was a worldwide phenom and icon, but he was uniquely tied and connected to Los Angeles, where I worked in sports for more than three decades. Today, a significant part of my longtime former home lost something that can never be replaced.
It’s going to take a long, long time for us to recover.
Kobe came to us as a skinny teenager mandated with the task of restoring a Lakers franchise that means everything to the City of Angels. After some early missteps, he fulfilled his destiny by proceeding to dominate an entire sport while collecting five NBA championships. He did it with an unyielding determination that both inspired and awed us. Mamba Mentality wasn’t just a slogan in Los Angeles. It was our way of life.
We couldn’t wait to watch where Kobe turned next in his life. We beamed at all the photos and videos of him with his beautiful family.
But in the blink of an eye, it was all ripped from us.
I’m not here to glorify Kobe.
His flaws and mistakes were well-chronicled, including his arrest for sexual assault in Colorado in 2003. Kobe claimed the encounter was consensual and later avoided charges after his accuser said she no longer wanted to testify. She later received an undisclosed settlement after filing a civil suit against Bryant.
He had early career issues fitting in with older teammates. Shaquille O’Neal among them. I can’t tell you how many times I walked into the Lakers locker room when Shaq and Kobe were feuding and feeling the tension in the air.
Throughout his career he could be hard-driving and unrelenting with teammates and coaches and front office executives and sometimes even the media. His work ethic was second to none, and he expected everyone else to operate with that same passion and relentlessness. If you didn’t keep up, he was going to let you know. That rubbed some people the wrong way. And that is understandable.
Kobe wasn’t perfect. His imperfection, in fact, is as much a part of his legacy as his basketball greatness.
All of it added up to one of the most unique, inspiring and influential sports figures of all time.
One who was taken away from us much too soon.