Kobe Bryant went from punk to prince during his phenomenal career as a Los Angeles Laker. I was fortunate enough to witness the transformation. On Mamba Day, as Los Angeles prepares to bid a fond farewell to the mega-superstar athlete in his final NBA game on April 13, capping 20 years of wearing purple and gold, I’m remembering my moments with him as I fly down to LA to cheer for him one last time.
Although I was no longer a Los Angeles beat writer when Kobe came into the league in 1996 – I was the first female to snag that title in 1991 and covered the team for four years – I was on the scene at the Forum and then the Staples Center for many of his games during his early NBA career as I continued my career as a sports journalist at USA Today then CNN-SI before switching to a celebrity reporter then a travel writer.
In addition to me being a Lakers fan since around the time Kobe was born, I feel a special connection to Kobe because of our shared love of Italy. He grew up in Rieti, smack dab in the middle of the boot-shaped country, and is fluent in Italian. I lived in Italy from 2003-05 and am conversational – if it’s a short conversation. I’m 100% positive that Kobe does not feel a special connection to me. I don’t think he knows I even exist unless it is away from basketball. That is when Kobe has always charmed me.
I’ll never forget the true look of joy on his face when he and his wife Vanessa walked into HBO’s Golden Globes party in 2013 at the Beverly Hilton and he spotted me. He was truly out of his element and seemed pleased to see a familiar face. He made a beeline for me – or was it the other way around? – and gave me a hug (I think). We chatted briefly about this being the first time the Lakers’ schedule allowed him to attend the Golden Globes festivities.
I asked him if we could take a photo together and he said yes. I tapped Eric Stonestreet from “Modern Family” on the shoulder and asked him to take a photo with my phone. A surprised Eric, who is probably more accustomed to people asking to take a photo with him, not for him to be the shooter, asked Kobe if it was OK. Kobe said yes.
Last year Kobe came to Napa, my territory. He’s a brand ambassador for Hublot. The luxury Swiss watch brand put on a swank event at a private winery to unveil Kobe’s new “Vino” timepiece. I was on hand to cover the day for Haute Living. When Kobe arrived at the winery, he grinned broadly when he saw me. I was a familiar face once again. I needed him for a one-on-one interview for Haute Living’s LA beach issue and wasn’t sure he would grant me one. But he did, which surprised me. When his handler tried to pull him away during the interview, Kobe said no, he wanted to finish talking to me. “We go way back,” he said.
Indeed we did. I remember when Kobe was a punk and alienated so many people, including his teammates and family, because of his stubbornness both in his personal and professional lives. He wanted to do it all on the court and not listen to anyone, including those who advised him to get a pre-nup. When his engagement to Vanessa made news, his teammate Shaquille O’Neal said in congratulating Kobe something like, “He needs a friend.”
Championships have a way of healing and Kobe certainly did that when he helped lead the Lakers to back-to-back-to-back titles beginning in 2000. I was there to cheer him on and remember celebrating inside a private area in the Staples Center as, unbeknownst to us revelers, downtown LA burned around us.
After I moved to Italy, I’d return to LA for a few weeks during each winter and always went to Laker games. I’d go in the locker room to say hi to the guys, in particular, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti. (Sidebar: Vitti, who also retires tonight after 32 years with the Lakers, deserves his own column.) I’d chitchat with media, staff and players. I’d say “Ciao” to Kobe in my best Italian accent – and he’d ignore me. He wasn’t one to make small talk with me.
I never got to know Kobe as well as I did many of the other professional athletes I encountered throughout my career. That’s fine. Because I’m a true Lakers fan, I never needed to know Kobe intimately to appreciate him as much as I did and still do. Tonight, as Lakers fans worldwide celebrate Mamba Day, is going to be so incredibly special.
Thank you Kobe for the wonderful memories.