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The Morning Column: August 23, 2021
One of the most amazing gifts Kobe Bryant had was his genuine curiosity for life. He loved asking questions. He loved knowing more about people, places and things.
I’m on the road at the moment so we’re going to skip the normal format today and just focus on Kobe Bryant, who would have turned 43 years old today.
One of the most amazing gifts Kobe Bryant had was his genuine curiosity for life. He loved asking questions. He loved knowing more about people, places and things he wasn’t familiar with. He would often engage with complete strangers to their amazement as if they were long-lost friends.
Some of the most touching and heartfelt tributes to Bryant after his passing came from people who had met him just once, often for just a few minutes, years ago.
One of the more memorable stories came from ESPN anchor Elle Duncan, who met Bryant one time, for 30 minutes backstage at an ESPN event in New York, two years earlier. She remembers simply wanting to get a picture with him for her Instagram. Duncan was eight months pregnant at the time and as she walked up to Bryant, he beamed and asked her, “How are you? How close are you? What are you having?” When Duncan replied a girl, Bryant, who had four girls, high-fived her and said, “Girls are the best… I would have five more girls if I could. I am a girl dad.”
I could imagine Bryant having that conversation. I had seen it happen several times with people he had just met for the first time and would likely never meet again. He would put his arm around them or put his hand on their shoulder, look them in their eyes and talk to them as if he they were friends.
He knew his celebrity fast-tracked any conversation he would ever have. There was no need for introductions or small talk. He may not have known you, but he knew that you knew him. He was in the public eye for most of his life and grew up before us. When Bryant signed his first NBA contract with the Lakers in 1996, his parents had to cosign it because he was just 17 years old. That history was largely why his death hit so many people who weren’t sports fans so hard. It’s impossible to not feel emotion at the tragic loss of someone who you’ve seen grow up before your eyes from a 17-year-old high school student to a 41-year-old husband and father.
While some would have viewed such a public upbringing as a curse and shunned the spotlight, Bryant viewed it as an opportunity to connect with anyone in the world. He would cold call and cold email everyone he respected from authors and musicians to entrepreneurs and athletes and just talk to them about their craft and thought process. His cold call list included Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, author and businesswoman Arianna Huffington and Jony Ive, chief design officer of Apple.
He wasn’t just content with reading a good book or watching a good movie or listening to a good song; he wanted to talk to the people behind the works of art he enjoyed and pick their brains. He wanted to know more about them, what made them tick and how he could perhaps work with them in the future as he transitioned into his post basketball life.
After a 20-year career in the NBA and a 17-year childhood defined by basketball, Bryant was at peace with the game he loved. He wasn’t looking to be a coach, general manager or on-air commentator. He had squeezed every last drop of juice from that orange ball and wanted to focus his attention on his family and his production company. He wanted to create new stories at home and tell new stories to the world. At the time of his death, he was working on a children’s book with Paulo Coelho, the acclaimed Brazilian novelist who penned The Alchemist, and had just worked with John Williams, the famed composer who had scored the music for Star Wars, E.T. and Jaws, on his film Dear Basketball, which won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
The last time I sat down with Bryant was in his office in Costa Mesa on Oct. 21, 2019 before the opener of the 2019-20 season between the Lakers and Clippers. I asked him if he would be at the game at Staples Center as the Lakers were favorites to win the championship (they would go on to win the title) after his friend and former agent Rob Pelinka played a large role in turning the franchise around.
“I’ll call Rob before the game and wish him the best of luck because it’s the start of a new season,” Bryant said. “I’ll try to watch their game afterwards. I might look at the score on my phone but that’s about it.”
He was focusing on spending more time with his wife, Vanessa, and their daughters, Natalia, Gianna, Bianka, and Capri. When I asked him what he would be doing during the game and why he wasn’t at more Lakers games, he said he was going to Natalia’s volleyball game and he wasn’t sure when he would be at his next Lakers game.
“To be honest, I have a life and I have my routine at home,” Bryant said. “It’s not that I don’t want to go (to Lakers games) but I’d rather be giving B.B. a shower and sing Barney songs to her. I played 20 years and I missed those moments before. For me to make the trip up to Staples Center that means I’m missing an opportunity to spend another night with my kids when I know how fast it goes. Natalia is 16 and Gianna is 13 so that time came and went so I want to make sure the days that I’m away from them are days that I absolutely have to be. I’d rather be with them than doing anything else.”
While Bryant was content with his basketball career, Gianna’s love and curiosity for the game pulled him back him. The only magazine displayed in the lobby of his office was the cover of SLAM he appeared on with Gigi and her teammates.
“It’s a trip to see her move and some of the expressions she makes,” he said. “It’s a trip how genetics work. What I love about Gigi is her curiosity about the game. She’s very curious. Even in a heated situation in a game where it’s going back and forth, she can detach herself and come to me and ask a very specific question, which is not common. She’ll come over and say, ‘OK, on this particular trap when I’m trying to close the gap but she’s getting on the outside do I need to change my angle?’ It’s a very specific question. That’s pretty damn cool.”
It was Gianna’s curiosity about the game that sparked Bryant’s interest in getting more involved with women’s basketball. The cold calls, texts and emails Bryant had previously made for himself were now being made by a curious father, trying to be a better “girl dad.” He would call the authors and players Gianna liked and would text UConn coach Geno Auriemma; knowing it was her dream to one day play for him.
Bryant was one of those rare public figures who knew the impact he had on others with his mere presence and words of encouragement. He never took that for granted. He would secretly go to hospitals on the road during his playing career and meet with patients who had reached out to him and give them signed sneakers or jerseys. Not only did he not want publicity for these visits; he instructed everyone involved not to publicize them. These were personal visits he was making on his free time.
I had seen and heard of so many of these interactions covering him as a player but never expected to have my own story but his impact on others didn’t stop when he retired from basketball. On October 25, 2018, Bryant attended his first Lakers game since LeBron James joined the team. He was sitting courtside as the Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 121-114. I happened to be in the bowels of Staples Center as Bryant was leaving. There was a crowd of media and cameramen surrounding him as he was walking out but he stopped when he saw me to compliment me on the weight I had lost. I had lost about 30 pounds after committing to a healthier lifestyle one month earlier on social media. He asked me how much I had lost, what I was doing to lose the weight and what my next steps were. He looked genuinely happy for the reporter who had been over 300 pounds for much of his career.
The last time I interviewed Bryant in his office before the 2019-2020 season, I was 199 pounds and had lost 130 pounds in one year. One of the big reasons for that was his words of encouragement one month into my weight loss journey. I had tried to lose weight before, I had good weeks before, but I had never had someone like Kobe Bryant telling me I looked good and telling me to keep it up in front of a group of people capturing that moment.
He smiled when I told him that story. I’m sure he had heard similar stories before from others he had inspired. His words of encouragement only took a few moments but he changed someone’s life in the process. I had seen him do that so many times during his playing career and now I was the one thanking him for helping me. He told me to pay it forward and motivate others by telling my story, which I did.
“If we do it the right way,” Bryant said. “We’ll be known more for what we did after than what we did during.”