I couldn’t ever tell what he was so mad at.
Whether it was me or people like me — reporters, those who never played the game, who could not know what life was like in the arena — or his teammates or his coaches or the whole world. Probably it was me.
Kobe Bryant and I were acquainted for five years. He was the best player in the NBA or something close. I was a baseball writer assigned by the L.A. Times to cover the Lakers. It almost certainly showed.
Also, I was the guy standing there when Shaq said something he didn’t like, or when Phil hinted at looming discord, or when they lost, or when he returned wrung out from Colorado with still a game to play, or when he really wanted to be getting home to his young daughter.
That Kobe’s eyes were narrow, lips taut, mood dark.
It was about where I left him, in that place in his career and mind where for him there seemed to be few allegiances beyond this ball and that rim. Everything else was an obstacle. Surely that’s where all the trophies and championships came from. Surely that was why he was great at what he did.
Across the next 15 years, I rooted for Kobe Bryant. Not necessarily for Kobe the two guard, Kobe the Laker, Kobe the scoring leader. He’d handle that on his own. Rather, I hoped he was finding ways to have fun. Maybe it sounds silly, even presumptuous, but I hoped he had friends. I hoped he laughed and meant it. I hoped he was a wonderful father. I hoped that when he opened the doors and life rushed in he didn’t bother with the muddy footprints.
Access to the Lakers had been like viewing them through a mailbox slot. You’d get the straight-on view — knees up, neck down — and hear some voices and that was about it. You knew what kinds of cars they drove, because half the job was waiting for them in a parking lot. Most of the time the Lakers were a mystery, none more than Kobe, the gifted young man and NBA blue blood who soared and gritted his teeth and swung sledgehammers, then disappeared into himself until it was time to soar again.
The basketball part was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The trainer, Gary Vitti, would wrap him head to toe in athletic tape, raise his eyebrows to the fellas on press row as if to say, “Well, I’ve done all I can,” and then we’d all watch him drop 40. “A warrior,” Vitti would say afterward. “A warrior.”
On Sunday afternoon, these 15 years later, a text message arrived from Vitti. It was a red heart, fractured down the middle.
He’d run out of athletic tape.
So it had been with some interest I’d watched Kobe end his career in the arms of teammates, some of whom had known him only a short while. And then as his former teammates returned for his farewell, too, men who’d a decade before toiled with him, drank Champagne with him and rode in parades with him, and also admitted to having no idea what to do with him. Over the years they’d become amused by the memories of this kid with the funny ’do and ugly shoes who’d bloody near anyone in practice — practice — because he had to win then, too.
They’d grown to like him. They’d grown to understand him, at least a little more. And then, quite suddenly, he wasn’t a kid anymore, then wasn’t even a player anymore, and the delightful people surrounding him were his children, so beautiful he could barely stand it, and he seemed so … comfortable. Proud. Humble.
It occurred to me then that Kobe Bryant didn’t need me rooting for him anymore. That he had that handled.
We’d crossed paths once and for a very short time. His life then was going to take some work to get to here, to a place where the fun was real, and so were the friends, and now when he laughs it is with a chorus. Their names are Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri.
Good for him, I often thought. Good for Kobe. We hadn’t gotten along very well, and that was probably the way he preferred it, and probably what I’d had coming. And he probably never gave it another thought.
I did, pretty often. Because, and this will sound dumb, I’d become proud of him. I liked the man he’d become. The father he was. The stuff, I hoped, he’d left behind. He certainly didn’t seem mad anymore. But, then, he wasn’t getting to his car and finding me standing next to it anymore, either. Now his eyes were wide, his face in a full grin, his mood light.
Good, I’d thought, because the world is going to need a lot more like him.
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