The day she first met Kobe Bryant, Reshanda Gray had one question she couldn’t wait to ask.
The tall, gangly 13-year-old wanted to know the secret to Kobe’s success, how he had gone from a regular kid to a basketball phenom to a Los Angeles icon by his mid-20s.
Gray was at a crossroads in 2006 when Kobe visited her South Central Los Angeles middle school. A troubled upbringing marred by the drug use of her parents and a lack of other positive role models made it difficult for Gray to maintain hope of escaping her blighted neighborhood or to envision a path to a better life.
At the time, Gray lived with her parents and six siblings in a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of L.A.’s notoriously rough Hoover neighborhood. Violent street gangs were a constant presence in the area, and it was common for Gray to witness anything from drug deals to stabbings to even someone being shot.
“We didn’t have much money coming in,” Gray said. “Sometimes I’d have to sell candy or my brothers would have to do stuff they didn’t want to do — sell drugs, gang-bang or whatever — to help my mom put food on the table. That became normal to me. That was all I knew growing up.”
Gray had started hanging around a bad crowd when a man named Tyrone Dinneen recruited her to join After-School All-Stars, a non-profit organization that offers mentoring and educational opportunities to students from low-income families. Dinneen refused to give up on Gray even as she tested his patience, eventually planting the seed that she had too much to offer to keep skipping school and experimenting with alcohol and drugs.
A further push in the right direction came via a one-on-one meeting Dinneen arranged with one of After-School All-Stars’ national ambassadors. Kobe chatted with a starstruck Gray for almost 15 minutes during a visit to her school, sharing the mantra “dedication sees dreams come true” in order to reinforce that success was the byproduct of hard work and belief in oneself.
“It was a simple message, but it resonated with me because of who it came from,” Gray said. “He was already where I wanted to be. His words were really important to me because he was like a walking prototype for what I wanted to do.”
The early struggles
In the wake of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, Gray has reflected on that conversation often. She wonders where she’d be if Kobe hadn’t taken the time to chat with her 14 years ago, if she’d still have earned a scholarship offer from UC Berkeley, become the first in her family to graduate from college and make the WNBA.
At the time of her chat with Kobe, Gray still was a basketball neophyte. She had resisted playing the sport until the previous year, when Dinneen managed to trick her into giving basketball a try by first persuading some of her friends to sign up.
“I wanted to be a model,” Gray said with a chuckle. “I thought basketball was too masculine. You had to get sweaty and stuff, and I didn’t want to get sweaty.”
Gray now laughs at how raw and unskilled she was when Dinneen finally talked her into playing. On offense, her coaches instructed her to stand under the rim, catch the ball and try to lay it in. On defense, she was just a tall, long-armed mannequin.
Though Gray began to take basketball more seriously after her conversation with Kobe, she still did not make the varsity team as a freshman at George Washington Preparatory High School. Kobe’s words ringing in her ears, Gray responded to that snub by putting up eye-popping JV numbers and leading her team to the Los Angeles City Section JV championship.
The following spring, Gray tried out for Cal Sparks, at the time the Los Angeles area’s most talent-laden girls basketball AAU program. Not only did the coach initially not deem her worthy of a spot on his first team, he had her practice layups at one end of the court while the rest of the girls did three-on-three drills at the other.
“As a 14- or 15-year-old, that hurt my feelings,” Gray said. “But once again, I flashed back to what Kobe said to me — dedication sees your dreams come true — and I was like, OK. I want people to respect me and I want to be great, so I put more work in.”
The extra time that Gray put in with her high school coaches began to make a difference as she grew older. The 6-foot-2 forward improved her fundamentals, worked on her conditioning and refined her skill set to complement the unusual strength, speed and agility that had always been present.
By the time Gray graduated high school, she had accomplished feats that would have seemed unfathomable four years earlier. She captured the 2010 Los Angeles City Section Player of the Year Award, won a gold medal with the U.S. Under-18 team and made the 2011 McDonald’s All American Game.
“The impact that Kobe had on just this one individual is profound,” said Ana Campos, president of the Los Angeles chapter of After-School All-Stars. “He changed the trajectory of her future. Before Reshanda met Kobe, she had never really taken basketball very seriously. She was just trying to survive.”
The power of Kobe
Kobe’s influence on Gray reflects his remarkable commitment to charitable causes throughout his basketball career.
He partnered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to grant dozens of wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses. He worked with multiple Los Angeles-area charities to combat youth homelessness. He helped organize a Mandarin cultural exchange program that gave low-income students the opportunity to experience China. He assembled care packages for wounded warriors, supported reading initiatives sponsored by the Lakers and helped build homes and basketball courts through the league’s NBA Cares initiative.
There were also less formal acts of charity with no fanfare and no TV cameras.
On a foggy day in Newport Beach a month before Kobe died, a man with a cell phone captured him stopping his car to help direct traffic and provide comfort to the victims after witnessing the aftermath of a car accident.
A month ago in Newport Beach Kobe witnessed a major accident and stayed to comfort victims and redirect traffic until help arrived
Mamba Mentality, forever 🕊 #8 #24 pic.twitter.com/wewykSn5J0
— Boosky (@sheabooskyy) January 26, 2020
The wife of a former Phoenix Suns executive last week also shared the story of Kobe making a surprise visit to a hospital to spend an hour with a terminally ill 5-year-old who shared his first name and his love for basketball.
“Little Kobe passed away the following week,” wrote Kristen O’Connor Hecht on Facebook. “About three weeks later I got a letter from Little Kobe’s mom describing the power in those moments. She said those were the most joyful moments of his entire life. The photos were the only photos she had of him smiling.”
Of all the charitable organizations Kobe worked with, few had a longer relationship with him than After-School All-Stars. For more than a decade, he proved generous with his time and natural at interacting with students while visiting middle schools in low-income parts of Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities.
“A lot of the celebrities we’ll work with connect with other adults, but Kobe had no interest in the other adults in the room,” said Ben Paul, president and CEO of After-School All-Stars. “He’d walk into a gym or classroom or school yard, and the whole time he was there, he was focused on the students and how he could share some of his life lessons.
“We’d be respectful of his time and schedule only an hour. An hour would come and go, and he wouldn’t be ready to leave.”
A life reimagined
Among Kobe’s most high-profile success stories at After-School All-Stars was Gray. As a result, Gray couldn’t resist the chance to reintroduce herself when she found out Kobe and Gianna were attending the WNBA All-Star Game last July in Las Vegas.
Gray walked over to Kobe with her arm outstretched, shook his hand and said, “I don’t know if you’d remember me, but my name is Reshanda Gray. I met you through After-School All-Stars when I was 13 or 14 years old.” Then Gray told Kobe her life story, how his life-changing words helped her find a path out of South Central Los Angeles, how she plays for the WNBA’s New York Liberty and how she was launching her own charitable foundation to help at-risk kids who need a push in the right direction.
“I appreciate all the time you put into After-School All-Stars because it mattered,” Gray told Kobe. “I’m a walking example of that.”
“Wow, I’m lost for words,” Gray recalls a smiling Kobe responding, clearly pleased at coming across someone whose life his charitable work had impacted.
They posed for a picture together along with Gray’s New York Liberty teammate Bria Hartley. Then Gray told Gianna to get up from her seat and get in the photo, too.
Only six months later, Gray woke up to the stunning news that Kobe and Gianna were gone. She went to practice with her South Korean professional team in a daze that morning, barely able to process what she had just learned.
Heartbroken as she was by Kobe’s death, Gray was also grateful that she had run into him in Las Vegas last summer.
“I was relieved I’d had a chance to tell him thank you before he passed away,” Gray said. “For me, that was closure.”
More from Yahoo Sports: