At around 5 p.m. the night before he died, Kobe Bryant was on a daddy-daughter date.
The retired Lakers star strolled through a swanky outdoor Newport Beach (California) mall a few miles from his home with 3-year-old daughter Bianka at his side. They paused to watch fish swimming in a koi pond and played together alongside a fountain before Kobe took Bianka for a treat.
Paradiso Gelato barista Denis Apugliese served them a cup of hazelnut ice cream and marveled at the man Kobe had become. Apugliese saw a competitor who had softened in retirement, a celebrity who was gracious and kind to everyone around him, a father who treasured spending time with his daughter.
“After I rang them out, they sat down at a corner table directly in my sight,” Apugliese said. “His little daughter was eating gelato and running around the table, and I saw him smile and play around with her as well. That was nice to see. He looked like he enjoyed every second he had with his kid.”
When Apugliese came home from work that night, one of the first things the 22-year-old told his family was that Kobe had come by to order gelato. The next morning, Apugliese’s brother woke him up to tell him that Kobe had died in a helicopter crash.
“That’s impossible! I just saw him!” Apugliese responded. Then he checked his phone and saw that his brother was right.
“It hit me pretty hard,” Apugliese said. “I didn’t know him personally, but I had just seen him with his little girl. I just kept imagining how that little girl was feeling knowing that her father was no longer here.”
Much has been written over the years about Kobe chasing Jordan, feuding with Shaq or battling the Celtics, but some of the most poignant stories about the Lakers legend originated away from the basketball floor. He has touched the lives of everyday people from Los Angeles to Toronto, from Philadelphia to the Philippines.
As the world readies to say a final goodbye to Kobe and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna during a memorial service at Staples Center on Monday, here are nine more stories of regular people whose lives Kobe impacted. They range from a Disneyland cast member on his lunch break, to a car service driver craving companionship, to a freelance photographer hoping to boost the spirits of his cancer-stricken mother.
A woman in need
Twelve years ago, a representative for Kobe Bryant reached out to Scott Charles with a request.
When the Lakers next played in his hometown of Philadelphia, Kobe wanted to do something to help a family that had been impacted by gun violence.
Charles, the trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital, recommended a young single mother of two whose life had been in disarray since a bullet tore through her femoral artery in August 2006. Her left leg had to be amputated at the hip. Her right leg below the knee. Doctors managed to save her arms, but so much of the muscle had to be removed that she could barely feed herself or use the bathroom alone.
What Chinika Perez needed most at the time was a wheelchair-accessible van that would help her get around and regain some of her lost independence. On Kobe’s behalf, Charles reached out to the owners of Conicelli Autoplex in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, for help locating and purchasing the wheelchair van.
Kobe and Dom Conicelli jointly presented Perez the van in December 2007 with no media present at the Lakers star’s insistence. Then Kobe invited Perez, Conicelli and their families to attend that night’s Lakers-Sixers game as his guests.
“Following the game, Kobe walked into the suite and immediately made his way over to Chinika,” Charles wrote on Twitter the day Kobe died. “There was no grand check presentation, no oversized ceremonial key. He simply knelt beside her and began speaking. And listening. He would spend the better part of an hour hanging out with Chinika and her family.
“That meeting, which few people knew about, changed her life in ways that Kobe could not have fully appreciated. To this day, the family still has the van.”
Before that meeting, Conicelli disliked Kobe because of a remark the Lakers star made before facing his hometown 76ers in the 2001 NBA Finals. Kobe said he wanted to “cut their hearts out,” a comment many in Philadelphia mistook as a needlessly harsh jab when it was really just a manifestation of the young shooting guard’s trademark competitiveness.
Once Conicelli met Kobe in person, his perception changed.
“He was so grateful to be able to help and appreciative for our part in putting it together,” Conicelli recalled. “He was very humble about it. He was already a huge celebrity by that time, but talking to him it didn’t feel that way.”
Perez declined comment to Yahoo Sports through Charles, but she too never forgot Kobe’s generosity. When word of Kobe’s death began to spread last month, she was the first to reach out to Charles via text.
“Tell me [it’s] not true what I’m hearing about Kobe,” she said.
A Disneyland cast member
As Disneyland cast member James Jacobs was texting his father that he had seen Kobe Bryant in the park earlier that day, a stranger interrupted to ask if it was OK to sit down at the same backstage table.
“Yeah, sure,” Jacobs replied, not bothering to look up from his phone. Not until he finished his text did he lift his head and discover it was Kobe himself having lunch next to him.
“I was like, ‘Oh man!’ ” Jacobs said. “I don’t get starstruck very easily, but that was one of the few moments when I definitely felt like I was losing my composure sitting next to this guy I grew up watching and idolizing.”
Kobe visited Disneyland often with his wife and daughters, but on this April 2016 day the crowds had become too overwhelming. As a result, he retreated to the relative solitude of a backstage area behind Splash Mountain while the rest of his family went on more rides.
It took Jacobs a few minutes to muster the courage to engage Kobe in conversation, but once he did he was surprised to find the Lakers star so down to earth and genuine. Jacobs asked Kobe how it felt to drop 60 points in his final NBA game days earlier before shifting the conversation to how big a role Kobe played in designing his signature Nike basketball shoes.
“I’m a really big sneakerhead, so his insight was really interesting to me,” Jacobs said. “I had dealt with other celebrities in the park that were dismissive or weren’t the most engaged with other people, but Kobe made eye contact with me the entire time. He was probably one of the nicest celebrities I ever met.”
Months after that first encounter with Kobe, Jacobs again ran into the Lakers star at Disneyland while working a parade control shift. The response Jacobs got when he said hello practically left his jaw on the floor.
“Kobe was like, ‘Oh, hey James, how’s it going?’ ” Jacobs recalled. “I didn’t think he could have seen my nametag from the angle he was at, so I was like, ‘You remember me?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I remember. We talked behind Splash Mountain.’
“My friend I was with is also really into basketball. He was like, ‘How the hell does Kobe Bryant know your name?’ He was totally freaking out.”
A mother with cancer
Moments before Kobe Bryant disappeared into the Team Mamba locker room after a basketball game in early January, a freelance photographer summoned the courage to pull him aside and ask for a big favor.
Tim Thymes Jr. wanted to see if Kobe would be willing to film a quick video for his mother, who was fighting for her life after being diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer.
Thymes had first met Kobe about a year earlier before a USC women’s basketball game they both attended. It took the 23-year-old practically 30 minutes to figure out how to approach his boyhood idol, the player whose posters hung on the walls of his childhood bedroom and who he once dressed as for Halloween.
“I was just talking to myself like, ‘What am I going to say? How am I going to approach him?’ ” Thymes recalled. “He’s a legend, so I didn’t want to say anything dumb.”
When Thymes finally composed himself enough to introduce himself, he told Kobe he was a big fan and asked for a picture. Not only did Kobe agree to that, he also took an interest in how long Thymes had been doing photography and encouraged Thymes to keep pursuing his passion.
It wasn’t until December that Thymes had a chance to speak with Kobe again. SLAM Magazine hired Thymes to shoot video of Team Mamba at a tournament in Arizona and asked him to see if Kobe would do a quick interview on camera.
After setting up the interview, Thymes reintroduced himself and told Kobe, “I actually met you once before.” Much to Thymes’ surprise, Kobe responded, “Oh yeah, at USC. You said you were doing freelance stuff.”
“That was the most surprising and humbling moment of my life,” Thymes said. “Someone I idolized my whole life met me once for like a minute and he remembered me from that one quick conversation.”
Over the next few weeks, Thymes developed a bit of a rapport with Kobe while filming a handful of Team Mamba games for SLAM. In early January, Thymes decided the timing was right to tell Kobe about his mom’s condition and to ask him to help make a gift for her.
Tears streaming down his face, Thymes told Kobe that his mom was undergoing chemotherapy and that her prognosis was uncertain. Kobe consoled Thymes, revealed that several of his own family members had suffered from cancer and then spoke into the camera and delivered a heartfelt message.
“Mama Leona, What’s going on? It’s Kobe here,” Kobe begins before complimenting Thymes and offering his prayers. “God don’t give us nothing we can’t handle, right? Just know you’re in our thoughts, you’re in our prayers and you’ll be just fine, alright? Mamba mentality this thing all the way through.”
The night that Thymes sent his mother Kobe’s video, she had actually gone to the emergency room because of an infection. Leona Jacobs-Thymes broke down in tears because of Kobe’s inspirational message and because of her son’s thoughtfulness in arranging it.
Seldom does a day go by without Jacobs-Thymes watching that video, especially in the wake of Kobe’s death three weeks after filming it.
Said a heartbroken yet grateful Thymes, “She watches it all the time on the days that she struggles. That video is everything to her.”
A high school basketball player
Jordyn Griggs was scrolling through her phone a little over a year ago when she discovered a startling Instagram notification.
@kobebryant started following you.
“I just went crazy,” recalled the freshman at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. “It was like the best thing in the world.”
Griggs first met Kobe at a girl’s basketball tournament only a few days earlier when Nike chose her to be part of a training session with the retired Lakers legend. Kobe gave the starstruck 6-foot guard a few pointers and then came back to watch her play the following day.
Over the next 14 months, the way Griggs viewed Kobe gradually changed. He went from an idol to a mentor as they worked together more frequently.
Griggs would sometimes ask him if he had time to train her or work with her on a specific skill. Kobe would also often reach out to ask her to bring her club team to scrimmage against his daughter Gianna and Team Mamba.
“Once I got to know him, I kind of thought of him as a regular person,” Griggs said. “He always told me to work on the little things, the details. I remember I did this drill and I didn’t do a jab step right. He was like, ‘No, no, no, go back.’ He taught me how to do it right, and I still use that skill he taught me to this day.”
Just like Kobe became a source of inspiration for Griggs, she became one for Gianna.
“Gigi kind of looked up to me in a way,” Griggs said. “She always complimented my game. We hung out a bunch of times. We were pretty close.”
The death of Kobe and Gianna was like a one-two punch to the gut for Griggs. She hoped those relationships would last for the entirety of her high school career, if not longer.
But while Griggs will never train with Kobe again, she will continue to reflect on what he taught her as she strives to earn a scholarship to a college with an elite women’s basketball program and perhaps one day reach the WNBA.
“Somebody like Kobe following you and working with you, that’s pretty big,” Griggs said. “So it just inspired me to be better and to work harder.”
Sports marketing executive Jeff Dykeman was on his way to the airport in Toronto in February 2016 when his longtime driver, Khan, posed an intriguing question.
He asked Dykeman to guess which NBA player was kindest to him the previous weekend when he chauffeured them around Toronto to various All-Star functions.
“I think I rattled off six or seven names before I gave up and he said, ‘Kobe,’ ” Dykeman recalled. “I was shocked. I was like, ‘Really?’ I couldn’t believe that the nicest guy was the one who had the most obligations that weekend.”
Of the roughly two dozen players that Khan drove in his luxury SUV during the weekend of the 2016 NBA all-star game, Kobe was one of the few who bothered to look up from his phone and engage in conversation. Kobe peppered Khan with questions about his Indian heritage, his family and his path to Canada throughout the 15-minute drive before shaking the driver’s hand and leaving a generous tip.
When Khan shared that story with Dykeman, both men noted that the timing of the conversation made Kobe’s kindness all the more noteworthy. Kobe was the most celebrated and sought-after figure at the 2016 NBA All-Star game because he had just announced his impending retirement a few months earlier and was in the midst of his farewell season.
“Kobe talked to him like they were old friends catching up,” Dykeman said. “It wasn’t a simple, ‘Hey, where are you from?’ It was 15 minutes of Kobe asking questions because he wanted to learn more about this random driver who was here by way of India.”
The conversation with Kobe was enough to quickly convert Khan into a Lakers fan. Before Khan and his family returned to India last year, Dykeman would often joke that Kobe was Khan’s “guy” and would update his driver on the latest news pertaining to the former Lakers superstar.
“It probably came up almost every drive,” Dykeman said. “He was so touched that Kobe was such a nice guy when he didn’t have to be at all.”
A restaurant owner
Javier Sosa admits he had a hidden motive for opening his second upscale Mexican restaurant inside a chic Newport Beach shopping mall.
Sosa knew Kobe Bryant lived in a nearby gated community in Crystal Cove, so he hoped to get the chance to serve the Lakers star.
A Tijuana native who moved to Southern California as a teenager, Sosa drew inspiration from following Kobe’s ascent. The relentless work ethic that Kobe displayed on the basketball court was what Sosa emulated as the onetime dishwasher built Javier’s into one of Orange County’s most recognizable brands.
“Since Kobe Bryant came to the Lakers, he was my idol,” Sosa said. “When you see someone as motivated to be the best as Kobe, he was my kind of guy. The way he thinks, his mentality, he was an inspiration.”
In the 12 years since Sosa’s Newport Beach location first opened, Kobe became more than just an occasional customer. He was a Javier’s regular who grew to view the restaurant as a home away from home because of the quality of the food, the exceptional service and the friendship of the Sosa family.
Sometimes Kobe took his wife and daughters to Javier’s because he knew the customers and staff would respect that he was with his family. Or he might request a private room to conduct a business meeting over lunch. Occasionally, when the Bryant family didn’t feel like leaving home, Sosa’s son might personally deliver takeout.
Kobe’s most memorable visits often came after-hours on nights when the Lakers played a home game. After calling on his way home to see if the restaurant could stay open late, Kobe would show up by himself, have dinner and trade jokes with the staff.
“He was such a nice man with us,” Sosa said. “He treated everyone like friends. We knew when he came in with the family he didn’t want to be bothered, but when he came by himself or with a friend it was totally different.”
In May 2010, Kobe invited Sosa and his son to Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Suns. Not only did they watch Ron Artest beat the Suns at the buzzer with a go-ahead put-back, Kobe also introduced them to his teammates after the game and autographed his game-worn shoes for them as a gift.
A few years later, after Sosa opened a Las Vegas location, Kobe brought the Lakers’ Summer League team there. Sosa and his staff got the chance to meet many of the players and coaches who ate at the restaurant that day.
When Kobe died last month, the news waylaid Sosa and the rest of the Javier’s family.
“It was like losing a brother, like losing someone in the family,” he said. “But Kobe Bryant is never going to die in our hearts. Every day, he is with us.”
After taking Kobe Bryant’s drink order and suggesting somewhere that he and his friends could watch a big boxing match later that night, bartender Trevor Russell found a clever way to put the Lakers star at ease.
“What’s your name?” Kobe asked Russell.
“Trevor, what’s yours?” Russell deadpanned, drawing a laugh from Kobe and the rest of the table.
Of course, Russell knew exactly who he was talking to. Everyone at Fox Sports Grill recognized they were in the presence of basketball royalty. The sprawling downtown Seattle sports bar nearly fell silent that evening a little over a decade ago when Kobe walked through the doors.
“We had professional athletes come through every week, but he was a different level of star,” Russell said. “There were NFL players in there when he came in, and I heard them whispering, ‘Oh s---, that’s Kobe!’”
Kobe and his friends only stayed for 30 minutes or so, but that was long enough for Russell to be impressed by the way the Lakers star treated him. The humility and good manners that Kobe displayed were a welcome change from how other professional athletes often behaved toward Russell and the rest of the staff when they came into the bar.
When his party was ready to leave to go watch the fight, Kobe got Russell’s attention by calling out, “Hey Trevor! Come here for a sec!”
“Everyone was like, ‘What the hell? Are Trevor and Kobe friends?’ Russell recalled with a laugh. “Their tab was like $12, and he tipped me like $30 or something crazy. He was nice as can be.”
A dying 5-year-old
Kristen Hecht endured a string of sleepless nights after posting to Facebook about a remarkable act of generosity she witnessed from Kobe Bryant.
She wondered if she had dishonored Kobe’s wishes by sharing a story he originally did not want to be made public.
The night Kobe died, Hecht wrote about his 2005 visit with a dying 5-year-old who shared the same first name and the same love for basketball. A Phoenix cardiologist had asked Hecht if her husband, who worked for the Phoenix Suns, could get Kobe to autograph something for the boy. Instead, the Lakers star insisted on coming to meet his young namesake in person during an upcoming road trip.
A couple days later, Kobe arrived at Hecht’s office at the St. Joseph’s Hospital via limousine with no cameras and no PR people. He even asked to take a back staircase to the boy’s room in the cardiac ICU to avoid drawing any attention.
“For the better part of an hour they played basketball, passing it back and forth, with little Kobe, laughing, his sweet Mama smiling and laughing,” Hecht wrote on Facebook. “Several autographed items were left and many photos were taken. The machines keeping him alive were dinging, whirring and alarming and his doc was just grinning from ear to ear.”
Before his limousine whisked him away, Kobe turned to Hecht and said, “Kristen, what can I do to help? Is it a financial thing? Because I can take care of that.” Hecht was floored by Kobe’s generous offer, but she informed him that it wasn’t a money issue and that little Kobe was simply too ill for a heart transplant.
Little Kobe died the following week. About three weeks later, Hecht received a letter from little Kobe’s mother thanking her for arranging the visit with the Lakers star.
“She said those were the most joyful moments of his entire life,” Hecht wrote. “The photos were the only photos she had of him smiling.”
When Hecht posted that heartwarming story, she naively thought only her friends and family would see it. Much to her surprise, the post went viral within hours, inspiring more than 100,000 likes and 8,000 comments.
The avalanche of attention initially made Hecht feel guilty for betraying Kobe’s request for no PR and revealing a side of him that he preferred to keep private, but she’s grown more comfortable with the decision now that almost a month has elapsed. She believes people needed to know that Kobe was not only a legendary competitor but also a kind, caring person.
“Sometimes we only hear and see the negative with celebrities, so I’m glad that I shared it,” Hecht said. “It was a moment that I observed that was so generous and pure. At a time in his life when he could have benefited from positive PR, that never entered his mind.”
Something remarkable happened four years ago when Los Angeles artist Tommii Lim met his favorite NBA player.
Instead of Lim peppering Kobe Bryant with questions about his sterling career, the Lakers star took an interest in Lim’s work.
It was late in Kobe’s farewell NBA season, and Lim had the chance to give him a hand-painted basketball. Be-Street Magazine had hired Lim to design a ball for a photo shoot commemorating Kobe’s retirement and the release of the Nike Kobe XI.
“I met a lot of celebrities doing different projects, and it doesn’t usually faze me, but Kobe was one of the few where I kind of got a little starstruck,” Lim said. “I’m a big-time Lakers fan, I’m the same age as Kobe and I’ve followed his career since high school. To me, it was like meeting a superhero for the first time.”
Lim’s inspiration for the design of the ball was Kobe’s “Black Mamba” nickname and knack for fighting through criticism and injuries. The black and white color scheme was intended to be an abstract depiction of scar-ridden Black Mamba snakeskin.
There were high-profile reporters and Nike executives present when Lim gave Kobe the ball, but the Lakers star treated the artist like only the two of them were in the room. Kobe thanked Lim for the ball and asked about his inspiration for making it, the process of how he painted it and what life as an artist was like.
“It was amazing to see that one of my heroes was a genuinely good person too,” Lim said. “When I spoke to him, he was such a humble, genuinely nice dude. He was really curious about why I made what I made. It felt like I was talking to a regular person, not Kobe Bryant. He made me feel very comfortable.”
Further confirmation of Kobe’s authenticity arrived a couple years later when Lim discovered a video of the retired NBA legend talking about making the animated short film, “Dear Basketball.” On a shelf behind Kobe was the basketball Lim painted, a sign that Kobe’s gratitude was more than just empty words.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ ” Lim said. “This guy could have thrown it in the trash or given it away or whatever, but I guess he liked it because he kept it.”
When Kobe died, Lim took it hard — so hard that he cried for the first time since he gave up his dog five years earlier. He has since released a limited edition Kobe Bryant print to help aid the families of the nine people who lost their lives in the January 26 helicopter crash.
“It’s weird,” Lim said. “You grow up watching this person on TV since he was 17, and you feel like you know him, like he’s a friend. To lose him like this it’s unbelievably sad.”
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