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Sonny Vaccaro, the longtime basketball kingpin and sneaker executive, first met Kobe Bryant after the player’s sophomore season of high school. Vaccaro has seen them all thru the years, signing Michael Jordan to Nike, later serving as confidant to a high schooler named LeBron James, and befriending countless young and gifted players en route to NBA glory.
Now here was Kobe, just 15, a relative unknown who’d grown up in Italy and only got invited to the then-Adidas ABCD Camp that Vaccaro was running because Vaccaro knew his dad, Joe Bryant, from back in the day.
Except Kobe proved to be far more than just some legacy invite, some act of ancient kindness. He’d come out of nowhere to dominate even older and more established players. With each game he seemed to find a new level of play, a new level of effort to meet the challenge. It was the game inside the game.
By the end of camp, Kobe was in the All-Star game and had made a name for himself. That’s when Vaccaro bumped into him.
“He hugged me,” Vaccaro recalled Sunday afternoon. “I’ll never forget, he hugged me. And he said, ‘Mr. Vaccaro, I’m sorry.’
“I said, ‘Sorry? Kobe what are you sorry about?’ ”
“He said, ‘Next year, I’ll be the MVP of this camp.’ I’d never heard such a thing before, never heard it again. Apologize for making just the All-Star game? Not Michael. Not LeBron. I said right then, ‘This kid is special.’ ”
Vaccaro, now long retired, spoke with a cracked voice that was overcome by emotion. It was the same way nearly everyone in the basketball world was processing the stunning and tragic news Sunday that Kobe Bryant was among nine people who died in a helicopter crash in California.
He was 41 and forever young.
Among those on board, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, making the heartache just that much worse. They were reportedly headed to a travel basketball game — Gigi the player now, Kobe just a proud 40-something dad-coach on the sideline.
Bryant was always one of a kind, always unique, always himself. He was somehow always flawed, yet somehow always perfect. He was a touchstone of a player and a personality that elicited reaction with nearly everything he did, often causing those who loved him to hate him and those who hated him to love him at least for a few minutes.
He carried himself with a carefree confidence, never backing down from hostile crowds or lonely last-second jump shots. He always believed in himself. He would, indeed, return and be named ABCD Camp MVP. He would become the No. 1 player in America. He would invite recording star Brandy to his prom because, why not?
Vaccaro watched it all unfold, on the court and off, and committed the future of Adidas Basketball to signing not an established NBA or college star, but this one kid, an eventual 13th overall pick.
“You just knew,” Vaccaro said. “You just knew.”
Kobe would skip college and go directly to the NBA at a time when such a thing really didn’t happen, especially for someone with academic eligibility.
Once there, he would get to the Los Angeles Lakers, prove he belonged, and even as just a rookie teenager welcome the chance to take the potential playoff game-winning shots even grizzled veterans shy away from. You knew it was just a matter of time before those shots began to fall.
Across 20 years he established himself among the pantheons of the all-time greats, a one-name global sensation. It wasn’t just that he could play, it was how he played. His focus was singular … win. He didn’t care who he had to step over to get that done, teammate or opponent alike. He cared about defense as much as offense. More, actually.
He was the Mamba, the Black Mamba, who thrived on the slow, relentless burn of self-improvement until no one in the league could contain him, until he could just squeeze the life out of everyone, outlasting them all.
He won five NBA championships with the Lakers. He was the league MVP. He was Finals MVP, twice. He was an 18-time All-Star.
He was also a throwback, maybe the last, to an era when players didn’t care if other players liked them. Respect? Oh, he demanded respect. But this was about winning titles, not making friends. He somehow never really cared, at least outwardly, about his image.
No one could ever figure him out. He spoke Italian. At the Olympics, while USA Basketball teammates were back in the hotel, playing cards among themselves, he’d pop up at events to root on Americans or just to experience the entire thing.
He had dark moments and personal failures, but he and his family stuck together. There could never be any questioning of his commitment as a father, and in retirement he’d immersed himself in coaching his children, including his daughter’s AAU team, and championed girl power through sports.
He could be impervious. He could be profound. He could be both at the same time. He was wholly and completely fascinating.
You literally couldn’t predict what he might do next.
And that’s among the tragedies here, for the millions of us who weren’t family or friend, who mourn from afar. Kobe Bryant’s next surprise could have been anything. A man that inspired cheers and jeers, who inspired first reactions and second considerations, who inspired work and perspective and dreams to be chased.
A magnificent star, a larger-than-life personality, a loving and devoted father, yet somehow approachable and simple.
He was Kobe. That’s it. And now no one knows where to go from here.
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