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My Ritual With Kobe Bryant

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The last time I was in an N.B.A. arena with Kobe Bryant, I didn’t manage to speak with him.

It was one of the few times in nearly a quarter-century of covering Bryant that we were in the same place and didn’t communicate.

And I will regret it for the rest of my life.

I initially rationalized the lost opportunity by telling myself there were too many people trying to get Bryant’s attention when the Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 29.

Bryant was sitting courtside beside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, to watch the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic, just 20, take on the Lakers’ LeBron James. I must have been listening to my inner dad voice rather than my journalistic conscience because I convinced myself to settle for observing the spectacle from press row.

Yet I can truly say I’ve never seen Bryant look happier. For four quarters, I watched the Bryants as much as the basketball.

Bryant was 17 when he joined the Lakers in July 1996. I was the 27-year-old Lakers beat writer for The Los Angeles Daily News. I had been on the N.B.A. beat for only two and a half years. The supremely confident, deeply ambitious, me-against-the-world Bryant was the first player I ever covered who was 10 years younger than me.

I wound up moving away before Bryant’s first N.B.A. playoff game when a job offer from The Dallas Morning News proved too good to pass up. But shadowing Bryant almost every day for his first nine months in Los Angeles managed to keep me on his radar for the next two decades.

He never told me so, but I was convinced it was because I had been there from the rocky start, when Shaquille O’Neal could be regularly heard singing “I believe that Showboat is our future,” changing the words to the first line of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.”

“Showboat” was Shaq’s snarky nickname for Bryant, who initially struggled to fit in on a team full of veterans — and who had even less patience than acceptance.

Of course, Bryant was also instantly beloved by fans, who voted him an All-Star starter in his second season before he had even cracked the Lakers’ starting lineup. As for me, whether I was with The Morning News, or later at ESPN, Bryant routinely made time for a few questions one on one whenever we crossed paths.

We developed a ritual on his visits to play in Dallas. I would hover near the loading dock at American Airlines Center to intercept him as soon as he got off the team bus. It gave me the chance to walk with him to the visitors’ locker room before the usual pack of reporters swarmed.

But it’s Bryant’s youth when we met that I’ve kept coming back to since Jan. 26, when his helicopter crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, Calif., killing Bryant, Gianna and the seven others on board.

I can’t shake how Bryant’s beloved “Gigi,” just like her father when he became a Laker, was a mere teenager.

It’s the most dispiriting story I’ve covered in 30 years of writing about the N.B.A. — no matter where you stand on how much we should be talking about the felony sexual assault charge Bryant faced in Colorado in 2003.

That case was dropped in September 2004 because Bryant’s accuser refused to testify. But the civil case Bryant settled with the accuser out of court, as well as his public apology to the woman, spawned a legion of detractors who believed Bryant was never fully held accountable.

It is a debate that is bound to rumble on, well past Monday’s memorial service to honor a global sporting icon gone too soon. But I think it is a debate you can separate from this unspeakable tragedy.

On the fateful Sunday, I had just filled in as coach for my son Aaron’s Dallas Texans club soccer team. TMZ’s initial report about Bryant’s death was published shortly after I got home with Aaron and my wife/team manager, Rachel.

Like many, I didn’t believe the report. Part of me still can’t. I naturally prefer to keep flashing back to images of Bryant and Gianna from that joyful evening of Dec. 29.

He looks like Gianna Bryant’s best friend in all of them. As the father of a 13-year-old myself, I can think of no loftier aim.


Follow the @ReaderCenter on Twitter for more coverage highlighting your perspectives and experiences and for insight into how we work.





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