Kobe Bryant's Final Game in Oklahoma City
All of us who do media for a living deal with shock in a reporter way. It's all the same- we put on a brave face. We do our best to disseminate accurate information and give a traumatic event the care it deserves. While we strive to keep our heads about us, we are human, and at times emotion overcomes us. Today is one of those days.
As news comes in about Kobe Bryant's passing, I wanted to tell you the short story of my one encounter with Kobe. The problem is, as a reporter, you don't want to make it about yourself. As much as you may be grieving, you're not the story, and anything that is written or spoken should not be to make yourself feel better but to give insight to your reader or listener.
There are many words used to describe Kobe - intense, competitive, fierce, incredible, amazing, incomparable. On the night of April 11, 2016 - I added "grateful" to that list. It was Kobe's last game in Oklahoma City, two nights before he would blister The Jazz for 60. "Mamba Out."
The game itself is hard to remember; what sticks out are the multiple (and that's putting it mildly) Laker jerseys, signs, and kids in single digits that crowed the southeast stands of the Peake, the exit that leads to the hallway just before the visitor's locker room. In case you have forgotten the game itself, leave it to Russell Westbrook to steal the show on Kobe's final night in town. Westbrook had a triple-double before the end of the first half (13,10,14). The Thunder won over a then 16-64 Laker team 112-79.
The outcome and even Westbrook triple-double were inconsequential. April 11th was Kobe's night, and the fans let him know it. From opening introductions to every time he hit a shot (13 points in a 4 of 12 shooting), all of Bryant's actions were met with adoration as if he were playing for the Thunder. There probably hasn't a visiting player who never wore Thunder Blue to get that loud of an ovation in the Peake.
One of those signs that a young Kobe was holding up said: "We love the haters." It was the motto Bryant seemed to play by for the better part of his career, primarily in the post-Shaq era. However, on this night when Bryant was brought into the Thunder interview room, (complete with Laker backdrop) what we saw was not a basketball player with a chip on his shoulder, but a man who was happy and at peace with all he had accomplished, and the impact he made.
He was asked about Westbrook's triple-double and said that yes, he had seen a triple-double in the first half, but had never seen anybody get as many triple-doubles in a season as Russ did. "It seems to fly under the radar because of what's Steph's (Curry) doing in Golden State." ..."He's probably the most athletic player I've played against." If only Kobe could have seen into the future. How much would Westbrook's exploits have blown his mind?
It was that thought that leads me to ask 'how much of [himself] does he see in Russ?" "A ton, a ton, I didn't smile much on the court either."..."He plays the game with such an energy and aggressiveness. It needs to be appreciated."... "He's not out there trying to be cute with the basketball; he's not out there trying to make friends."..."These guys are playing hard every time down." .."That takes a lot of energy when you do that, and he just never seems to run out of it." In that one answer, we saw the "Black Mamba". The look on Bryant's face was stoic as the words came out of his mouth. For that moment, everyone in that room knew he was the only person (or one of the few) that could genuinely identify with Westbrook's mentally. It was as if we were being treated to a conversation with the Pope on the details of Vatican history.
After a brief glimpse of the intensity that made Bryant the man who could drop 81 in a single game, the smile was back. He was honest, direct, and never once scoffed at a single question even when I asked him what it meant to him to accomplish so much as a Laker. He simply said, "Everything." .."It's like a dream come true for a kid who grew up getting to play for his favorite team." ..."There is no place I would rather end my career."
The cliche don't meet your heroes has merit, but the one time I had the chance to have a small interaction with Kobe Bryant, he was everything a fan would want him to be. Humble, kind, direct, insightful, competitive, and, most of all, happy to be where he was in the moment. Thank you, Kobe, for sharing just a bit of your life with us.