*On the day the Lakers announced that 17-year-old Kobe Bryant would play his rookie season in L.A., I was among the herd of anxious sportswriters and broadcasters at the Forum waiting to grill this kid from the Philly suburbs.
I remember that day well because it seemed that it took forever for that lanky kid, who spoke fluent Italian and was the son of a marginal ex-NBA player that most of us had never heard of, to enter the room. My most vibrant memory, however, was the woman sitting next to me.
She didn’t belong.
For one thing, she was dressed too well. Secondly, she was too friendly. Up until the time she said she was Kobe’s mother, I hadn’t even looked her in the eye. For a sportswriter on her way out, this was the coup of the day. Fortunately for me, no one else noticed Pam Bryant and she totally watered my garden. By the time we finished talking I knew more about her son than anyone else in the room.
She talked about what the family did the night before, what was said on the ride to the Forum and what they were going to do after the announcement.
“Kobe wants to go shopping,” she said.
Insight. It’s a beautiful thing.
When Pam’s baby boy walked into the room he exuded the confidence of a man twice his age. He smiled in all the right places. Delivered lines that seemed only semi-rehearsed. And he called everyone ma’am and sir when responding to an endless array of questions.
For me, this “ma’am” thing was truly jarring. On one hand it was very refreshing to be in the presence of a soon-to-be millionaire teenager with manners, but damn, did I look that old?
That would be the last time I’d see Bryant for a while. In the ensuing years I might see him at an event and we’d chat whenever I’d come to a game. He never called me “ma’am” again but he was always cordial. Ten years would pass before I’d spend any significant time with him as a producer for ESPN. By then he had become the next big thing in the NBA, but going from boy to manchild had been an uneasy transition for Bryant. He’d become icy and arrogant when everyone needed him to be warm and fuzzy.
He’d sell more sneakers and jerseys that way.
His youth and wealth, however, blinded him from realizing the extent of the damage. First, there was the highly-publicized feud between Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. What should have been a dream pairing for the Lakers and the NBA soon became intolerably nightmarish as neither superstar could check their egos at the player’s entrance door. Their inability to get along forced the media and the public to pick sides. More often than not, folks rooted for Team Shaq.
So, when Bryant was arrested on sexual assault charges in 2003 after a room service waitress in Eagle, Colo. accused him of rape, his teary redemption song didn’t chart well, especially with the Fourth Estate. His surliness had exhausted them.
A seemingly different Bryant emerged from that storm after his accuser refused to testify in court and the charges were dropped. When we met up three years later at the Lakers’ training camp in Hawaii, he seemed less guarded and more engaging. Some speculated it was all an act so that he could recoup the endorsements he’d lost after Colorado, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I asked him what he had learned in the past few years. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I learned a lot,” and left it at that.
I’m sure he had. Adversity has a way of humbling everyone—even a 17-time All-Star, five-time NBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the NBA’s 2008 MVP.
The one thing I always knew about the boy who once called me ma’am at that press conference in 1996 was that he clearly was going to call his own shots. That’s what happens when a boy supports his entire family; has to prove himself among men; screws up and then realizes that he’s not as invincible as his press clippings make him seem.
So, that little ode Bryant, 37, wrote on Sunday to announce his retirement from the NBA was not at all surprising. When the NBA’s No. 3 all-time leading scorer starts launching more airballs than 3-pointers on a team that is well under .500; and is playing with teammates that he could have smoked as a sixth-grader, it’s time to go.
“My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
It is time.
I hope I can make it to his final game in L.A. I would just love the opportunity to say, “Well done sir.”