It would be the last time I saw Kobe Bryant in person.
He stood outside the visitor’s dressing room at the Palace of Auburn Hills talking to Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay. Both stood with jersey’s dangling from their hands prior to a jersey exchange.
It was a meeting Slay requested because Bryant was both a hero and role model to Slay. Big Play broke into the biggest smile when Bryant said he not only knew who Slay was but admired his work on the field.
“You know who I am,?” Slay asked.
Bryant broke into that famous smile of his.
“Of course,” Bryant said. “I love the NFL. And you can ball.”
As soon as the words came out, Slay beamed.
Today, I write this on a stunning and amazing day. Kobe Bean Bryant is dead at age 41 following a helicopter crash northwest of Los Angeles. He did as much during a work-a-holic post basketball career as he did during his playing career.
Young teammates wanted to work out and keep up with Bryant. He told them to meet him at the gym at 4 o’clock. They thought Bryant meant 4 in the afternoon. No. Bryant wanted them to show up at 4 in the morning.
He won five NBA titles, was the league MVP in 2008 and was one of the most popular athletes of all time. It was the same here in Michigan. The Palace became electric when Bryant rose for a jumper. And television sets in Detroit were more likely tuned into Bryant and his playoff run than the Detroit Red Wings and their playoff run.
The last time I spoke with Bryant was in 2004, a few days before the Lakers faced the Pistons in the NBA Finals. I met with a man who was unfocused and was not mentally prepared for that series. Based on speaking with Bryant and teammate Gary Payton I changed my mind and picked the Pistons to win that series.
They did not take the Pistons seriously. The Pistons won in five.
Bryant struggled against the smothering defense of Tayshaun Prince. But Bryant was reluctant to give it up to another man. He said he was measuring Prince up and the eruption was about to come, he said.
When I saw Kobe speak it appeared to me that he was trying to pattern himself after Michael Jordan. Their speech patterns were similar as were parts of their game.
“He wanted to be like Michael Jordan. He wanted to continue that legacy,” Payton told ESPN.
He was not Michael Jordan though. Bryant at times was a much more selfish player.
This tragedy comes a day after LeBron James passed him for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
He will be remembered around the world as a Los Angeles Laker. However, he was loved in Detroit among Pistons fans and an All Pro cornerback from the Lions.
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