It’s never been lost on me how fortunate I’ve been in my career to rub elbows with some of the greatest to play their respective games: Lebron James when he was a young Cavalier; Shaquille O’Neal during his Los Angeles prime; Phillip Rivers of the then San Diego Chargers; legends like Lynn Swann or Terry Bradshaw; and as sad as it is to write it, the late Kobe Bryant.
As a young man in my sports journalism career, I worked at a radio station that carried the Los Angeles Lakers, which meant once a year we were invited as an affiliate to Lakers’ media day in Los Angeles where we had the chance to interview players, have them record station promo material and so on. Plus, prior to the opening of the larger Save Mart Center in Fresno, Bakersfield was always a preseason stop for the Lakers. The most people I’ve ever seen in what is now called Mechanics Bank Arena was more than 10,000 for a Lakers-Cavaliers preseason game during Lebron James’ rookie season in 2003.
So when Sunday’s news broke that former Lakers great Kobe Bryant and his daughter perished in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, I was struck with not only sadness, but a quick reality check that in fact those we view to be immortal are just as susceptible to tragedy as the rest of us. It’s a sobering reminder for us all that time is in fact limited.
My interaction with Kobe usually stemmed from the media days where hundreds of us with an interest in the team would pack microphones around his face and squeeze in to get close enough so we could pick up some of his thoughts for the upcoming season. He even once politely declined my request for station liners, which essentially are those things you hear in broadcasts where a player tells you who they are and what station you’re listening to the game on. I knew well enough he was too big a star to record that stuff, but I tried anyway. He threw one of those smiles my way, put a hand on my shoulder and said “sorry, no liners today, bud.” A kind pro even when turning down a naïve reporter.
In 2003, during the aforementioned preseason game in Bakersfield, it was clear just how much of a pro he was. That was the season that the Lakers tried to reload by signing some free agents just a little past their prime; this included Gary Payton and Karl Malone, once sworn enemies of the Lakers. It was being mentioned during the days leading up to the contest that Bryant was the only star really scheduled to play. Malone and Payton were tired, nobody was sure if Shaq was making the trip to Bakersfield, so we didn’t know what to expect.
Not one to take even a preseason game lightly, Kobe managed to rally his troops and everyone on the roster saw action that night. In the postgame locker room, I remember both Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal being asked why they in fact decided to play. They both mentioned it was Kobe who called them personally and said, “I need you tonight.” I remind you this was a preseason game, in Bakersfield, in front of just 10,000 fans (small by NBA standards) and against a fresh out of high school marketed as basketball’s chosen one, Lebron James.
I knew Kobe Bryant was a professional in every definition of the word, but to put that much effort into a preseason game proved he took every moment on the court seriously. These are just a few stories from a once-young reporter who had a couple casual encounters with one of basketball’s greatest. I don’t consider myself a major fan of the NBA, but I’ve always been a guy to respect certain players. Kobe certainly was near the top of that list.
Through triumphs, losses and faults, it was clear that each minute of Kobe Bryant’s career on the court was metaphoric for life. Every moment counts, time is limited and even the smallest tasks deserve your utmost attention. Those are the habits of a true professional. That wasn’t lost on a twenty-something-year-old reporter then, and they deserve to be highlighted now, even as one of the brightest stars in a game fades away, far too soon for even us casual fans to comprehend.
Corey Costelloe has covered NCAA, professional and local sports for more than 20 years as a reporter and broadcaster. A THS graduate, he now resides in Tehachapi. He can be reached at email@example.com. The opinions expressed are his own.