Following the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant, TSN’s Gilbert McGregor reflected on a personal story he had with the all-time great. Two years later, revisit McGregor’s unforgettable interaction with the Hall of Famer.
I don’t want to believe this.:
That’s the only thought my mind could form when I first found out that Kobe Bryant was involved in a fatal accident.
Two years later, I still have a hard time accepting it.
Like many, I’ve had trouble processing the grief of losing someone I didn’t really know.
But then I thought about it.
As fans of the game, we all knew Kobe one way or another. From up close or afar.
For me, the story begins when I was much younger.
I was born in 1994 and for the first 18 years of my life, my dad was a broadcaster for the Hornets.
I immediately gravitated to the game.
One of the best parts of growing up around the NBA was going to games, shootarounds and anything else I could make.
One of the toughest parts of his job was being away for days or weeks at a time but he’d oftentimes bring back something from one of his many stops on the road.
So words couldn’t express my elation when he came back from a Western Conference road trip with a gold No. 8 Lakers jersey, shorts AND a purple shooting shirt.
As a seven-year-old with that uniform on, you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t Kobe. I even remember mustering up the strength to call a local sporting goods store to see if they had purple leg sleeves.
You know, like the one Kobe wore.
They didn’t get it.
I just wanted to be like Kobe.
Fast forward to our move to New Orleans in 2002, where I became a ballboy a few months into our first season there. As an NBA hopeful and fan of the game alike, thus began some of the best years of my life — I was fortunate enough to be up close with some of the game’s best players, even getting a chance to interact with some of them.
How lucky am I that my most memorable interaction with any of them was with Kobe Bean Bryant?
It was December 23, 2008.
The Lakers were wrapping up a four-game trip in New Orleans before they headed back to LA for a Christmas Day Finals rematch against the Boston Celtics. This season, Kobe was on a mission after coming up short in ‘08, and his team entered the night with a 22-5 record.
On the other hand, I was one month removed from tearing my labrum in my first-ever varsity basketball game, meaning I couldn’t play the sport I loved for the first time in my life.
It also relegated me to locker room duties as a ballboy.
No rebounding. No passing. No pregame time on the court with the best of the best. I was distraught.
Honestly, I couldn’t do much, but being around the game kept me looking forward to the days in which I could actually play again.
Once the game began, it was business as usual for the Lakers as they earned their 23rd win of the season behind 26 points, six boards and four dimes from Kobe.
(Yep, that’s me. Out of focus in the bottom right corner.)
After the game, their locker room was quite the scene – I vividly remember D.J. Mbenga and Lamar Odom joking around about finally going home while every reporter in sight was asking about the Christmas Day rematch of the Finals with the Celtics that was less than 48 hours away.
In the midst of the madness, I hear a familiar voice projected in my direction.
“Hey, young fella.”
OK. That sounds like Kobe, but there’s no way he was talking to me.
He was. And he doubled down.
“Hey, young fella, I need you to do me a favor. If you can help me out, I got you.”
Are you kidding me?
Whatever it was, consider it done.
Mind you, I’m 10 months removed from All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, where players generously gave us $100 if we could get their game shoes signed by every participant before the night was over.
And this wasn’t just any player. It was Kobe.
I would’ve done it for free.
So, let’s hear it.
“Can you make sure we’ve got food on the back of our bus?”
What kind of food? How much? From where? Just for him? For the whole team?
I didn’t want to bother him for any more details, but my mind is racing and now I’m starting to get nervous. This wasn’t grabbing some Gatorade or delivering a message or picking up a package, you know… the typical locker room ball boy stuff.
And besides. This was Kobe Bryant.
The last thing I wanted to do was let Kobe down, even if I had no clue what he typically wanted after a game.
I knew my best bet began by making a beeline to the adult in the room, the Hornets staffer that was tasked with leading all operations in the visitors’ locker room on a nightly basis.
It was high stakes, so I stammered a bit:
“So…I just uh…Kobe wanted to see if they could…uh…some food on the back of the bus?”
Before I could finish my struggle to get the question out, I heard all I needed to hear, “Yeah, we’re on it.”
I felt like I had come through in the clutch. Just like Kobe.
Now, all I had to do was let him know it was done, and he’s got me. “He got me”… what did that even mean? I honestly didn’t care. I had a reason to go approach Kobe without bothering him. That, honestly would have been enough for me.
Naturally, there was a bit of a crowd around Kobe as he was preparing to head to the bus. He was holding his game shoes in his hand.
I get his attention and let him know, “they’re on it.”
I get the nod of approval from Kobe and he stops to ask if anyone had a pen on them.
Now at this point, my heart is already racing. I think I know what’s about to happen, but you can never be too sure.
With a silver sharpie, he pens his signature on each of his sneakers and just as he’s about to hand them to me, he pauses.
Ahh…Who’s he about to tell me to bring these to?
“What’s your name?” He asked, followed by a semi-serious quip, “I’m not trying to see these on eBay.”
There were a million things I wanted to say in that moment, each conveying the message that he was about to hand me what would immediately become my most prized possession.
All I remember my mind allowing me to say was “Never.”
The same elation I felt each time I wore my No. 8 uniform at seven was right back. I must have recounted the story to my parents 100 times before we got to the car that night.
And they didn’t get tired of hearing it.
As a broadcaster, part of my dad’s job was to remain as impartial as possible, but as a fan of the game, he still had a few favorites. Among them were some of the all-time greats and of course, the players that were nice to me, his little man. Yeah, those guys held a special spot.
When someone checks both of those boxes, they reach another level.
It was like we knew Kobe.
From then on, my dad and I would bond as we watched Kobe. Months later, we’d watch him win the first of back-to-back titles and Finals MVPs.
By then, he’d probably forgotten about making the year of a 14-year-old kid in New Orleans. But that kid never did.
He never will.
It all came full circle, as their pursuit of a three-peat began in the opening round of 2011 as the No. 2 seed against the No. 7 New Orleans Hornets, a series in which my Hornets stole Game 1 on the road thanks to the heroics of Chris Paul.
In what would be my last few games as a ballboy before graduating from high school, I witnessed Kobe lock in to a laser focus I’ve never seen before from any human in any profession during Games 3, 4 and 6.
He was the first person to the floor, over three hours prior to the tip of each game. As we rebounded each shot (out of the net over 95 percent of the time, easily) and returned the ball to him, he remained in the same spot for much much longer than any other player would.
Like, we were used to seeing guys shoot until they knocked down 10, maybe 20. I’m talking 75-100 makes per spot. Very few misses.
And this was just a minor glimpse into his work ethic.
I didn’t see nor hear him speak to anyone that wasn’t on the floor or in a huddle with him during any of the game days.
Nothing jovial. Nothing back to the crowd. Nothing.
Not until Game 6 was in the bag and the job was done.
The Lakers might have eliminated my squad but I really couldn’t be mad. Kobe had given me his kicks a few years prior.
He was my guy.
And for one final time, I could watch him do what he did best up close.
That memory stuck with me for the remainder of Kobe’s career along with the message on the tongue of the shoes that reads “Carpe Diem.”
I made sure to have that message placed inside my own Kobes, the ones I wore at 21 years old as I watched his final 60-point performance with the same fervor as the seven-year-old that wore his gold No. 8 Lakers jersey during the 2001 NBA Finals.
In each of those moments, we all knew Kobe.
As the second act of his life began, we got a chance to appreciate Kobe the father, the husband, the philanthropist, author and filmmaker.
We drew inspiration from his words and we felt connections to his stories.
The person we were getting to know had so much more to offer than the player we cheered on for 20 years.
In the hours after the news broke, I intermittently fought off tears as I recalled each of the above stories.
When I thought I was good, I’d begin the process of fighting back tears all over again, and I couldn’t quite understand why.
Later that night, I saw my pops for the first time since the news had broken.
I hugged him.
We said no words.
We didn’t need to.
Our tears said more than any words ever could.
It’s because like all fans around the world, we knew Kobe.
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