In truth, I am not a huge fan of Kobe Bryant, the effervescent global basketball icon who passed away Sunday (Monday in Manila), stunningly in a helicopter crash in California
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But the year was 1998, the month was August, and I was a greenhorn 21-year-old sportswriter for the Manila Standard. I was waiting patiently in line along with other media types to ask the budding Los Angeles Lakers star—who, incredibly, was a year younger than me—what his thoughts were of visiting the Philippines for the first time as a bona fide National Basketball Association professional.
The press conference was at a hotel in Mandaluyong City, next door to the mall where he would grace a 3-on-3 competition staged by his shoe sponsor at the time (no, not Nike). I stepped up to the mic, gazed at Kobe seated at the dais some 20 feet away, and blurted out my question. I don’t even remember what I asked him, but was genuinely pleased, and blinded, by the smile that he shot back at me.
Again, because I’m a fortysomething now, I don’t recall what Kobe replied either. But I can remember, as I lingered near the microphone to ask a followup question that day, that he was amazed that Filipino drivers could weave through traffic as easily as he could slither past defenders on the way to the basket.
“I was really scared, man. We were passing cars by a hair on our way from the airport, and I was holding onto the doors, checking if they were locked, as I was swinging from side to side,” said Kobe—or something to that effect. Later, he explained that Manila traffic was unlike anything he had experienced on the highways of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, or Italy, where he had spent his childhood.
Later, another journalist—a lady who would be a workmate and friend of mine later in life—asked Kobe what he was looking for in a girlfriend. That is inane, I thought until I realized that hey, Mr. Bryant here is one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. As true “ballers” would know, you’ve got to shoot your shot.
That day, sadly, was my one and only shot at covering a man who would become one of the world’s biggest sporting stars. I was a sportswriter for several years more after that, but I would only be able to observe him from afar while keeping a keen eye on his statistics as I employed him in my fantasy basketball teams.
Unlike my sportswriter-friends, I would not be able to witness or record Kobe’s six other visits to the Philippines—the last one in June 2016, a few months after he retired, after two decades with the only NBA team he would ever play for. They even had the good fortune to be coached by “The Black Mamba” and play for him in one of those visits.
So why write about Kobe now? Like millions across the world who absorbed the gut-punch report of his demise on Monday morning, I had to come to terms with what Bryant meant to me and my generation, people who fully expected him to live for several decades more while he imparted his “Mamba mentality” to our children, and maybe to our grandchildren.
Inevitably, this leads me to the similarities I have with Kobe. We were both born in the ‘70s. We both went straight from high school to the pros (I was recruited to write for the Standard a few months after my HS graduation). We were both considered wunderkinds in our professions, but I could never agree with being called the Kobe of local sportswriting (by at least one well-meaning friend anyway).
The parallel that hits me the most, however, is our shared fatherhood. Kobe has four girls by his wife Vanessa, and in a cruel twist of fate, his second-eldest daughter Gianna, a budding hoops star in her own right, was with her father and seven others as the Sikorsky they rode in a heavy fog spiraled to their deaths and exploded on a Calabasas hillside.
My daughter is just two years older than Gigi. I could never imagine dying in an accident, much less alongside any of my family. But that is how God decided to take away Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and their seatmates on that fatal chopper ride, from the world. Yes, I’m not a huge fan of the Laker legend, but like others, I loved him as a competitor, I hated him as an opponent—and now I feel a lot hollow inside, knowing that one of my generation’s heroes isn’t available for an interview anymore.
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