Kobe Bryant had a soft touch for his fans and a steady eye on life after the Lakers
Those who spent time with the future Hall of Famer, including me, will remember him as beyond confident, relentlessly curious and genuinely hilarious
Cameron McCoy stood near the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room after a preseason game on Oct. 24, 2008, with no clue about the life-altering moment that was coming his way. Suddenly, one of the NBA’s biggest stars walked out of the locker room and started looking around and saying, “Where’s Cameron at? Where’s Cameron?”
Seven-year-old Cameron stood there frozen before slowly putting his hand up as the Los Angeles Lakers superstar walked over to him and his two young friends. The two-time NBA Finals MVP introduced himself to Cameron and his friends by saying, “Hello, my name is Kobe. What’s your name?” Bryant then gave the kids an autograph and words of wisdom before taking a picture that Cameron will cherish for a lifetime.
“It was the day after my seventh birthday, and I remember us walking down by the Lakers’ locker room,” the now 15-year-old Cameron said. “Kobe walked out, and the first thing he said is, ‘Where’s Cameron?’ And after that we got an autograph, he talked to us and took a picture. He was a really cool dude.
“He asked if I played basketball and just told me to work hard and be humble. I just wanted to become as great as he was. I wanted to be like him and later paid attention to how hard he worked. I wanted to do the things that he did.”
When the Lakers retire Bryant’s No. 8 and 24 jerseys on Monday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the “Black Mamba” will be remembered as perhaps the NBA’s most feared scorer behind Michael Jordan, the fiercest of competitors, and a beyond-tough five-time NBA champion. Fans, however, either loved or hated the win-at-all-costs Bryant. Haters would say he was a ball hog and a selfish teammate and that he pushed Shaquille O’Neal out of Los Angeles.
Those who spent time with the future Hall of Famer behind the scenes, including me, will remember him as beyond confident, comedianlike hilarious, surprisingly curious and amazingly bright.
Cameron’s father, former St. Mary’s College guard-forward Troy McCoy, was one of those Bryant haters. But those feelings immediately changed because of the kindness Bryant showed toward his son, who at the time was dealing with a motor disorder called apraxia of speech. Cameron’s form of apraxia made it difficult for him to plan and coordinate the movements necessary for speech. He was very shy and didn’t speak much.
Lakers media director Alison Bogli heard the kids cheering loudly behind the Lakers’ bench after every basket and arranged the postgame passes. After meeting Bryant, Cameron’s friends went to school the next day and told everyone that the birthday boy personally knew the Lakers star. Cameron eventually brought his picture to school as proof. Soon after, even Cameron’s older popular classmates were cool with him because they heard he knew Bryant. It was then that Cameron’s confidence began to grow. Meeting the 18-time NBA All-Star also made Cameron begin to take basketball seriously.
“Before, I only knew what I saw on TV,” Troy McCoy said. “He was completely different than what I expected. I saw him suddenly as a good dude. He made the kids so comfortable, and it seemed pretty genuine.”
I once saw Muhammad Ali sign autographs for nearly two hours in Louisville, Kentucky, after being named Kentucky Athlete of the Century in 1999. Outside of Ali, I have never seen someone more genuine with the fans than Bryant. I marveled at the way he handled being stared at and graciously dealt with people wanting to say hello or talk trash.
Cameron was stunned that Bryant knew and said his name. But Bryant always tried to know everyone’s name when he met them or wanted to meet them.
The 2008 NBA MVP would often get background information on people he had to or wanted to meet on his own or get the information from Bogli or his personal public relations managers Michelle Obeso-Theus or Molly Carter. He also loved to cold-call people who were leaders in their fields whom he wanted to meet in hopes of picking their brains. People such as Apple’s head of design Jonathan “Jony” Ive, Game of Thrones co-executive producer, novelist and short-story writer George R.R. Martin, Oprah Winfrey and Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington.
On several occasions after Lakers games, I would see fans nervously waiting to meet Bryant outside the locker room. But Bryant would calm their nerves by always warmly introducing himself and asking as many questions as the fans would. Whether the meeting was two minutes or 10 minutes, whoever met Bryant felt like they personally knew him afterward.
“He did a lot of due diligence on his own,” said Obeso-Theus, who worked for Bryant from 2011-15. “Regardless of how people view him, he is a genius. Very tenacious. Resilient. He taught me dedication and sacrifice to be great. His vision to see the future was crazy. When he said he wanted to meet with someone, he always wanted to know what made them great. It didn’t matter if they were a wood-carver. He wanted to understand the mentality of what it takes for them to be a great wood-carver.
“He is a great guy. I think he is misrepresented a lot of times. He was always very nice to everyone. If he didn’t know who the person was, he would always ask questions. I really love that guy, Kobe Bryant. I credit where I am to him.”
I didn’t see eye to eye with Bryant at first in the early 2000s. Shaq was more of a media darling at the time. Bryant seemed arrogant while I was covering the Denver Nuggets and the NBA for The Denver Post. When I had the assignment of having to ask Bryant about playing in Denver for the first time after he was charged with sexual assault in Colorado (the charges were later dismissed), he slammed a door in my face to end the interview before it started.
Then, in 2005, my parents had to temporarily move to Dallas and I had family who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. It was my pleasure to write about a Kenny Smith-led offseason charity basketball game in Houston with NBA stars raising money for Katrina victims and bringing awareness to their nightmare. Bryant was one of those NBA stars who found time to play and meet the victims while touring the facilities that temporarily housed them. After I interviewed Bryant at the event, he asked me a lot of questions about my family and we got to know each other better.
From that point on, Bryant always gave me the extra time I needed in interviews with him. Now, don’t get me wrong, he didn’t like all of my questions. He strongly barked at me once for a tough question I asked after a loss to the Phoenix Suns in the postseason. I found it a compliment that he also once told me, “You always ask me those Dr. Seuss a– questions …”
Bryant always offered the most insightful quotes. It’s a shame that the future Hall of Famer isn’t playing now so we could regularly get his thoughts on the racial and social issues in America. But if you pay attention to Bryant’s Twitter or Facebook page, he will occasionally drop some gems on Colin Kaepernick, race or other issues.
I also enjoyed the comedic side of Bryant.
The Nike endorser once gave me hell for wearing Adidas gear when I interviewed him one-on-one. From that point on, if I have a one-on-one interview with an NBA player, I will always wear a pair of the shoes they endorse out of respect if I’m dressed casually. Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry once complimented me for wearing Under Armor shoes during an interview with him.
During the first round of the 2009 NBA playoffs, Bryant joined me, my old San Jose State buddy Lossie Mitchel and some other friends during a night off to relax and watch playoff games. The Lakers held a 2-1 series lead over the Utah Jazz. A female patron walked over to us and began heckling Bryant about why she thought the Jazz would win Game 4. She was loud and borderline offensive. Bryant, who was not drinking, answered with one-liners about how he was far from intimidated by the Jazz. The Lakers won the next two games to end the series.
“I liked him even more after that because he wasn’t as cocky as I heard he was,” Mitchel said. “He was a cool cat in my eyes.”
Bryant, who went from high school to the pros, prepared for his future after basketball long before he retired.
Obeso-Theus said she was amazed at how much Bryant knew about the business world and described him as “self-taught.” Bryant’s former Lakers teammate Tarik Black said Bryant would often ask him about his business portfolio and endeavors outside of basketball. Warriors All-Star forward Kevin Durant added that Bryant taught him how to “always learn, grow and be curious” on and off the court.
“You could tell he was always gaining a lot of information, a lot of knowledge,” Durant said. “There was so much going on in his head. He was trying to get it out. You just felt like he was always simmering something, whether it was just advice for the young guys, whether it’s life or about business or basketball. He was always trying to get more and more information. You could see it.
“I had dinner with him last year in OKC. He came when [the Oklahoma City Thunder] played the Lakers. The stuff we were talking about was next-level as far as what he wanted to do when he was done playing, his vision as a basketball player and how he wanted to leave his mark as a basketball player. … I really appreciated his intelligent mind.”
Bryant suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear on April 12, 2013, battling the Warriors. It is still awe-inspiringly amazing to remember that three years later at age 37 he’d score 60 points in his final game. But while Bryant was recovering from the injury, Obeso-Theus was stunned that he still found the time or the energy for his business endeavors.
“When he was recovering from the Achilles injury, we always had his business meetings at the Lakers’ practice facility,” Obeso-Theus said. “He was simultaneously rehabbing and doing business. That showed how powerful his brain is. He was dedicated to his business, employees and rehab all at one time. People never saw how tough the recovery was day in and day out. He was picking up marbles with his toes and doing many other things to come back.
“He met with great people. He had an amazing advertising mind. He would listen. Very determined. Particular. Concise. Lucky to have him as a boss.”
Cameron is a member of Los Angeles Fairfax High School’s freshman boys’ basketball team. He wears No. 24, just like his father did in college. Troy McCoy, however, believes his son might be wearing that number in tribute to Bryant.
“Ever since he met Kobe he’s been all about basketball, all the time,” Troy McCoy said. “He wears 24. He says it is because of me, but I think Kobe has something to do with it.”