“What,” you may ask, “…is a South African Gunner doing writing about the Black Mamba?”
No – the answer isn’t a connection as tenuous as the fact that Kobe’s namesnake terrorizes my local sub-Saharan compatriots. It lies in the 16 years that I spent living in Los Angeles from 1996-2012, plying my trade as a film composer in Hollywood.
My residence in LA coincided with the arrival on the NBA scene of a precociously talented young basketball player – a player who made waves even before he threw his first three-pointer.
Going directly to the NBA directly from high school, young Kobe Bryant was only the 6th player (and the first guard) in NBA history to do so. The LA Lakers had already seen the high school star in action, and had made an agreement with the Charlotte Hornets prior to the 1996 draft to trade their starting centre, Vlade Divac for the Hornets’ #13 draft selection. Minutes before the pick was made – the Lakers told the Hornets to pick Kobe, and the rest, as they say is history…
Kobe’s LA Lakers record is freely available everywhere. Here are a few of the highlights:
- 5x NBA Champion (2000-2002, 2009, 2010)
- 2x NBA Finals MVP (2009, 2010)
- NBA MVP (2008)
- 18x NBA All-Star (1998, 2000-2016)
- 2x NBA scoring champion (2006, 2007)
- No.’s 8 and 24 retired by Los Angeles Lakers
- Olympic Gold medals: 2008, 2012
- 33,643 career points (average 25.0 per game)
- 7,047 Rebounds (5.2 average per game)
- 6,306 Assists (4.7 average per game)
One of the hardest parts of being a South African stateside was the fact that my favourite sports weren’t played in the US. There was no rugby, cricket, football, field hockey – only the americanized (bastardised) versions: gridiron, baseball, soccer (which back then barely registered) and ice hockey.
Surprisingly, though, I had played basketball at my high school in South Africa. Our coach was the boarding school caterer: Kevin van de Haak, who had coached the Dutch national basketball side. I played with a number of talented schoolboys who went on to play for the SA Schools national side (I only made the regional team).
So – living in Los Angeles during a period when their local team, the LA Lakers dominated the sport was a real bonus. Here was a sport I enjoyed that I had actually played, something that made me more appreciative of the skills on display in the NBA.
I had also wasted a lot of hours playing EA Sports’ NBA Jam in my early 20’s – so I was familiar with the acrobatics and aerobatics that the top players displayed, game-in game-out.
“He’s on fiiiiire!”
“Nothing but net!!”
Playing on my TV as the Chicago Bulls in a time when Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Larry Bird dominated the game, I had a good idea of how the NBA worked: Eastern and Western Conferences, 7-game playoffs, the draft, MVPs, rebounds and assists – all knowledge acquired through gaming. So when I landed in the States, I knew enough about basketball to get invested.
For those of you that watch basketball – you’ll know that a 1-hour game often lasts more than 4 hours. With all the timeouts, TV breaks, and the clock stopping and starting, games were real events, taking up most of an afternoon or evening – a chance to grab a crate of beers and a tower of pizzas and socialise with the locals. During the playoffs, where teams play a “best of 7” series over the space of 2 or 3 weeks, it seemed as if there was ALWAYS a Lakers game on the box.
Nosebleed tickets for the Staples Centre during mid-season games were readily available and affordable, and I went to a few games between 1996 and 2003, where I got to watch one of the finest teams in NBA history strut their stuff. Kobe, Shaq, Fish, Rice, Fox and Harper, and of course – the legendary Phil Jackson, who had coached my EA Sports Chicago Bulls side…
Occasionally I would scoop tickets closer to the court from friends of producers or Hollywood A-listers. Seeing these balletic giants up close in real life was mind-boggling: like most sports, being ring-side, smelling the sweat, hearing those sneakers squeak, watching a seven-foot, 300lb. crash into the crowd was something that TV could never do justice. And of course, just over there was Jack -raybanned and impish – and Denzel, and scores of other celebrities oohing and aching with the unwashed masses.
“Defense! Defense! Defense!”
The entire Staples Centre would rattle when the games got tight. The silence as Shaq put up free-throw brick after brick towards the end of games, when teams would foul him incessantly and cynically, in a desperate attempt to snatch victory from inevitable defeat. The last-gasp 3-pointers that were Derek Fisher’s specialty; Shaq’s domination in the air and on the rebound; the pure brilliance that Kobe put on display – mind-boggling numbers including an 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors in ‘06, six 60-pointers, twenty-six 50 pointers, and a staggering 134 40-pointers in his career.
On top of all this talent, Kobe was made for media. He was smart, funny, good-looking. When he arrived on the scene he was a tattoo-free, fresh-faced, young, cosmopolitan kid. And, in a master-stroke by brand guru Sonny Vaccaro, Kobe became the face of Adidas in their first shot across the NIKE bow in the lucrative sneaker market, a multi-billion-dollar industry that not-so-secretly governed much of the NBA around the turn of the millennium.
Kobe’s KB8 (later rebranded as the Crazy 8) was easily the most popular basketball shoe on the street courts at Venice Beach in the late 90s, his finely-chiselled face was everywhere: on billboards overlooking the Sunset Strip, on the sides of shopping malls and on busstop benches. Kobe Bryant was “it”. Everything he touched turned to gold.
To lose Kobe now, so suddenly and so tragically has sent a seismic shock through my soul. Quite by chance, my nephew Luke was clipping photos into a school project last night, at around exactly the time that Kobe’s helicopter was taking off into the thick Calabasas mist. Luke was looking for a basketball photo and I said to him, “Find one of Kobe. LA Lakers. My favourite basketball player. Ever.”
Of course – teens never listen, and Luke copied one of LeBron, slamdunking, into his Word document. I shook my head, thought nothing of it, until my Mom called up the stairs to me this morning:
“Shame about Kobe Bryant, hey…”
I’m shaking my head as I write this. I’m sure millions of people are doing the same thing. It’s hard to comprehend events like these – so absolutely shocking, so sudden, so final.
I never met Kobe, but I felt as if I knew him. I went with him on his journey through fame – with its ups and its downs. I watched him struggle with the dark side of American celebrity. I was on his side during those ridiculous feuds with Shaq, defended him against the nay-sayers who called him selfish in his latter years, years when the quality of his team-mates was pretty questionable.
I adored him all those many times that he shredded for us on the court, helping the Lakers dominate basketball for almost ten years. I celebrated with thousands of other Angelenos at the June 2002 ”Threepeat” parade, was heartbroken when the Sacramento Kings shattered our chance to achieve the historic Fourpeat.
Kobe was special.
To put his death in perspective: imagine if the Arsenal Invincibles hadn’t been packaged off and sold to finance the new stadium. Imagine if we had been able to keep them together for two or three more years. Imagine if Thierry Henry, or Dennis Bergkamp, had spent their entire careers at Arsenal, like Tony Adams. Imagine Arséne Wenger, but with the kind of finances and backing enjoyed by Guardiola. Imagine combining all of these legends and then rolling them into one 41-year-old man.
And then imagine losing that person, in such a sad and dramatic way.
Kobe was a one-club man. He was the shiny wonder-kid, and the wisened veteran. He was often mind-blowingly impressive, and always consistent and dedicated. In his latter years he played through career-threatening injuries: his legs were a roadmap of scars from injuries and surgeries.
Kobe Bryant was a wonderful ambassador for basketball. He inspired modern legends, such as LeBron James, (who credits a visit to his high school by Kobe as a pivotal moment in his life). Kobe was entering a new phase of his life, one where he could use his experience and influence to shape the future of the game.
His daughter, Gigi, who died with him on that fateful trip, along with seven other souls, was an aspiring young basketball player in her own right – the star of a team that he coached. There was so much to live for, so much potential – which makes their loss even harder to bear.
I don’t know what this piece is, exactly. It’s part-tribute, part-eulogy, and also a selfishly cathartic putting-into-perspective of what Kobe meant in my life. I pray it doesn’t come across as narcissistic. It certainly isn’t meant to. Hopefully some may read this and see their own stories echoed in it.
We all feel connected to celebrities and sports legends. Their stories interweave with our own. Our paths rarely actually cross, but they can sometimes run so closely adjacent that it seems as if they did: as if we had lived a part of our lives together.
My heart goes out to Kobe’s family and many friends, and to the families and friends of those who lost their lives on that sad, misty Calabasas mountainside.
Rest in peace, Black Mamba.
Paul Hepker (aka invinciblog/batmandela) recently returned to South Africa after a 16-year stint in Hollywood, where he plied his trade as a film and TV composer. He adopted Arsenal in the mid-80′s, and if it doesn’t start behaving soon he’s going to send it to boarding school.
As an ardent Gunner propagandist – he has contributed a number of tongue-in-cheeky images to the Goonerverse – one of which is bound to get him into trouble at some point.