There is a hole in the Southern California sports world after the loss of Lakers icon Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
Bryant was an inspiration for generations of athletes in Long Beach, and not just basketball players.
“I met Kobe at the Opening Ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics,” recalled five-time water polo Olympian, Tony Azevedo. “I knew he was born in Italy and spoke Italian so I came up and introduced myself in Italian. We had a talk about leadership and about greatness. Four years later, I’m in London at the Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics and from behind me I hear this big booming voice yell, ‘Ciao, capitano!’ And it was Kobe.”
Bryant’s storied professional basketball career actually began in Long Beach, where he played his first game as a Laker. The Walter Pyramid at Long Beach State was playing host to the Summer Pro League in those days, and Bryant’s first time wearing the purple and gold was in the Pyramid in 1996, where he played before a standing-room-only crowd and knocked down his first two shots to roaring ovations.
His legendary drive and work ethic helped propel him beyond his own sport to become an inspiration to those across the athletics world. Long Beach athletes as diverse as Jessica Hardy (swimming), Tayyiba Haneef-Park (volleyball), and Misty May-Treanor (beach volleyball) posed for pictures with him at the London Olympics, and Bryant in turn took time to learn about their sports, and ended up cheering on the indoor and beach volleyball teams during off days for the basketball team.
What’s remarkable about his impact is the fact that it’s spanned generations, and has continued even after his retirement.
Compton alum DeMar DeRozan was the star of the Moore League while Kobe was in his prime, and he spoke frequently of what Bryant’s influence meant to him personally. On Sunday, just hours after news broke of Bryant’s passing, DeRozan had the idea for the Spurs and Rockets to each take a 24 second shot-clock violation in honor of Bryant to start the game. The official who blew the whistle as the clock ran out was Kevin Cutler, a Long Beach State alum and NBA ref whose daughter plays at Long Beach Poly.
But players two decades later admired Bryant in the same way that DeRozan did. Current Moore League top dog Peyton Watson said Bryant was his favorite player, and struggled to deal with the loss of such a towering figure in his sport.
“Of all the people in this basketball world, I honestly thought Kobe was immortal,” said Watson. “I’ve been lucky, I’ve never had any close relatives die. This death of Kobe and his daughter is easily the most devastating and heartbreaking loss I’ve experienced.”
Laker fandom is certainly not limited to just athletes. The city of Long Beach lit up City Hall on Monday evening in purple and gold in honor of Bryant, as well as the big “Long Beach” sign off the 710 heading into downtown. Mayor Robert Garcia confirmed Monday evening that both will stay illuminated with those colors through the end of the week.
What drew the most conversation from the Long Beach sports community as the shock around the news wore off was Bryant’s recent return to the city. Over the years he’s filmed several commercials in town, from the Pyramid to the courts at Alamitos Beach.
But in December, just six weeks before his passing, Bryant returned to the Pyramid not as an actor or an athlete, but as a father and a coach. He brought his daughter, Gianna, to sit courtside at the Long Beach State and Oregon women’s basketball game, along with some of her teammates.
After the game was over, Bryant met with the Long Beach State team (“Our players won’t ever forget playing in front of him,” said LBSU coach Jeff Cammon) as well as the players from the Oregon team. Bryant was gracious with his time, introducing Gianna to everyone who came to talk with him, and posed for photos with not only the players, but several members of the Long Beach State athletic department.
“I’m sick,” said LBSU ticketing director Jeffrey Scott. “I just finally met this guy that has been a part of my life for over 20 years, a guy who gave me more joy than just about anyone outside my own family, and now he’s gone.”
In his wake are memories of championships and an all-time great player, but also memories of a 17 year-old taking his first steps as a Laker, and a 41 year-old father who wanted to watch a game with his family.