The Meaning of Play, With Kobe Bryant

As we all mourn the untimely departure of NBA Sport Icon Kobe Bryant I wanted to share my two fleeting Kobe moments, and an interview he gave about one of his (and my) greatest passions: Youth Sports.

I first met Kobe Bryant minutes after he won his first ever NBA championship against the Larry Bird-coached Indiana Pacers on June 19th, 2000.

I’d flown out to L.A. from our NYC office to cover the Oscar De La Hoya-Shane Mosley welterweight mega-bout, and—at the fight’s conclusion—I called Sports Illustrated NBA editor Hank Hersch, on a hunch and a prayer. “Hey Hank, Luis here. I’m out here in L.A. The fight’s wrapped up but I was wondering.. if, huh, since I’m already here and, huh, maybe (SI’s superstar NBA writer) Phil (Taylor) needs some help with his coverage of the Finals? Since I’m already here and all.”

It was a shot in the dark, but Hank, to my surprise and delight, said, “Sure. That’d be great, Luis. Just lemme just see if I can get you credentialed for the game.”

And just like that, I got my first and only NBA Finals assignment.

So there I was—in a cramped, makeshift post-game press conference room in the bowels of the Staples Center—seconds after that unrivaled duet, Kobe-Shaq, won their first ever shared NBA title—digital recorder and notepad in hand.

Kobe burst into the room,. laughing, and peered through the blinding camera glare at us—a scrum of sweaty, deadline-harried scribes and jostling, preen-y T.V personalities… and cracked the unmistakable grin of a first time World Champion.

“Hey, Kobe,” I called out “How does it feel to win your first NBA title?” He laughed and rubbed his hands over that glistening bullet-dome of his. Then looked straight at us. “Man. I didn’t know champagne was sooo sticky!” The room exploded with laughter.

Kobe Bean Bryant was, by all accounts, a passionate person, on the court and off. And he applied the fervor and intensity I witnessed that night—18.5 years ago—as much to the realm of youth sports, when he coached his kids, as he had on the NBA hardwood throughout his two decade long career.

The second time we crossed paths was at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit at the Knight Foundation in Washington, D.C. in July of 2018. I was there to interview Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. about the next-level youth sports program, Saturday Night Lights, he set up with Executive Assistant District Attorney Chauncey Parker, and Kobe was there to discuss his unbridled passion for youth sports and coaching with one of his own former Philadelphia-based youth coaches.

Until that day, on that stage, I had no idea how deeply passionate and perspicacious Kobe was about kids, sports and sports parenting were.

Here’s the entire discussion. Believe me. It’s worth your time. Every second of it. ♦

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