Among the perks of a sports-media career are the opportunities to meet and talk with significant figures.
When there was the senses-shattering confirmation that 41-year-old Kobe Bryant had been killed in a Sunday helicopter crash near Los Angeles, I flashed back to two interview experiences with the NBA great.
The first one occurred on Feb. 4, 2006, when Bryant played for the first time on Oklahoma soil. About 90 minutes before the Los Angeles Lakers were matched with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, the Lakers’ locker room was open to reporters.
Several Oklahoma media members were already there when I walked in, but no one had approached Bryant at his cubicle.
I had driven 107 miles to watch and, hopefully, talk with Bryant, so this was no time to be timid. I introduced myself and he was receptive. Beyond receptive, really. He was surprisingly friendly, and I use the word “surprisingly” because most NBA players don’t do pregame interviews. I had a deadline, so it was a huge help to have gotten Bryant time before the game instead of after.
When Bryant seemed fine with a quick Q&A, the other media members scrambled into position and we had a nice session.
I mentioned Tiger Woods and how he and Bryant were on comparable levels of individual brilliance and international stardom. Only two weeks before Bryant played in OKC, he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors.
“Tiger inspires me. But if you ask him, I bet he tells you that he doesn’t feel pressure. I know I don’t,” Bryant said. “(Woods) started playing golf at about the same age I started playing basketball. It’s like breathing to us. It’s cool.
“Every day, the fans want to see Tiger blow out the field at Augusta, or see me score 81 points.”
In OKC that night, Bryant scored 35 points. The Hornets prevailed 106-90 as Chris Paul — then a rookie — totaled 19 points and 13 assists.
My second Bryant exchange happened nearly 10 years later — on Dec. 19, 2015, in a Chesapeake Energy Center hallway. The Lakers lost by 40 points to the Thunder that day, but Bryant did not play because of a sore shoulder.
I was working on a Tulsa World feature package that would commemorate the 20th anniversary of an incredible high school basketball upset. On Dec. 29, 1995, at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a crowd of 6,000 watched the Jenks Trojans rally from a 14-point deficit to conquer Bryant and his Lower Merion team 77-62 in overtime.
It was the final high school loss for Bryant, who after the Jenks game carried the Aces to 27 consecutive wins and a Pennsylvania state championship.
There were tons of credentialed media members at the December 2015 meeting of the Lakers and Thunder, and it seemed that they all were wedged into that hallway when Bryant agreed to talk.
After a flurry of questions from the people who covered the Lakers on an everyday basis, I jumped in with my request to have Bryant reminisce about the Jenks-Lower Merion classic.
“Thank you for reminding me,” he said.
Bryant’s recollection of that game?
“Nope. Zero,” he replied. “Convenient amnesia.”
After a pause, Bryant good-naturedly acknowledged the Jenks game.
“Honestly, I don’t remember (details), but I remember our coach bringing us together inside of his hotel room and having a team meeting,” Bryant recalled. “ ... That was the turning point for us during the season. We had to come together and figure out what we were going to do.”
For Lower Merion, located in a Philadelphia suburb, Bryant averaged 30.8 points as a senior. Against Jenks, he scored 31.
By the end of his 20-season run with the Lakers, Bryant had been an 18-time All-Star, the 2008 Most Valuable Player and a five-time NBA champion.
On Saturday — a few hours before Bryant perished in the helicopter tragedy — LeBron James supplanted Bryant at No. 3 on the NBA’s career scoring list. Bryant’s Twitter reaction: “Continuing to move with game forward @kingjames. Much respect my brother.”
On April 11, 2016, in the penultimate game of his career, Bryant had 13 points as the Lakers again lost at Oklahoma City. Two days later, in his final game, he scored 60 against Utah.