Enter your number to get our free mobile app

Kobe Bryant was a 41-year-old shooting guard who spent his entire NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Arguably, he is one of the most significant members to ever play for the Lakers organization. Tomorrow will be the one-year anniversary of his death. He and nine other individuals – one of them being his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant – lost their lives in a gruesome helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.

On this anniversary of his death, I choose to remember Bryant as someone who was much more than a star basketball player. He was a loving father, philanthropist and integral member of his community in Orange County. Many memories of Bryant and his family are cherished by his adoring fans. While there are many to be shared, a personal favorite of mine is not so well-known.

In October of 2007, I was sitting in church, Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach, California, with my mom and brother, Sean. My father, who was out of town at the time, will later recall this as one of his most regrettable church absences of all time. I sat in the wooden pew toward the back, bored out of my mind (as most 8-year-olds are during mass). My eyes began to wander around the room as I thought of the IHOP that was promised to me by my mother if I could behave. During my stare off into space, I met the gaze of a very familiar face.

My eyes grew wide and my jaw dropped as I looked over at – according to my father –the greatest basketball player of all time, Kobe Bryant. I remembered his face from the shrine of memorabilia my father had dedicated to him in his home office: pictures, bobbleheads, action figures – anything Kobe-related one could think of, my father had in his possession.

He was sitting quietly with his family. He had daughters that looked about my age. After the initial shock of seeing my family’s favorite person ever, I immediately began to jab my mother in the side, frantically trying to get her attention.

“Jenna,” she said, exasperated. “We’re at church. What could be so important?”

“Guess who’s behind us?” I said. “Dad’s favorite: KOBE!”

Initially, she did not believe me because I was known for having a figurative imagination at this time. However, after my persistence wore her down, she finally turned around to see that I was, in fact, telling the truth.

“Oh my god, your father is going to be so disappointed he didn’t come to church today,” she said under her breath.

As the rest of the service carried on, I could not stop looking over my shoulder.  My little feet dangled over the end of the pew, eager for church to end so I could talk to Bryant and his family. The congregation gathered outside the church after the service and by this time, more people began to notice he was there, but no one dared go up to him.

After strict instructions from my mother to NOT go up to this nice man and his family while they were at church, my little brother and I practically left dust in the tracks as we sprinted over to him.

Stage fright rendered me paralyzed once I had gotten so close to him. My brother, however, was not so afraid.

Bryant stood at the top of the stairs by himself, while my brother climbed a few steps behind him. He looked so much taller than I ever imagined. Seeing him next to my little brother, who was probably no more than four feet tall, made him look like a giant.

As my brother lifted his little head up to meet Bryant’s gaze, his eyes could not have been any bigger.

“Me and my dad are your BIGGEST fans,” he exclaimed.

Bryant looked down at him while I watched from the bottom step. I was nervous he would be irritated that someone was coming up to bother him while he was out with his family, but he was quite the opposite. He cracked a smile and then began to chuckle.

“You should tell your dad that I am a big fan of him, too,” said Bryant.

He then began to ruffle my brother’s hair and show him how to shoot three’s. People watched in awe as Bryant and my brother played a mock basketball game. After that, my brother was starstruck. That is all he talked about for the rest of the week, maybe even the whole month. He was a hot commodity at school since he was practically a celebrity now. My father was almost too shocked to believe it.

“Of all the weeks to miss church…” he said at dinner that night.

We all held onto that memory so dearly. Meeting your hero wasn’t as disappointing as everyone says, after all.

A decade later, my little brother is not so little anymore. He is 16 now, and about 6 feet, 5 inches. tall. He had just recently gotten a job at a popular fast-food chain on the west coast: In-n-Out burger. He was working his regular shift in the drive-thru one night when, of all the people to come through for a burger and fries, Bryant and his daughter Gianna pull up in a black Escalade.

Sean, absolutely beside himself with shock, can barely even say “hello” to the pair as he attempts to take their order.

“I am not sure if you remember me,” Sean begins, “but when I was 6 or so, I met you at church. You taught me how to shoot and I play basketball at my school now. I know I am making an absolute fool out of myself right now, but I can’t believe you’re right here!”

Bryant began to laugh as his daughter giggled next to him in the passenger’s seat.

“I actually don’t think I remember that,” he said. “But it looks like you’re tall enough to play basketball with me now.”

The three continued to chat as he took their order and before Sean sent them on their way, Bryant squinted his eyes and stuck his head out the window.

“What was your name?” He asked. “Ah, I see, Sean. I won’t forget your name next time, Sean. We will have to play basketball together sometime,” he said with a final wave as he drove off.

Those experiences, however small, impacted my brother in a way he will never forget. And so as I remember Bryant’s legacy a year after his death, my heart gives the slightest twinge for the personal connection he has to my family. May he be reverently remembered, and deeply missed.

21 Tuscaloosa Spots to Visit in 2021