NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Midway through a special Sunday mass honoring loved ones who had recently died, 8-year-old Jenna Murray glanced over her shoulder and spotted a familiar face in the back of the church.
“Mom,” she said, “that’s Kobe Bryant!”
When her mom brushed her off, Jenna repeated herself more forcefully.
“No, mom, that’s Kobe!”
It was indeed Kobe Bryant seated in a pew to the rear of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach, California. He was there with his wife Vanessa and their daughters that November 2007 day just as he was many times since then.
Jenna’s mother insisted that she and her younger brother not bother Kobe at church, especially on a day that he might have been grieving the loss of someone he knew. Of course, Sean and Jenna did not listen.
When Sean spotted Kobe outside the church after mass was over, he ran up to the Los Angeles Lakers star and shook his hand. Sean told Kobe that he and his dad were diehard fans, that he wanted to play basketball because of him, that anytime he joined a new team, he always asked to wear Kobe’s number.
To Sean’s delight, Kobe responded graciously. He thanked Sean, patted him on the head and gave him a few basketball pointers before excusing himself to return to his family.
“It meant a lot to me,” said Sean, now a student at Loyola Marymount. “He was my idol, my role model. It was so cool to see that he was just like us and that he went to some of the same places in the neighborhood that we did.”
Stories like Sean’s are common among parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church and other Catholic churches across Orange County. Kobe was a Catholic whose faith mattered enough to him that he not only frequently attended Sunday mass but also occasionally went to weekday mass as well.
One of the last things Kobe did before last Sunday morning’s helicopter crash that killed him, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others was to stop by Our Lady Queen of Angels and take communion. Father Steve Sallot declined comment to Yahoo Sports, citing the family’s request for privacy, but he told Currents News earlier this week that he ran into Kobe shortly before the start of 7 a.m. mass last Sunday.
“There was a little holy water on his forehead, so I knew that he had gone into the chapel to pray and then came out and blessed himself,” Sallot said. “We spoke for a minute, shook hands and then off he went.”
Though the website for Our Lady Queen of Angels notes that the church “mourns the loss of our parishioners Gianna and Kobe Bryant,” the tragedy received only a brief mention during Sunday morning’s 7 a.m. mass. One of the pastors called for special prayers that Kobe, Gianna and the other crash victims rest in peace and that their families find healing.
“Let us pray to the Lord,” the pastor said.
“Lord, you have our prayers,” his congregation responded in unison.
Among the several hundred worshipers who attended the church’s 7 a.m. Sunday mass were a handful of people clad in Lakers gear.
Lucci San Jose, 36, and Peyton Alferos, 16, are lifelong Lakers fans who woke up before dawn to drive 30 miles from their homes in Carson to attend mass at the same church Kobe visited the previous Sunday. San Jose wore Kobe’s signature Nike shoes and a T-shirt bearing a purple-and-gold interlocking LA logo, while Alferos had Kobe’s No. 24 jersey over his white sweatshirt.
“Rather than go to our regular church this morning, we thought that it would be more meaningful coming here,” Alferos said.
Paco Frausto, a devout Catholic from Huntington Beach, had similar reasons for making a short drive to Newport Beach early Sunday morning. Wearing a black Lakers T-shirt over his usual button-down shirt and tie, Frausto sat near the back of the church because that’s what he heard that Kobe usually did.
“I came to see where he was last week and to reminisce,” Frausto said. “I feel a little bit more of a connection as a result.”
Kobe didn’t speak about his Catholic faith very often before his death, but it’s clear that it helped him overcome one of the most difficult ordeals of his life.
In a 2015 interview with GQ Magazine, Kobe divulged that he regularly spoke with a priest after a 19-year-old Colorado woman accused him of rape 12 years earlier. Though prosecutors dropped the case in 2004 and Kobe and his wife reconciled after he publicly apologized to her, the priest helped the Lakers star accept that a segment of the general public was never going to forgive him for what they thought he did.
“The one thing that really helped me during that process — I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic — was talking to a priest,” Kobe told GQ. “It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ’Did you do it?’ And I say, ’Of course not.’ Then he asks, ’Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ’Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ’Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point.”
It’s unclear how often Kobe attended church prior to that, but it was definitely part of his routine thereafter. In a Facebook post earlier this week, Orange County bishop Timothy Freyer described Kobe as “a committed Catholic who loved his family and loved his faith.”
“Kobe would frequently attend Mass and sit in the back of the church so that his presence would not distract people from focusing on Christ’s presence,” Freyer wrote.
Cristina Ballestero recalls doing a double-take when Kobe walked into weekday mass and sat down beside her six years ago at a church in Orange, California. After respectfully stepping aside to allow Ballestero to go in front of him to receive communion, Kobe paid the accomplished singer a compliment, telling her, “Hey you have a really beautiful voice.”
Seeing Kobe in that setting humanized him for Ballestero, who grew up in a basketball-crazed family and played a year of varsity basketball herself.
“It was a very surreal experience,” Ballestero said. “It was so cool to see somebody who has that much success and that much fame come to pray like all of us, like anyone of faith. Someone with that much money usually might not think they need to lean on God, but faith was clearly very important to him.”
Memorable as it was for Sean Murray to meet Kobe at church as a 7-year-old, it’s his second encounter with the Lakers legend that he’ll cherish even more. About a year and a half ago, Kobe and Gianna visited the Costa Mesa In-N-Out where Sean worked.
“I ran over to take his money for his order, I shook his hand again and I reminded him of the first time we met,” Sean said. “I was making Gianna laugh because I was totally freaking out that I got to see him again.”
At the end of their brief chat, Kobe looked at the nametag on Sean’s shirt.
“Sean?” he said. “I’ll remember that.”
That conversation came rushing back into Sean’s mind last Sunday when he learned that his favorite player and onetime idol had died. He retold the story over the phone to his sister Jenna, who burst into tears at the memory of Kobe’s kindness 12 years ago.
Sean and Jenna are as crushed as anyone in the Los Angeles area that Kobe is gone, but their shared Catholic faith gives them reason for hope.
“Knowing that Kobe is dunking on Jesus in heaven right now, it’s the most comforting feeling in the world,” Jenna said. “The sky is truly purple and gold for him forever.”
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