It wasn’t clear if the lucky tile in the living room was actually lucky or, if I stood inside it and held my breath, things would just happen to go the Lakers’ way. I was around 13 and living with my grandparents in Long Beach, maybe 40 minutes south of downtown Los Angeles. On most nights a Lakers game would be playing on their gigantic Mitsubishi big screen, one of those hulking relics of the ’90s that was the size of a Mini Cooper, with the screen resolution of Google Street View.
And I’d stand on the lucky tile—pearly white, big enough to contain a personal pan pizza—behind the couch, clutching the seatback like a ballet barre if the game was close. During this particular game 7, the Lakers were down 15 at the beginning of the fourth quarter in the 2000 Conference Finals against the Portland Trailblazers but were mounting a comeback. Adolescent and superstitious, I hopped onto the tile and held my breath for the final push. And, miraculously, Kobe Bryant, my favorite player on the planet, crossed Scottie Pippen at the top of the key. Freed up, he threw a lob to Shaq, who seemed to jump eight feet in the air and dunk it with his forearm. The Lakers would go on to win, then cruise their way to the first of their championship three-peat. We'd all scream and high-five and laugh at the people on TV flipping cars over.
As far as my Filipino family was concerned, the Lakers and the Dodgers were both the beginning and the end of the sports universe. Laker games were the sun around which all the big family gatherings orbited—and we were hardly alone! You could show up to a Samoan homie’s barbecue or someone’s niece’s quinceañera and chances were a Lakers game was being consumed...somewhere. In a place as fractured and sprawling as Los Angeles, where you’re stuck in the bubble of your car for hours on end, the Lakers provided an easy common language. They made a sense of community and connection feel possible in a city that seemed to actively go out of its way to discourage it.
Still, it's difficult to articulate exactly how much Kobe meant to people who grew up in Southern California, especially during his reign of terror on the rest of the league for the better part of two decades. To people outside of L.A., he was a ballhog with Patrick Bateman energy. The kind of egocentric villain who thrilled to the boos. He ran Shaq—the best center of his generation—out of town, and Phil Jackson at one point called him “uncoachable.” In his twilight years it was even worse, as a hobbled Kobe made the Lakers basically unwatchable. And yet, to everyone south of Bakersfield, he was the single biggest celebrity in a city already lousy with them.
It wasn’t so much that Kobe was worshipped by everyone I knew—he was, obviously!—but he had a way of dropping into my life at odd hours. In college sometimes I’d look down at my Nokia after a night studying at the library and see that I’d missed 53 “dawg…holy fuck!” text messages after he dropped 81 on the Raptors. Or I’d get a text from a friend who worked at the In-N-Out in Irvine after Kobe rolled through the drive-thru for a post-game meal, and the whole joint would start chanting: Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be! He was just so ambiently there—and now, suddenly, he’s not.
Kobe Bryant died on Sunday in a helicopter accident. His daughter Gigi, herself a promising basketball star in the making, was also among the crash’s nine victims.
For the past few years, my once unfettered Kobe fandom has lived in a complicated spot. In 2015, Kobe told Chuck Klosterman during an interview in this very magazine, on the subject of his 2003 Colorado rape case: “I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—[I] was talking to a priest… He looks at me and says, ‘Did you do it?’ And I say, ‘Of course not.’ ” Back then that was enough for me. Then, shortly before his 2016 retirement, I revisited the transcripts from the eventually dismissed case, which were far more graphic and uncompromising than I’d remembered. It made me question my own relationship with celebrity and the kinds of thorny questions we elide when we feel invested in someone we don’t actually know. For more than a decade, Kobe had held positions one through four on my own personal basketball Mount Rushmore...and then, older and hopefully wiser and more aware, I felt the need to reassess how I felt about the player I grew up with, and the answers weren’t easy. I fell off and made peace with it.
In a way, Kobe’s aura of Catholicism seemed to undergird so much of what made him relatable. He understood being fallible. His studiousness and hunger to learn made his game feel approachable; that he would be the first to call up Hakeem Olajuwon to work on his post-game was an admission of his own imperfection. (Mamba mentality!) Later on in his career, when Kobe couldn’t outjump anyone or body them in the post, he leaned on his mechanics: welterweight footwork, an immaculate jumper. Textbook, because he’d taught them to himself, the same as anyone could if they had the time, the energy, and Kobe’s signature relentlessness. (See: DeMar DeRozan, who admitted as much.) He wasn't a physical outlier Monstar like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. That a player as flawed and human-seeming as Kobe could play like that made it feel like the sublime was within our reach, too. Even subconsciously, he made you want to work a little harder and get a little bit better at whatever it is you do.
Post-retirement, he embraced a proud cornball dad life; began to rebrand as what was essentially a Shark Tank judge. There was some unsettling cosmic symmetry in LeBron passing Kobe on the all-time-scoring list this weekend in Kobe’s hometown of Philly. But Kobe’s also been in the news championing the WNBA, stating recently that a few of the league’s stars could "play in the NBA right now." I mean, here was the greatest player of the 2000s doing a small part to open doors for the next generation, his daughter Gigi, his heir apparent, included. It was Kobe! Hyping up the WNBA! It was both unexpected and cool and progressive and—considering his history—complicated. With Kobe, answers never came easy.
A few months after I moved to New York from California in late 2008, some friends pitched in and got me the best birthday present: nosebleed seats to see the Lakers play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. I was still in Kobe’s thrall, a stubborn Lakers fan, but it was my first time at the Mecca, and it was the night he happened to drop 61 points—then a Garden record. (Maybe he didn’t need me to self-asphyxiate in my lucky tile after all.)
At one point in that game, Kobe did the most Kobe thing: With three and a half minutes left in the fourth, he drove right from the elbow, pump faked a few feet inside the arc, drawing his defender Wilson Chandler into the air and leaving the man totally bamboozled, and then—here’s that footwork!—Kobe pivoted on his left foot and whirled clockwise to the basket, sinking a teardrop jumper from the free-throw line as his momentum carried him forward. It was another of those ill-advised, impossibly beautiful Kobe shots. Groans rippled through the Garden. Spike Lee jumped out of his seat courtside, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
But to this day, I’ll never forget the reaction of the two fans sitting behind us. Both of them were wearing Knicks jerseys, and they were both booing the Lakers all game long.
“Fuck it,” one of them said, cupping his hands around his mouth.
He’s old, he’s wise, he’s as ferocious as ever. And in this final phase of his brilliant, checkered, championship-laden career, the man who once called himself "the Valentino of the NBA" has been running his mouth like never before. This interview—the last one he gave before his season-ending injury in late January—was no exception.
Originally Appeared on GQ