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Monday, February 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  NBA

Mike Jensen: Kobe Bryant was a star even among the biggest stars

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 26, 2020

Kobe Bryant, 17, whips his arm through the air as he exclaims that he'll do whatever the Los Angeles Lakers need him to do for a winning season, during a news conference Friday, July 12, 1996, at The Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Bryant’s enthusiasm and love for the game never seemed to wane during his 20-year NBA career. (SUSAN STERNER / Associated Press)
Kobe Bryant, 17, whips his arm through the air as he exclaims that he'll do whatever the Los Angeles Lakers need him to do for a winning season, during a news conference Friday, July 12, 1996, at The Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Bryant’s enthusiasm and love for the game never seemed to wane during his 20-year NBA career. (SUSAN STERNER / Associated Press)
By Mike Jensen Philadelpia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – A Kobe memory: Beijing, China. The 2008 Olympics, a sidewalk outside the Olympic basketball gymnasium. Two brothers, Apirut and Apichok Saekow, from Bangkok, Thailand, had flown to Beijing for one reason. Apirut held an athletic bag, with a smaller bag inside it. He pulled out the sole contents of the bag.

A Kobe Bryant Nike Uptempo basketball shoe. Not a pair. One shoe.

“Just to have a look at him – that is my dream,” Apirut said standing on the sidewalk. “Just to see him. Chat, chat. Anything with him.”

His brother Apichok wore a white jersey that read “Los Angeles” on the front and “Bryant” on the back. It was a knockoff. Light-blue lettering inside of the Lakers’ purple and gold.

It was explained to the brothers that they were in the wrong place, that the USA team bus would enter the building around the corner. The brothers were 38 and 34 years old. They weren’t going inside to see the game. They had tried but couldn’t afford a ticket to that day’s Angola game.

But they rushed to the proper spot. When the USA team bus approached, they would have their moment. Apirut raced toward the bus, threw his hand up at the window, a high-five from outside, trying to connect with the fifth row from the back.

Kobe Bryant put up his own hand to meet it.

That was enough, more than the brothers ever dreamed of. It was the purest distillation of how huge a figure the graduate from Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High School was all over the globe.

“I thought I was famous until I got here with Kobe,” LeBron James said after that game when asked about the Kobe mania.

Philadelphians all have Kobe memories, all rushing to the surface with the news that he perished Sunday in a helicopter crash. Maybe you went with your neighbor specifically to see him play for Lower Merion against Conestoga or Springfield. Maybe you stood in the corner of the Palestra and watched him take on Rip Hamilton in the PIAA district playoffs.

Maybe you heard about the fits he gave Jerry Stackhouse and others working out with Sixers players while he was still in high school.

Maybe you got your shot blocked by him at Narberth, the ball thrown over a fence into the playground because you dared to trash-talk him, making fun of his father’s NBA career.

There was always that love-hate local relationship. Kobe knew it himself. You asked Bryant about the overwhelming adoration shown in Beijing, he said it would be cool for people back home to see that a little bit. “I think if I put on a Sixer jersey it would be a little different story,” Bryant said right after that Angola game, about the feeling for him in Philly.

You told him the story of the man who had high-fived him from outside the window. He stopped and listened. He didn’t get the chance to hear too many specifics about such things. There was a college student originally from North Korea studying in Beijing, also out waiting for the bus. She had seemed to know one word of English: Kobe.

More recently, the name Kobe began belonging to more people than Bryant. According to data compiled by the Social Security Administration, 14,148 males were born in the United States with the name Kobe from 1997 to 2014. The year before, when Kobe took Brandy to the Lower Merion High prom, then graduated and moved on to the Los Angeles Lakers, there were 87 Kobes born in the United States.

The year before that, in ’95, when he was still in high school, there were nine Kobes born. By 2001, the number grew to 1,552.

“No, I’m not named after Kobe Bryant,” said Kobe Goudeau, who played high school basketball in Shawnee Heights, Kan.

He was talking on the phone to a reporter. In the background, his mother told him, actually, he was.

Carole Williams, Kobe’s mom, who lived in North Philadelphia for a time when she was younger – her father was from the city – related how Kobe’s grandmother was talking through names, throwing out Cody as a possibility. “My daughter just said, “What about Kobe – Kobe Bryant?”

There was just nothing like Beijing. Kobe was the biggest star there, any sport. Everyone knew it, everyone said it. When the USA got past Spain in a terrific gold medal game, the bus pulled back out of the same driveway where the two brothers had encountered Kobe days earlier. This time, there was a massive crowd out there. Deron Williams, a guard for the winning Americans, popped his head up through a hatch in the roof of the bus. Williams began chanting, “USA! USA!”

The crowd chanted back.

“KO-BE! KO-BE!”

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