BY KY-PHONG TRAN
A few years ago, I interviewed a Cambodian American rapper and members of his crew, and we talked about their tattoos. In a smoky recording studio in Hollywood, Calif., one of them pulled up the left sleeve of his T-shirt.
He revealed a half dozen portraits of Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant inked into his arm, including one of Kobe’s fist pump celebration after a 2006 playoff game-winning shot against the Phoenix Suns and another of his familiar competitive expression, his lower jaw pushed out, teeth bared, the ultimate competitor’s expression.
After the passing of Kobe, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., on Jan. 26, fans might not all wear Kobe on our sleeve, but we most certainly carry him in our heavy hearts.
Worldwide, Kobe was a basketball icon.
In Los Angeles, he embodied this city the way only a local could understand. He personified both the glam of Hollywood and the grit of the East and South sides of town.
In Orange County to the south, he was a neighbor. A willing autograph and photograph. A regular parent who dropped off and picked up his kids from school. He was a kind word; I heard he once spent 45 minutes after one his workouts consoling a UC Irvine’s women’s soccer player after a tough week at practice.
In Little Saigon, he was honorary Vietnamese, beloved as the 41-year-old was in other immigrant communities. Many or our elders, aunties, and uncles don’t know the difference between a pick and roll and a spring roll, yet they still admired Kobe.
Whether we knew the specifics of his story or not — a 17-year old wing player declaring for the NBA draft out of high school, willing his way to trade to Los Angeles and mustering his skill, maturity and will to defy his 365-pound teammate, Shaquille O’Neal — we respected his audacity.
Long before he grew into a legend, Kobe was an underdog and initially disliked by the basketball powers-that-be. Many people forget that period. The tug of wars with superstar O’Neal, the clashes with coach Phil Jackson, the four airballs in the playoffs. He was seen as brash and cocky and told to wait his turn.
But then he did what we can all relate to: He worked hard. Harder than anyone else. He took his talent as far as his body could take him, so much so that he snapped his Achilles heel 17 years into his Lakers career. The years of hard work had taken their toll. The injury was so tragic and telling, it was poetic.
This is how hard he worked — and the work led to spectacular achievements. Five championships. One NBA Most Valuable Player award. Two NBA Finals MVP awards. The most points in the rich history of the Los Angeles Lakers. The fourth-most points were all-time in the NBA. And maybe even more important than that for those of us who are Lakers fans, Kobe showed loyalty, wearing the purple and gold for 20 seasons — the second-longest time span an NBA player has spent with one team.
As Vietnamese Americans, we can see parts of Kobe — lovingly known as the Black Mamba — in many of our professional athletes and celebrities.
The way former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen could read the clutter of the offense and navigate a path for the hard tackle. How Inter Miami midfielder Lee Nguyen (formerly of LAFC) sees the ebb and flow of the match and delivers pinpoint passes and shots through a tangle of bodies.
That’s all Kobe.
When one of us, Rose Marie Tran, gets cast in the Star Wars saga. When comedian Ali Wong takes over the comedy world. Or when writer Viet Nguyen wins the MVP of book awards (the Pulitzer Prize in 2016), that’s definitely the Mamba Mentality.
And in probably the most public Kobe-like moment for any Vietnamese American, there’s professional poker player Scotty Nguyen, who on the $1 million game-winning hands of the 1998 World Series of Poker declared, “You call, it’s gonna be all over, baby.”
Because not only would Kobe make game-winning shots, he sometimes told his opponent where he was going to shoot them.
In Kobe’s underdog success story, we see ourselves. Because who’s more of an underdog than a refugee in America?
Born in 1978, Kobe was the approximate age of Vietnamese America. We know what it means to go from surviving to thriving (relatively). We know what it means to risk and gamble. To strive for more in the face of hardship. To want to prove you not only exist but are worthwhile. For us, it’s not that Kobe made all those incredibly difficult shots, it’s that he took them in the first place.
As a basketball fan, Kobe was my GOAT — the Greatest of all Time. I was in college when the Lakers traded for him after the 1996 NBA Draft and were one of the fortunate people to see him play at the Forum in Inglewood. I played in his first signature Adidas basketball shoe and loved them so much I bought four pairs.
The basketball he played was defined by fearlessness. And what glorious basketball memories he gave us. The Lob in 2000. Game-winning shots in the NBA Finals at age 21. The two 3-point bombs against Portland in 2004. Eighty-one points against Toronto in 2006. Two free throws made after tearing his Achilles. Sixty points in his 2016 finale at age 37.
But by far, my favorite Kobe memory is the 2008 Olympic gold medal game against Spain, which probably has faded for most. I left a concert early and rushed home to see him make that face from the tattoo — that Mamba face — in the fourth quarter. I knew it was over right then.
Team USA — up to two points with eight minutes left, a team with at least six and probably eight future Hall of Fame selections, including Dwyane Wade and LeBron James — deferred to Kobe. In that span, he scored 11 points and had two assists. After a jab step and long 3-pointer, he held his index finger to his lips, telling a group of hecklers to simmer down with an icy glare. Has there ever been a basketball player who better embraced and relished the role of the heel?
I was lucky enough to have my chance encounters with Kobe. At UCLA, I volunteered at his celebrity bowling tournament for charity. Then on a random Friday on campus, I met him because he personally wanted to donate the check from his foundation. It was just me, a co-worker, Kobe and someone from his staff. No paparazzi, no camera phones, no social media posts.
He wore the baggy sweatsuit of the era and still rocked his hair in a short afro. I shook his hand and told him I remembered his great crossover dribble from a few months earlier against the Indiana Pacers and their forward Chuck Person. (Chuck quivered so badly on the play that he looked as if he had been caught in a Los Angeles earthquake). Kobe laughed and knowing what we know about him now, he probably remembered not just the play but the quarter and the minute mark.
This past November, when I was honored by the Los Angeles Lakers as their Educator of the Month, Kobe and Gianna were at the Staples Center. He walked past me just as I received my award at halfcourt.
My dream to share the court with Kobe had come true.
You see, Kobe’s life was intertwined with mine. Because Kobe moved to Southern California at the age of 17 — I was only three years older and played high school basketball at Long Beach Poly — I feel as if I grew up with him. Like we were family. Like he was my brother. His journey was my journey, even if his life played out on a much bigger stage.
We shared many life milestones around the same time: careers, marriage, and children. And just like family, he was with me on the night in 2009 when my mother passed away. I got the word to rush to her side when I was watching Kobe’s Lakers play the Houston Rockets.
While that season was a blur to me, I cherished watching the Lakers defeat the Orlando Magic to win the 2009 NBA championship just three months after my mom’s funeral. There was Kobe tussling with Magic center Dwight Howard, Kobe passing to Derek Fisher for the Game 4-winning three-pointer on a kick out from his favorite spot on the left block, and Kobe holding his first NBA Finals MVP trophy.
That’s what sports can do for us, and that’s what Kobe did for me. He brought me some much-needed joy at a time when I had none. A year later, he defeated our rival Boston Celtics, and my best man and I jumped up and down like schoolboys. It’s was the fifth and final championship for Kobe and his Lakers, and he saved the best for last.
Surprisingly, though, my favorite Kobe is not Showboat Kobe or Black Mamba Kobe, it’s Dad Kobe and Youth Coach Kobe.
As much as we thought we knew him, as an athlete, he was completely unrelatable. But after his retirement, he joined social media and we watched him participate in the great equalizer of all — parenthood. His life on Instagram mirrored my own. He shared photos of his wife, Vanessa, and their four daughters. He showed us the highlights of the basketball team he coached — the one he was en route to watch the play when his helicopter crashed — and of Gianna’s exploits on the court.
As a player, she was just like him. Skilled and determined. As a father, he was just like us — chauffeur, coach, proud dad.
When it came time for me to buy my sons their first-ever basketball shoes — a milestone for every young hooper — the choice was easy. I bought Kobe 10 low-tops. Green for the older one, blue for his younger brother.
Just as Kobe coached Gianna, I coach my 8-year old son’s basketball team, a wonderful group of second-grade boys. It started as a whim and has ended up being both one of the biggest responsibilities and unexpected joys of my life. As a basketball coach, we build kids up through the game, but we also are the guardians of the sport. We teach the right way to play. How to compete. How to win humbly and to lose with dignity.
At the beginning of this season, I sent our parents a video of a team running a play we run. We call it Action-Iron Man, and it’s a sideline handoff into a ball screen. In the video, a girl grabs the ball, zips around the screen and rises up to hit a quick 17-foot jump shot.
The clip was from Kobe’s Instagram. The team was the Mambas and the player was Gianna. She wore number 2. My son wears number 2. In our last game of the season last Sunday, we wore purple and gold sweatbands and ended our huddle with a “1-2-3 Kobe!”
At this point, it hurts too much to write much more. I know the finality of death too well. We lost a hero, but Joe and Pam Bryant lost their only son and a granddaughter. Sharia Washington and Shaya Bryant-Tabb lost their brother and a niece. Vanessa Bryant lost her husband and a daughter. Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and 8-month old Capri Bryant lost their father and sister. The Mambas, Gianna’s team, lost two coaches and three teammates.
All nine victims deserve our prayers.
Flashback to that interview at the Hollywood studio. Back to the Cambodian rapper and his crew. The guy with the Kobe tattoos also was adorned with other images significant to him: the Queen Mary, the Statue of Liberty, the names of his children, and gorgeous Cambodian iconographies such as a stone Buddha and the temples of Angkor Wat.
I asked questions about all of them. I wanted to know more. Why did he get them? What did they mean? What was their significance?
Except for the ones of Kobe.
Those, I already understood.