Eight on eight: A collection of stories of Kobe Bryant’s impact on everyday people
Remembering the NBA legend one year after his tragic death
There are dozens of stories about Kobe Bryant that laud his work ethic, from his 40-mile nighttime bike ride through the Las Vegas desert before a Team USA practice to his intense workouts to predawn phone calls to his trainer to let him in the gym for conditioning work.
There are an abundance of stories that glorify his audaciousness, from his fisticuffs with fellow Los Angeles Laker Shaquille O’Neal to his “promise to destroy” the top perimeter player for every opponent that Team USA played in the 2008 Olympics, to this gem on Bryant introducing himself to his Lakers teammates from Jeff Pearlman’s book Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty:
“Yo, I’m Kobe. Kobe Bryant. I’m from PA — went to Lower Merion High School, dominated everything.” [Pause] “I just want y’all to know, nobody’s gonna punk me. I’m not gonna let anyone in the NBA punk me. So be warned.”
But, perhaps, the greatest stories to emerge about Bryant following his death last year in a helicopter accident — a tragedy that took the life of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others — were the ones that highlighted his out-of-the-spotlight encounters with everyday people.
We present eight of those stories here:
‘KOBE TOLD ME TO BE THE BEST VERSION OF MYSELF’
When a television show asked Jarred Jones to provide a video demonstrating why he was Kobe’s biggest fan, he thought he’d earn a chance to sit in the studio audience to see his idol. He wound up with more than he expected.
The video that featured Jarred showing off his long list of gear — including Kobe headphones, sneakers, posters and pajamas — earned him an invite to a 2012 taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where he’d get a chance to see Bryant as a guest along with other Lakers fans. But on the day of the show, DeGeneres told Bryant that, among the fans in attendance, there was “one young man … who says he’s your biggest fan.”
Cue Jarred’s tape, with a picture-in-picture box capturing his shocked reaction. “So many emotions,” Jones, now 19, recalled. “A moment you can’t put into words.”
It got better. As the tape concluded, DeGeneres invited Jarred on stage to meet his idol, who showered him with a jersey and tons of merchandise. Jarred even shot baskets with Bryant.
The two spent time together after the show, too, with Bryant offering Jarred encouragement and tickets to a future Lakers game. When Jarred attended the game, he also was invited to the locker room, where Bryant showered him with more gear and invited him to his basketball camp.
Jones used to watch his television appearance with Bryant at least once a week. “But not that often now,” he said, “after what happened.”
Jones, who is currently playing a postgraduate high school season at Middlebrooks Academy in Los Angeles, has chosen to remember Bryant in a different way. The week after Bryant died, Jones got “8” and “Mamba” tattooed on the back of his left calf and “24” and “Out” on the right.
“I carry these,” Jones said, “as a reminder of what Kobe told me: to be the best version of myself.”
‘ACCESS TO KOBE ELEVATED MY CAREER’
As Cabbie Richards surveyed the scene at the Air Canada Centre on a frigid morning in Toronto in 2005, he realized he had walked into a reporter’s dream. Media presence for the post-Shaq Lakers game against the post-Vince Carter Toronto Raptors was at a minimum, which resulted in a rare one-on-one interview with Bryant.
Richards’ assignment: a story on bandwagon fans.
In keeping with his nontraditional style, Richards, who worked for The Score at the time, asked Bryant if he could stay at his house the next time he was in Los Angeles. Taken aback, Bryant never answered. When Richards asked for his address later during pregame access, Bryant responded, “It’s Eight Out of Your Mind Avenue.”
With each subsequent meeting, Richards upped the ante. When Richards asked for his phone number, Bryant responded, “1-800-never, ever, ever, ever call me ever.” When Richards told him the next time that the number didn’t work, Bryant replied, “Oh, it’s 1-800-just-don’t-call-me.”
But each rejection experienced by Richards — all played out in front of cameras — indicated growing signs of acceptance from Bryant.
“Keeping me at arm’s length was the foundation of our relationship,” Richards said. “Being the butt of a joke with me was a way to show the audience that he had a dry sense of humor and didn’t take everything seriously.”
Richards would normally see Bryant twice a year — in Toronto and in Los Angeles — and Bryant always gave him time.
When Richards once half-seriously asked for an interview in a helicopter, Bryant said yes. Months after that exchange, Richards and a videographer took flight with Bryant from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, to the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo.
“Flying with Kobe was just incredible,” Richards said. “Back home, I was the reporter who did the out-of-the-box interviews with Kobe. My access to Kobe elevated my career.”
Richards has gone on to interview athletes and entertainers ranging from Michael Jordan and Aaron Rodgers to Will Smith and Kendrick Lamar. He left The Score to work with TSN (the Canadian equivalent of ESPN) and now lives in Las Vegas and works for Bleacher Report.
Richards recalled a special encounter with Bryant in Toronto following the 2016 All-Star Game hosted by the Raptors.
“I made my way down to the court and we had a huge embrace and took a photo,” Richards said. “Then he told me, ‘You’re at the beginning of what you’re going to be,’ and I almost got emotional. No one of his stature has ever said something like that to me that was so impactful.”
Their final meeting was a month later in Los Angeles, where the two filmed their last segment at Staples Center.
“While I never go to his house, he agreed that day to build a little shed outside of his house for me,” Richards said, laughing, before getting emotional. “I miss him. I miss him every day.”
‘KOBE WENT ABOVE AND BEYOND’
Kristen O’Connor Hecht was working at a Phoenix hospital when a cardiologist contacted her with a request: Could she help secure an autograph from Bryant — with help from her husband, Tom, who worked with the Phoenix Suns — for a terminally ill 5-year-old boy also named Kobe? Hecht asked her husband, who said he would try but couldn’t make any promises.
The next morning, Hecht’s husband paged her at work with the news: Bryant would do it.
“Great. You’re going to bring the autographed photo home?” she asked her husband.
“No,” he responded. “He read what you wrote. He wants to come.”
Hecht dropped her phone. “I was stunned,” she said.
There were stipulations to the visit: no publicity or notifying anyone associated with the hospital that Bryant would be there.
On the day of the visit, Bryant arrived in a limousine to pick up Hecht at her satellite office. They drove to a side entrance of the downtown hospital, then bounded up three flights of stairs, with the 5-foot-3 Hecht struggling to keep pace with the 6-foot-6 Bryant and his security guards.
When they reached the cardiac intensive care unit where the boy was staying, Bryant pulled back the privacy curtains. Hecht recalls the moment they entered.
“The look on his mother’s face was surprise,” Hecht said, “and utter joy.”
Little Kobe’s heart defect left him unable to leave his bed, so Hecht expected just a brief stay. But the two Kobes spent much of the next hour passing a basketball back and forth as the sounds of the ICU machines buzzed in the background.
“Just beautiful,” said Hecht, getting emotional as she described the interaction. “A moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
When Hecht posted that memory on her Facebook page after Bryant’s death last year, she learned more about the NBA star’s visit that day, too.
“The mom of another patient said he stopped by to say hello to her daughter as well,” Hecht said. “I didn’t know but, apparently, he spent time popping his head into other rooms.”
At the end of the visit, Bryant had also asked Hecht if there was more that he could do for the young Kobe.
“Kristen, what’s the deal, is this a financial thing?” he asked. “Is there any way I can help?”
When she told him that the boy was too sick to go on a transplant list, the mood turned somber. They both had young kids of a similar age.
Hecht would later get in trouble with her supervisor for sharing a patient’s health information, but she has no regrets about helping provide a special moment for the young Kobe, who died the week after the visit.
“That’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and I would do it again because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “Kobe went above and beyond what we expected.”
‘KOBE WOULD SAY, ‘GET IN THERE AND INSPIRE THE KIDS’ ‘
In the fall of 2018, fourth grade teacher Andrew Ntzouras developed a curriculum that tied into the themes of The Punies, a scripted audio series about kids that Bryant created. When the creative team at Bryant’s Granity Studios heard about the class at Oxford Preparatory Academy in Orange County, Bryant planned a visit that December, on the last day of winter break.
Bryant pulled up to the school in a Range Rover, entered the building through a side entrance and met with Ntzouras’ class. He also addressed the entire school and delivered 250 books to the school library.
The kids demonstrated their connection to the audio series. One rapped about the show, one created a mural with the show’s characters and another created a Punies digital game.
“Kids are very good at detecting fakes and celebrities. In real life, they are often not the way they were presented,” Ntzouras said. “He connected with the kids, high-fived them and complimented their work. It’s a day they’ll never forget.”
Ntzouras, a longtime Bryant fan, watched in amazement and thought back to an interview in which the Lakers legend expressed dismay that his work outside of hoops didn’t offer the immediate crowd reaction as his exploits on the basketball court did. On this day, Bryant was able to see the fruits of his labor.
“Coming to the class, he was able to experience the impact of his work,” Ntzouras said. “I think he got gratification in that.”
The following morning, Ntzouras looked at his phone and noticed an Instagram friend request. It was from Bryant.
“I thought it was fake, but soon realized it was real,” he said. “I’m just a fourth grade teacher, not an influencer or anything like that, and this is Kobe Bryant wanting to connect with me. I’ve been a fan of his for 20 years, and for that to happen was amazing.”
Ntzouras was grading math tests on Jan. 26, 2020, when his phone was bombarded with text messages mentioning the TMZ story about Bryant. At first, he ignored the texts, thinking the source wasn’t credible. Then network news reports confirmed the accident was real.
The day after Bryant’s death, Ntzouras felt emotionally devastated and physically ill. His boss called and said he’d understand if Ntzouras needed a day off.
“I thought to myself, you know what, Kobe would say, ‘Don’t sit at home, get in there and inspire the kids,’ ” Ntzouras said. “That’s what I did.”
Together with his students, tears were shed as they discussed Bryant’s legacy.
“We came away from that determined to move forward with the Mamba mentality,” Ntzouras said. “To stay positive and let his memory keep us inspired.”
‘KOBE MAINSTREAMED THE PROBLEM OF HOMELESSNESS IN LOS ANGELES’
“What is it that you need from me?”
That’s what Bryant asked in 2011 at the start of his meeting with groups focused on helping the homeless in Los Angeles.
“We told him what we really needed was for someone to mainstream the issue of homelessness and elevate it,” said Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “That’s what he did: put the issue of homelessness in this area on the map.”
Kobe and Vanessa Bryant had already been doing work through their foundation with Step Up on Second, a group dedicated to helping the homeless. Bryant’s involvement increased in December 2011 when he served as the honorary chair for the United Way’s annual HomeWalk, a fundraiser aiming to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.
Before Bryant’s involvement, the walk had 3,000 participants and raised approximately $250,000. The first year of Bryant’s involvement, the walk attracted more than 12,000 participants and raised more than $1.2 million, which was doubled with a matching grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
“We went from this tiny little walk with no budget and a short walk around USC,” Buik said, “to working with Kobe and being forced, with it getting so big, to shut down streets. Kobe mainstreamed the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles.”
The mainstreaming of the issue generated momentum that led to the passage of a 2017 state ballot measure that allocated $5 billion over four years to address homeless solutions. “I don’t think those measures would have passed without Kobe,” Buik said. “He inspired people who never thought they could be part of the solution.”
But helping raise money wasn’t enough for Bryant, who became involved after witnessing the large homeless population in downtown Los Angeles when he came to Staples Center for games. Bryant spent time walking the streets of Skid Row to have a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living on the streets.
“Skid Row is filled predominantly with Black residents, especially Black men, and I think he felt an added responsibility to help,” Buik said. “He addressed the problem like everything he did in his life: ‘I’m going to study this, and I’m going to connect with people who are trying to figure out a way to solve it.’ ”
Often celebrities, when they become involved with events like HomeWalk, do so for compensation and leave after giving a brief appearance and a few words. Not Bryant.
“He never asked for a fee, he signed every autograph, posed for every picture and sat for every press interview we needed and stood on the bridge we built at the start line until every one of the 12,000 participants passed,” Buik said. “He brought humanity to every interchange with people. That’s something that we’ll all miss.”
‘MY CAR JUST GOT SMASHED … AND HE WAS THERE TO HELP OUT’
Ryan Williams was in the midst of a typical Thursday as he was making a left turn in his Tesla in Newport, California, in 2018. Typical, until the moment a speeding car ran through a red light and plowed into his car just behind the driver’s side door.
As Williams exited his car in a daze, he spotted a tall gentleman approaching. It was Bryant, who happened to be stopped at the intersection when the accident occurred. Bryant also knew Williams from frequent chance encounters at Starbucks.
“ ‘Bro, are you OK, you want me to take you to the hospital, what do you need?’ ” Williams recalled Bryant saying. “At the time, I was trying to figure out what was going on, my car just got smashed and I was partially concussed. And he was there to help out.”
Bryant and Williams, a partner with the Athletes First sports agency, first met at a local Starbucks about six years ago and established a rapport over cups of coffee and snacks. Following the accident, their bond grew stronger.
“He took more of a genuine interest in what I did for a living, and what I aspired to do to become a success,” said Williams, talking recently on the phone with his car parked in front of the Starbucks where the two would often see each other.
In December 2019, Williams heard a bang from another accident in the area and raced to the scene. Who did he encounter?
Bryant, who was there to help.
“Just like he did with me, he consoled everyone who was involved,” Williams said. “Kobe cared about people, and was just a great human being. …
“The world got to know him as a basketball player. Here, he was a member of our community. He was never too big for anyone.”
‘KOBE MADE A DIFFERENCE FOR WOMEN IN SPORTS’
At the suggestion of her mother, Azzi Fudd sent a direct message to Bryant asking if she could work out with his daughter Gianna and the Mamba’s team in the days leading up to a trip to Los Angeles. Fudd, the nation’s top-ranked girls player in the Class of 2021, was followed by Bryant on Instagram, but never thought to send him a message directly. “I told my mom, ‘No way is he going to respond,’ ” she said.
But one day, while Fudd was sitting in her first period class, a message arrived from Bryant asking the details of her trip. “I’m not one to brag about my accomplishments or achievements,” Fudd said. “But I specifically remember telling everyone in that class, ‘Kobe just responded to my DM,’ and I showed that to, probably, the entire school.”
That’s how the UConn-bound Fudd wound up at the Mamba Academy to meet Bryant and his daughter. The first day Fudd and her mother went to the academy to watch Gianna Bryant’s team play. “After the game he walked right over to us, and no one even told him where we were sitting,” Fudd said. “He gave us huge hugs like we were longtime friends.”
That night, Fudd’s mother picked Bryant’s brain about the direction of her career. They came back the next day with Fudd working out with Gianna Bryant and her teammates.
“Me and Gigi were partners in the workouts and she was doing some moves that were challenging to me, and making it look easy,” said Fudd, who still wasn’t at 100% following knee surgeries. “She was supersweet, and I was really looking forward to what our friendship was going to be.”
The two girls exchanged texts around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Bryants happened to be on vacation in New York City at the same time Fudd’s St. John’s High School basketball team was playing a game in the city in December 2019. Gianna Bryant asked Fudd to join her for a workout, but she had to decline because her team was playing a game the same day. “Given what happened a month later,” Fudd said, “that’s something I regret.”
The loss of Bryant, according to Fudd, is the loss of a strong voice standing up for women’s sports, particularly women’s basketball. “We had a legend supporting us and being an advocate for us,” Fudd said. “It breaks my heart because Kobe made a difference for women in sports. And we miss that.”
‘MAMBA MENTALITY MEANT MORE THAN BASKETBALL’
Timbo Thymes was in the midst of a rough day last January while on assignment to shoot video at the Mamba Sports Academy. His mother, Leona Jacobs-Thymes, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, but he had an idea to help lift her spirits.
“I asked Kobe if he could step outside for a moment, that I had something really important and personal to talk about,” Thymes said. “I told him about my mother’s situation, and that she was a big fan. I asked if he’d be willing to do a video and give some words of encouragement.”
For Thymes, it was a big ask. He first met Bryant at a USC women’s basketball game in January 2019, and had two more encounters — one in Arizona and one in California — the rest of the year.
“The second time I met him, he said he remembered me from USC,” Thymes said. “That will always stick out for me.”
Bryant agreed to record the video. “Just let me know when you’re ready to record,” he said. From there, Bryant offered these heartfelt words of encouragement.
Recently my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and is Triple Negative. As a child, my mom and I loved the Lakers, with Kobe being our fav player. Thank you @kobebryant for the motivational words, prayers and being there mentally and emotionally for us 🙏🏿#mambamentality pic.twitter.com/xZhYgK7Rmn
— Timbo Thymes (@partlightskin15) January 5, 2020
What we don’t see in the video: Thymes breaking down and crying after he stopped recording, with Bryant embracing him in an act of comfort. “She needs you to be that rock,” Thymes recalled Bryant telling him. “You have to stay strong, and keep that Mamba mentality.”
Thymes found a quiet place after Bryant stepped out and called his mother, who had gone to the emergency room earlier in the day. He told her he was going to send her a video, then hung up.
She called back in tears.
Thymes posted the video that night on social media. When he woke up the next day, his notifications were on fire: Vanessa Bryant shared the post on Instagram, offering some heartfelt words, while Bryant shared it on his Twitter page.
The day after that video message, Jan. 5, 2020, Thymes thanked Bryant once again when he saw him at the Mamba complex.
“We hugged and I told him, ‘Thank you. I don’t think you realize how much this means to me,’ ” Thymes said.
Bryant gave Thymes a couple of shirts and said, “I’ll see you next month.”
Three weeks later, Bryant was gone.
Yet even in death, Bryant continued to inspire Jacobs-Thymes through her cancer battle.
“She’d text me to say she wasn’t having the best of days,” Thymes said, “but Kobe’s words helped.”
Last August, she was declared to be cancer-free.
“She had that Mamba mentality,” Thymes said. “I never realized until that time that those two words meant more than basketball.”