In 2015, I was on top of a parking garage when I got the phone call that changed the trajectory of my career. I was aware that I’d have the opportunity to interview Kobe Bryant later that day, but that was hours away. I went to the grocery store to buy items I didn’t need to calm my nerves. I was searching for my own Mamba mentality at the salad bar — then the phone rang.
The voice on the other end was a representative from Nike. He had a simple message to deliver: “Kobe’s schedule shifted. Can you come now?” He wasn’t asking, he was telling.
It felt like the entire parking structure was shaking underneath my feet. I quickly threw my bags in the car and headed home to retrieve a notebook full of questions that felt more like fan fiction than Walter Cronkite.
Bryant had fielded every type of question since he came into the league as a teenager, and I was searching for something that didn’t feel like a rehash of older interviews. In reality, I just wanted to make it through without embarrassing myself — surely a feeling that hundreds of NBA players felt when they tried to check the 18-time All-Star.
When I arrived at Milk Studios in Los Angeles for the cover shoot of Highsnobiety magazine issue 10, it was already buzzing. There was a moment, however, when everything just seemed to stop. One by one, everyone became aware of Bryant’s presence.
I felt like I was the only one who wasn’t smiling as he glided around in an all-black ensemble. Here was my executioner, the man who would look at me, then look through me, as he dismissed the kid who asked him the type of asinine celebrity questions that Chris Farley lampooned on SNL.
“Remember that time you scored 81 points… that was cool!!”
In situations like these, you get your 10 minutes — which really means five. And it’s not like an auto race where a pace car slowly brings you up to speed. Rather, the talent sits down, and you need to match their energy and intensity from the moment they make eye contact.
I knew if I could get out the first question, Bryant would do the rest. Even the best isolation players in NBA history had to have someone inbound them the ball. That was my job.
He leaned forward when he spoke. It wasn’t intimidating. Rather, it had the opposite effect. I leaned forward, too. In another environment, we could have been two people hunched in front of a chess board discussing the King’s Gambit.
I was really struck by the amount of time Bryant took to respond. That took some getting used to. Most people are waiting to talk, instead of really listening. Kobe Bryant wasn’t. He was processing the question, then running it through a brain that allowed him to speak multiple languages, and, in this moment, voice his love for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house in rural Pennsylvania.
At one point, the questions turned to Bryant’s enduring legacy. He knew his career was winding down — in a cruel twist of fate, he would tear his rotator cuff the following night. But in that moment, retirement wasn’t a scary thought. He knew there was life after basketball.
“I remember having a meeting with Giorgio Armani when I was 20 and I was kinda asking him about how he started his company — he started it at 40 — and that scared the shit out of me,” Bryant said. “I was expecting that if I played 19 or 20 years, I’d be 36-37 [and think], ‘What the hell am I going to do then?!’ This guy built an empire at 40. So that really got me thinking, ‘At that age, what am I going to do next?’ So I started trying different things. It took me 14 or 15 years to figure it out, what it really is. I love telling people stories that move people and inspire people.”
When I was asked to write something about my experience with Kobe Bryant, I was hesitant. It had nothing to do with my own sadness, or who Bryant was as a person. Instead, I took pause at making another person’s death about me. But if I was going to add to the conversation, I felt like it should be about our conversation, and more precisely, share Bryant’s epiphany about how stories can move people.
I left Milk Studios that day feeling like anything was possible. I had witnessed the softer side of Mamba mentality. I didn’t write about this in the original cover story five years ago because I thought it would make me seem like a hack. I wish I had. People should know about that side of Kobe Bryant.
Kobe did something for me that day that a lot of people probably couldn’t. He made me believe that I wasn’t playing pretend. He made me up my game.