In about two weeks, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant will step off the Staples Center court after a game against the Utah Jazz and call it a career. With 18 All-Star appearances and five NBA championships, and after setting a record this year—his 20th with the Lakers—for most seasons with one team, Bryant retires not only as a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, but also as one of those rare athletes who transcend sports. His commitment to training and otherworldly competitive nature get cited from the playground to corporate board rooms; pro athletes have aped his social-media savvy for years. Bryant is already gearing up for a life beyond sports with Kobe Inc., a company through which he has plans for films, books, partnerships, websites and more.
But here in Orange County, where Bryant has lived during most of his entire professional career in Newport Coast, the Black Mamba is something even more extraordinary than a mere superstar: He's normal. Sightings of Bryant and his wife, Vanessa (a Fullerton native), are commonplace at Disneyland, at Fashion Island, at movie theaters, at camera stores, even at hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants. And almost always, people have the same story: Kobe is nice, genuine, a mensch, un chingón, un cazzuto. . . .
To honor Bryant's retirement, the Weekly has gathered some of our favorite Kobe encounters from friends, family and us. They span his career, from when he was a smug youngster to the wise veteran of today, from Pavilions to Orange, with men, women and kids alike. The rest of OC celebrities, take note: Be like No. 24, not Michael Jordan.
POPCORN BEFORE A THREE-PEAT
The first job to give me a W-2 form was AMC 30 at the Block [now the Outlets at Orange]. It was January 2000, and three of us girls were running one of the concession stands at the far end of the theater when we finally had some downtime. Something in my peripheral vision made me look up from cleaning the countertop. At the very end of our really long hallway, all alone, was an extremely tall, majestic-looking black guy sort of gliding toward us. The girls behind me were hyperventilating and yelling/whispering, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" I laughed, looked back at them and asked, "Who is that guy?" (At the time, I was still missing Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers, so I wasn't up to speed, and the Internet was still so mysterious.)
They were shocked for a few moments, looked me up and down in shock and disgust, then gurgled, "That's KOBE BRYANT! He's supposed to be the next Michael Jordan!"
Oh, crap, I HAD heard of him.
They disappeared. A deep voice asked, "Hey, how you doing?"
I smiled up at him and said, "Hey, I know who you are. Don't worry, I won't say anything." As we shook hands, my hand vanished inside his. He laughed, looked down and adjusted the knit cap covering his then-Afro. Mr. Kobe Bean Bryant ordered a small popcorn and a strawberry Fruitopia. And before he walked away, he signed a carryout tray for me: "Kobe 8."
That was the first year of the Lakers three-peat (2000-2002), and Kobe became a regular fixture at our theater—it was an exciting time to be alive. Ask my former coworkers—they'll tell ya. (Leslie Agan)
KOBE'S A CARNE ASADA MAN
Kobe Bryant has been coming to El Camino Real in Fullerton, the Mexican restaurant my family owns, for well more than a decade—I'd say at least 14 years. He began coming because Vanessa brought him to us. She once told us that she grew up in Fullerton, and that she and her mom have been coming here since she was 12.
When Kobe and his family arrive, they stand in line just like any other customer, and they sit to eat just like any other normal family. His favorite food is the carne asada tostadas, and for dessert, he likes the flan. People eventually take notice and greet him, and he'll greet them back. He usually lets people know that he likes to enjoy his time with his family when he's eating, but he'll take pictures and give autographs when he's done. Several times, he's come into the kitchen and storage room to take pictures with all of the employees. He'll laugh and talk with everyone.
It's been a while since he's physically come in, but about a year ago, if I remember correctly, they were on their way to their daughter's softball game, and Vanessa came in to order some food for him while he waited in the car. It's really nice to know that Kobe enjoys our food. Customers are usually surprised to know that he has been a longtime customer. We always enjoy when he comes in, and his fans do, too. (Marissa Castañeda)
SMILE FOR THE CAMERAS
I used to work at Ritz Camera at Fashion Island around 2006, 2007. Both Kobe and his wife would come in about once a month to get their pictures developed, and they always acted very friendly to the staff, as well as the other customers in the store. They always waited patiently and never acted famous or standoffish. I would make small talk with them if there was any sort of wait—never anything personal, obviously, mainly just current events, sports, etc. We knew they lived nearby, so we just tried to give them their space and leave things as relaxed as possible for them. Kobe did pose a couple of times outside our store with kids who had been walking by and noticed him, but I never did ask for an autograph. (Jason Winder)
It was the early 2000s, maybe even February 2003, when Kobe joined Wilt Chamberlain and Michael as the only players ever to go 40-plus in nine consecutive games. I'd taken my then-77-year-old shopaholic mom to promenade the new Crystal Cove shopping center, where parked cars get the best view of the ocean. Just as we rounded a bend, Mom spotted an overexposed fleshy lady walking past us, and when she was just out of earshot, my mom said, "Shake it, but don't break it"—a family joke with its roots deep in Brooklyn. So we were all smiles as we looked ahead and saw No. 8 clad in a lush crimson tracksuit, talking on a flip phone and carrying two pizza boxes. He glanced at our grinning faces, then flashed us a big smile, so I gave him a thumbs-up. Clever use of a phone call to shield you from the fans! (Lisa Black)
HE'S A BUSINESS, MAN
Kobe Bryant's exit from the game marks a generational trauma for me. If the player who got traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac on Draft Day 1996, when I was a teenager, is retiring . . . Shit, I'm getting old.
I never bumped into him roaming around OC, but my nephew, who was 3 years old when Bryant first suited up for the purple and gold, sure did while working a construction job last year. It was May, and Bryant was at a stoplight in his sleek Range Rover near Newport Beach's Fashion Island. "Oh, that kind of looks like Kobe," my nephew, a 6-foot-3-inch Andrew Bynum lookalike, thought to himself. "Kobe!" he yelled out.
Sure enough, it was him. Walking up to the Mamba-mobile, my nephew asked if he could get a picture. "Yeah, that's cool," Bryant said. The Range Rover thundered with Jay-Z's "A Week Ago" while my nephew filmed their encounter. "I'm chillin' with the Black Mamba," he boasted. Bryant, sporting shades, threw up an arthritic deuce before giving a thumbs-up and driving off. (Gabriel San Román)
WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR
"Hey, isn't that Kobe?" my friend asked as we rounded that awkward curve between Main Street and Adventureland.
"Yeah, I think it is," I replied.
We both tried to play it cool and act as though seeing Kobe at Disneyland wasn't a big deal, as we were each at the ol' Magic Kingdom with dates we'd never see again and had consumed enough booze on our way to the park to slow even the most rambunctious 19- and 25-year-olds. But standing a few feet in front of the Tiki Room was one of the greatest Lakers to ever live, surrounded by a mob of (much shorter) male fans.
Most of the time, there's a host of security guards around any celebrity you see at Disneyland. They get privately escorted everywhere, don't talk to anyone, and generally look like they're not having nearly as much fun as anyone else. That wasn't the case with Kobe. There was definitely an employee or two with him, but he didn't seem to mind signing Mickey ears and Dumbo hats. Kobe smiled and laughed alongside the fans, who seemed to know more about his career than he did.
A few rides later, we caught a glimpse of Kobe smiling for photos and waving to fans once more. Part of me wishes I'd asked for an autograph or photo, but I'm really just fine knowing that Kobe enjoys Disneyland as much as the rest of us. (Josh Chesler)
BUT DOES HE LIKE THE SPICY SALSA?
Kobe likes going to Javier's at Crystal Cove Promenade. The workers there love him because he always respects them and gives good tips, whether valet, bartender or server. Some probably don't even know who he is, but he doesn't care—Kobe treats raza right. (A Javier's regular)
DEBUNKING THE MYTH
Explore the interwebs a bit, and you'll come away thinking Kobe Bryant is a regular customer of Wild Strawberry Café at Fashion Island, where he goes to load up on raw kale smoothies. It is true that a photo of the Black Mamba and a café employee hangs on the wall of the quaint eatery behind Muldoon's and Big Newport theater. But Laura Sosa, the lady in the picture, wants to set the record straight: Bryant is no regular. He came in three years ago and asked if he could use the restroom.
When he came out, he was given a free drink—a power kale smoothie—and asked if he would pose for a picture. As far as Sosa knows, that was his only visit to Wild Strawberry—and her only known celebrity sighting in her three years there. Did Kobe at least like the smoothie? "Yes, he did," Sosa answers. Was he nice? "He was really, really nice," she confirms. Sosa had been handed the phone by a co-worker, who said after being told what the Weekly was writing about, "Good. We need to get him back in here." (Matt Coker)
KISS AND TELL
I was a teenager in 2002, working at the Block. A co-worker and I passed a blacked-out SUV parked right outside the back entrance. We had heard that Kobe was going to be there that day and assumed the car was his. My co-worker said, "I dare you to go kiss his car!" Of course, never wanting to pass up a dare (also assuming the SUV was empty), I obliged.
I didn't just oblige; I made it a whole performance. As we were walking away, I heard someone laughing loudly behind me. Yep, it was Kobe's car, and he was still in it . . . as was his wife, Vanessa (who wasn't nearly as entertained by my grand performance). As he walked toward the theater, still laughing, I said, "I love you, Kobe!" He waved and said, "I love you, too!" My husband, who I met shortly after, is the biggest Kobe fan there is and claims this embarrassing encounter was the reason he married me. But really, he's just jealous that I made his man crush laugh so hard! (Hannah De La Vega)
FILL 'ER UP
On Sunday, May 29, 2011, my friends and I had just gotten done golfing at the pitch-and-putt at the Newport Beach Golf Club on Irvine Avenue in Newport Beach. I was low on gas, so we stopped by the Chevron on Bristol Street and Irvine. As we pulled up to the pump, I noticed a super-nice, black Mercedes with blacked-out, tinted windows. Finding it strange that no one was pumping gas, my friends and I started laughing and talking about how it's probably Kobe Bryant's car. I took my time pumping gas and kept pacing around my truck and near the Mercedes. After a couple of minutes, the black door with tinted windows opened and it actually was Kobe Bryant!
He casually got out of his car and went over to the pump. I quickly said, "Hey Kobe, how are you?" and he looked over and said, "Hey, man, I'm good." At this point, all my friends got out of the car, and Scotty asked if he could get a picture with him. Kobe was very friendly and said it was no problem. We all ended up getting pictures with the [no-doubt future] Hall of Famer. We talked to him for several minutes and thanked him for all of the championships. Being HUGE Laker fans and having the opportunity to thank our favorite player—in person—was a life-changing moment. We must have told him he was a Lakers great 10 times, and each time, he laughed and thanked us.
By that point, it seemed like we were taking up a bunch of his time, but I remembered I had a pair of custom Kobe 6s I designed myself in my truck. I played basketball in them all the time; I knew I HAD to get them signed by Kobe. I asked him if he would do me the honor of signing them, and he said, "Sure." He autographed them, we took even more pictures with him and thanked him again, and then he was gone. (Ian Wales)
It was September 2008, the very start of my third year at UC Irvine. It was "Late Night at the ARC," when the Anteater Recreation Center is open until 4 a.m. with obstacle courses, tournaments, games, competitions, dance showcases (dancing was huge then because it was just after Kaba Modern was representing UCI on America's Best Dance Crew), etc. I was a marketing assistant, essentially an in-house graphic designer at the ARC. My friend Thai and I were next to the rock wall, set up at a table to hand out UCI Campus Recreation-branded reusable aluminum bottles with a small carabiner attached to each one.
Ashley, our boss, came running down the stairs from the offices, as a crowd started to trickle into the gym. It was around 8 p.m., not too ridiculously packed, but a good crowd. She hailed us over and handed me the office camera and a copy of our quarterly catalog of classes and services. Thai had his camera with him already, perhaps always ready for the occasional Kobe sighting—or perhaps it was because it was always an accessory on him. She told us, "Kobe is in the gym. Leave the bottles; you guys have to escort him out the back. Go get a picture of him with the catalog."
Our faces beamed. Thai is a Warriors fan; I'm a Lakers fan—but also a die-hard Kobe fan. A staff member and the two of us went into the workout room as crowds of people started pouring into the gym with their cell phones out, taking pictures while attempting to be low-key, but really super-obvious. People who were walking out after witnessing him were beaming. We approached Kobe and his friend/personal trainer/bodyguard (he was there each time I saw Kobe) and told them about the event that was going on and how it's going to be a crazy night, so it might not be a good idea to work out here tonight. He was cool about it, and we escorted him to a side door inside the workout gym while waving people off so they didn't follow us. The door closed behind us, and we were walking along the outdoor Olympic-sized pool. He looked at the pool and told us that he talked to Michael Phelps at the Olympics and learned all his tricks and thought he could beat Phelps. We all laughed, and, holding back a smile, he told us he was serious.
We reached the back door to where his white Bentley was parked, with an SUV parked next to it. This was usually where the maintenance golf carts would be, tucked away from the main parking lots. We asked him if he would mind taking a picture with our catalog. He was smiling and slightly hesitant, but he obliged. He took the catalog, looked at the cover and said, "Who the hell is this guy?" pointing to a shirtless guy with a red shower cap inside an egg-shaped pod that measures your body fat and all sorts of high-tech health thingies. It was a new machine we acquired and were trying to promote people to use for a nominal fee. He looked over at me, and I said, "That's me, man." He held the catalog and looked at it with two hands. "You look crazy in here, man," Kobe told me. "Imma call you Hydroman." When Kobe gives you a nickname, all you can say is "Okay, I'm down."
He posed for a second for us to take a picture, handed me the catalog, and he and his friend started walking to their respective cars, chatting about something I can't remember. I worked up the courage to say, "Yo, Kobe, I'm a huge fan of yours since forever. You mind if I get a picture with you?"
"Yeah, sure, Hydroman," he said. I stood next to Kobe, and as we threw our arms over each other's shoulders for the picture. I thanked him, then Thai and I headed back to the ARC, where I told the story a million times to all my friends who were coming to "Late Night." (Benzamin Yi)
KOBE LIKES CEREAL
It was an average night at the Pavilions in Newport Coast about four years ago—9 p.m. on a weeknight, to be exact. The grocery store was empty. Laura Henkels stood in the produce section with her 10- and 13-year-old sons when a lone, towering man wearing a Lakers jacket and sweat pants walked in. Henkel's sons began to flip out. They recognized Bryant, and the youngest began following him across Pavilions, standing at the opposite end of each aisle that Bryant shopped.
"I'm going to see if he'll say hi to my sons; the worst he can do is tell me to leave him alone," Henkels remembers thinking. She found Bryant in the cereal aisle. "Hi, my kids LOVE you, and they're here," she told him. "Would you by chance mind meeting them?"
"Of course not!" Bryant responded. "Where are they? Show me."
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Bryant followed Henkels around the aisle to meet her kids. He kneeled down to their level and said, "Hey, my name's Kobe. What's your name, man?"
The boys were speechless. "I wasn't really thinking; I was just shaking his hand and going crazy," Henkel's son Dylan recalled.
Bryant then told the boys about his helicopter rides to work before saying goodbye.
Some time later, the Henkels were brunching at Gulfstream for Easter. Henkel's youngest son was holding the door for people when he heard someone say, "Let me help you, man." He looked up, and there was Kobe Bryant. (Denise De La Cruz)