I was sitting at my computer at work, sifting through emails, eyes somewhat glazed over, when my pulse suddenly quickened.
“Conflict check — Kobe Bryant.” I knew what this meant, even as a green first-year Associate at the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles. It was access to these very deals that inspired me to join this firm over any other in the country.
I immediately emailed Rob, the partner on the deal. Apparently, I had won the fastest fingers competition. “You’re in. Stop by my office and let’s discuss.”
The deal, it turned out, was for the purchase by Kobe Bryant of Olimpia Milano, the Italian basketball team for which Kobe’s Dad played. Having grown up in Italy, Kobe’s purchase of this team represented his success and the closing of a circle from his youth.
Working on the Kobe deal represented a notch on the belt of my career too. Having graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law, and having worked as an investment banker and now as a corporate attorney, working for Kobe was a milestone — maybe the capstone — of my gilt-edged career.
The experience did not disappoint.
I remember the first time I met Kobe. I had arrived at the Brentwood offices of super-agent Arn Tellem. No sooner did the doors to the lobby of SFX Sports swing open than my eyes were immediately drawn to the unmistakable figure of Kobe Bryant.
It was 1999. I had just graduated from law school and the fabled Lakers were on the heels of another impressive decade. Having grown up in LA, I was a diehard Lakers fan. And maybe it was his name, appearance, international background, or the way he carried himself, but somehow as an Asian-American, I always felt an affinity for Kobe. His universal relatability has always been part of what makes him special.
Kobe was also the crown jewel on a team in ascension. In a city of stars, Kobe was clearly on the path to shining brightest.
And there he was, sitting on a sofa, signing his autograph on basketballs — two at a time — with his right and left hand. A coterie of handlers was handing him balls to sign as he capably did his work, smiling and cheerily engaging in conversation all the while. I’ll never forget that image of him. He appeared legendary, even signing autographs.
When the time came to meet with Kobe, he was as gracious as you’d hope an idol to be. He treated me as a person of importance, even though, in his world, I was really nothing more than a cog in a corporate wheel. As I sat in the SFX conference room, along with Rob Pelinka, Arn and others, Kobe sat engaged and attentive as we went over the admittedly boring particulars of the deal.
He was only 21, and I was only 26. He was at the top of his mountain, and I was near the top of my hill.
As Kobe signed the endless closing paperwork, I joked that I should add a few basketballs for him to sign additionally. He laughed heartily (and perhaps obligatorily) at my joke. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
Over the years, I knew Kobe less as a corporate signatory and more as the Mamba.
After my brief encounters with him as the corporate attorney working on the Olimpia Milano transaction, his reputation was beyond cemented in my mind. When a superstar laughs at your jokes, looks you in the eye, shakes your hand and thanks you for your hard work, that bond is pretty much never going to go away.
I cheered as he won 5 championships with the Lakers. I whispered my “Come on’s!” as I stayed up late to watch him on TV lead the US in beating Spain in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Few seem to remember the choke job the United States continued to perform before Kobe took the game over in the final few minutes and exorcised all of America’s demons with his daring-do, confidence, ruthless and reckless commitment, and talent.
My wife has asked me why the only athletic performance shoes I purchase are Kobe’s Nike shoes and why I never throw them away even after they’re worn thin. I keep them in my closet because I’m frankly unwilling to let go.
I’m unwilling to let go of my connection to Kobe. He is a reminder of the excellence I’ve always wished for in myself.
Kobe will always mean something to me. I do not see him as Kobe, the basketball player or Kobe, the client. I see him as Kobe, the legend whose aura I shared for a brief moment.