My most awkward moment as a sportswriter came during a training camp that the Los Angeles Lakers held at UCSB two decades ago.
I arrived with a notebook, a couple of pens, a tape recorder … and my 12-year-old daughter’s brand new, Spalding basketball.
Caitlyn had handed it to me as I was departing for the Thunderdome.
“Daddy,” she said, “can you please, please, please have Shaq sign this?”
One of the most sacrosanct rules of journalism is to never, never, never ask for an autograph during an interview.
I was about to explain this to Caitlyn when she looked up with her baby blue eyes and clobbered me with her most angelic smile.
A daughter’s smile trumps an editor’s scowl any day of the week. I returned a pained smile of my own, gulped, and took the ball with nary a protest.
I buttered up Shaquille O’Neill as best I could during our interview, throwing no hardball questions his way while cradling Caitlyn’s ball in my left armpit.
I then smiled even more painfully and held out of the ball while asking my final question: “Hey Shaq, think you could sign this for my little girl?”
Shaq apparently knew the sacrosanct rules of journalism.
“Nah,” he said. “I don’t do that.”
My oafishly frozen smile would have remained forever pained if not for what happened next: A young Laker by the name of Kobe Bryant stepped between us and took the ball right out of my hands.
“For your little girl, huh?” he said. “I’d love to sign it.”
Kobe was barely a kid himself at the time, having just turned 21. But sadly, he had already lived more than half of his life. He died on Sunday with his own daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash while on their way to a youth basketball tournament.
The tragedy cast a profound sadness all over the world, and not just because he had been one of the greatest players in NBA history. He was also an advocate of children long before becoming the doting father of four girls, the youngest born just last June.
It’s what struck me the most when I caught up with him again during the summer of 2006 when Camp Laker was held at UCSB’s Thunderdome. His eldest daughter, 3-year-old Natalia, was beaming as much as the campers.
“We have a blast,” Kobe told me. “She’s daddy’s girl.”
Gianna was at home with mom, only 10 months old at the time.
It wasn’t the typical camp in which the superstar makes a cameo appearance. Kobe mixed it up with the kids for long stints. He even begged one camper to push him hard during a defensive drill.
“Go ahead, man,” Kobe said. “I won’t break.”
The kid obliged, knocking him off balance. The other campers howled in laughter.
He told the kid to try again, and this time Kobe foiled the effort by grabbing the kid’s shirt. The campers howled even louder.
“I want to teach you some tricks that you don’t see on TV,” he said.
The two-week camp was a charity benefit, but Kobe seemed to benefit most of all.
“It’s fun having a good time with the kids and teaching them the game a little bit,” he said. “A lot of people came along and taught me details about the game, so it’s on me to do the same thing.”
One of those mentors was former UCSB star Brian Shaw. Their serendipitous bond began when Kobe was only 11, living with his dad in Italy where Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was playing professional basketball. Shaw had joined another Italian team while in the midst of a contract dispute with the Boston Celtics.
“He was a pest,” Shaw recalled during his tenure as an assistant coach with the Lakers. “He was kind of like a ball boy and he was challenging everybody all the time, wanting to play against you.”
When asked about it, Kobe claimed that Shaw still owed him a pizza for having lost a game of one-on-one.
“First of all,” Shaw shot back, “it was a game of H-O-R-S-E, not one-on-one.
“But I tell him that that was what gave him all his confidence. If I had beaten him, he would have been crushed and wouldn’t be where he is now.”
It was a lesson learned by his young protégé: Many years later, Kobe would lose to an 11-year-old boy in another shooting game that had been arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“He made some baskets, man, and he beat me,” Kobe said. “I tried to make some really difficult shots and it wound up catching up to me. And he got me.”
A twist of fate — Kobe’s broken wrist — brought them back together before the start of the 1999 season. The injury prompted the Lakers to sign Shaw to a free-agent contract. They wound up winning three NBA championships together.
Shaw served as the calming influence on a team led by two head-strong rivals: Kobe and Shaq.
“I think knowing his family over the years has helped in my relationship with him,” he said of Kobe during a 2008 interview. “In a lot of ways, I’ve been able to reach him when a lot of others in the organization couldn’t.”
Shaw was nearly inconsolable when he learned of Kobe’s death on Sunday, weeping while on camera with NBA TV.
“I’m 53 years old, and I’ve dealt with a lot of death in my time,” he said, referring to an automobile accident which claimed the lives of his parents and sister in 1993. “One of the things that kept me going is the fact that while they were here, we lived, and we made a lot of memories together.
“For those Kobe fans out there that are feeling how I feel right now, just try and think of all the joy that he brought you.”
Kirsten Moore, the women’s basketball coach at Westmont College, was “emotionally impacted” when hearing Sunday’s news. Her husband Alex had died of complications following surgery in 2012 — less than two months before the birth of their daughter, Alexis.
“Obviously it hits home for me as I think about his wife with a new baby, and all of those things at home,” she said, choking back tears. “But it’s also because at this point, he was doing more for the women’s game than anybody in the world.
“He was tweeting about women’s basketball … He was coaching these girls that were with him on the helicopter. He was just investing so much value in what the game of basketball was doing for young women. He was just starting that, and there was so much good to come from it.”
Bryant returned to Santa Barbara often for his “Kobe Basketball Academy.” On his last visit, he told me that “it’s peacefulness” had made it one of his favorite cities in the world.
“A lot of the towns that I grew up in overseas in Italy were like this: very calm, very family-oriented,” he said, “so it brings back a lot of memories.”
Like an old Spalding basketball with a fading autograph.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org