March 1999 was an interesting time for basketball fans. The great Bulls team that dominated the decade had just recently called it quits. Michael Jordan retired, Scottie Pippin moved to Houston, and Steve Kerr headed to the Spurs. Head coach Phil Jackson packed up and went to Los Angeles, where he more than likely smelled a new dynasty with the Lakers. Shaq and Kobe were second only to Michael and Scottie in terms of all-star duos, after all. In February, free agent Dennis Rodman followed Coach Jackson to Los Angeles, presumably to do for Shaq and Kobe what he did for Jordan and Pippin: bang bodies and pick up rebounds.
Here in Sacramento we were enjoying our own NBA highlight reel courtesy of the most exciting team the Kings roster ever to step into Arco Arena. Big men Vlade Divac and Chris Webber dominated the paint, and point guard Jason Williams was the craziest, most unpredictable ball handler since Peter Maravich. Anything might happen when that guy touched the ball. He might dish a no-look bounce pass into a congested lane, drive to the hoop like a player 50 pounds heavier and 8 inches taller, or pull up just past half court and toss up a rainbow. Sacramento always loved their Kings, but in March 1999 Sacramentans were basketball obsessed.
But basketball wasn’t the only big sports news that month. Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, each of whom held heavyweight titles, were scheduled to fight for the undisputed heavyweight championship. The heavyweight division hadn’t had an undisputed champ since ’96 so this fight was big news in the sports world. Thanks to Tyson chomping on Holyfield’s ear a year and a half earlier, Evander was big news outside of the sports world, too.
Holyfield-Lewis was one of those must-see fights that come along every few years, so my buddy Mike and I put aside our basketball mania for the evening and drove to Orangevale, a suburb about 20 miles outside of Sacramento, where a local sports bar was showing the fight. We could have watched it from home, but even in 1999 pay per view was overpriced. And if you think pay per view prices are outrageous, you wouldn’t believe how much a big screen TV cost back then: A 50-inch plasma set ran anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000.
All things considered, a cover charge and a few overpriced beers were a much more affordable fight night than staying home would have been, and boxing, like most sporting events, is more fun to watch with a crowd. But when we got to the bar there was no crowd. Mike and I were so early we didn’t even pay the cover charge, just walked in and sat down like regular barflies, though we picked the two bar stools with the best views of the darkened big screen television.
We drank watery beer and ate pretzels while we talked about the Kings, what looked to be the Lakers’ year, our jobs, my kid, whatever. I’m sure I told him about the time my grandfather and I watched the Hagler-Hearns fight on closed-circuit television, pay per view’s predecessor. As we chatted people wandered in and found seats, and the gigantic television flickered to life. Mike and I kept gabbing while the undercards duked it out and the bar filled up. And it really filled up: Minutes before the main card got underway, the only empty seat in the house was the bar stool to my immediate right.
By then I was bored out of my mind. Over two hours had passed since we arrived at that stinky bar. My ass was numb, my buddy and I were out of small talk, and I’d seen enough of journeymen and tomato cans pounding on each other. I stared into my bowl of pretzels for no other reason than it was excuse to keep my head down.
Suddenly the entire bar burst into applause, so I turned to look at the television. The champs must be entering the ring, I figured, but no. The only movement on the giant screen was a few people milling about the ring. Why were these goons inside the bar cheering? I followed their eye lines to the door. A nondescript white dude was making his way through the crowd, and next to him stood Kobe Bryant. A Kobe sighting was much more interesting than a bowl of pretzels, so I watched the duo step closer and closer, and then Kobe took the only empty seat in the house, the bar stool next to mine.
“Are you old enough to drink?” I asked.
“I brought water,” Kobe laughed, and he held up a water bottle.
“What are you doing here?”
“Here to see the fight.”
“No, I mean what are you doing in Orangevale?”
“We play the Kings tomorrow.”
I felt like I’d committed a sports fan faux pas. Of course he was in town for a game. Why else would Kobe Bryant be in Sacramento? “I love the Kings, but I think you guys have the championship all sewn up this year.”
“I hope so,” Kobe said.
“I mean, with the addition of Rodman, that’s like the missing ingredient, right? A big rebounder, you guys can’t miss.”
Kobe gave me a Cheshire smile that said neither “I agree” nor “I disagree.” At best it said, “Let’s change the subject,” so I did. “So who do you pick tonight?” I asked.
“Holyfield says he’s going to do it in three, so I say Holyfield,” Kobe said.
“I don’t know, man, Lewis has the weight and the reach.”
“Holyfield’s got the heart.”
“And tasty ears,” I added. Kobe laughed.
I looked over at Mike, whose eyes were wide as saucers yet focused on nothing. It was the sort of expression one normally sees on a junior high school boy’s face when talking to the hot girl in class suddenly moves from possibility to imminent. Similarly, guys started walking slowly past us, side-eyeing Kobe while trying to act casual: “Just on my way to this place over here…and now I’m just on my back to that place over there. Never mind me, I haven’t even noticed the NBA all-star sitting over there….”
The two big heavyweights made their way to the ring, and after the preliminary nonsense finally got down to business. Kobe and I talked about the round when it was over, and then I said, “Do you think you would have chosen basketball if your dad wasn’t a player?”
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders, and then he said, “I don’t know. All I ever wanted to do was play basketball.”
Round two. Lewis dominated the round, landing seemingly everything he threw. Holyfield looked sluggish, old, like he couldn’t throw a punch. “Man, that was ugly,” I said. “But here comes your round. You still think Holyfield can knock him out in three after that?”
Kobe nodded. “He can do it.”
The bell rang for round three, and Holyfield came out swinging. It was obvious that he really was going for the K-O, but Lewis hung in. That third round was the kind of battle that boxing fans love, but when it was all over Lewis was still standing.
“What a round! Geez, after that I bet you’re glad you followed your dad into basketball instead of boxing,” I joked.
“If I did, I’d be champ,” Kobe said, and there was that smile again.
You cocky son of a bitch, I thought, and then it occurred to me that he was right. Kobe Bryant was one of those guys for whom the word “driven” was an understatement. Basketball was his chosen profession, but perhaps that was due to proximity. If Jellybean Bryant hadn’t been his father maybe the kid would have gone into accounting or politics or quilting, but that motor was all Kobe. Regardless what profession he chose, his drive would have pushed him to the top.
After round three the fight settled into the kind of plodding, technical match that goes to the cards. Kobe and I made small talk between the rounds until the final bell rang, and then he grabbed the little Budweiser tent sign that rested on the bar, scribbled “Kobe #8” on it, handed it to me, and shook my hand. “Good luck tomorrow,” I said.
“Thanks,” he smiled, and he and his buddy/handler/whoever he was split. They didn’t even stay for the decision.
Over the course of the entire evening the only people that Kobe and I talked to were each other. The next day I tuned into local talk radio to hear whether Kobe’s night out was mentioned, and I was surprised to learn from several callers that they had long conversations with the NBA star that night. Each of those calls ended with, “He was a real cool guy.” Such is the nature of fame.
A lot of bad things emerged or were alleged about Kobe Bryant over the following years, some professional and some personal. Those things have no place in this story. All I can tell you is that on the evening of March 13, 1999, Kobe Bryant was a genuinely nice, interesting person who was easy to talk to. He brimmed with confidence rather than star attitude, and I’ve often wondered if that was what was behind his little smile when I mentioned Rodman. Maybe that smile meant “Rodman’s not the missing piece, just give me the ball,” or maybe it meant “Rodman’s a ‘star,’ I’m a basketball player.” More than likely it meant “I don’t know you and I’m way too polite to correct you.”
And even if he could tell me today what that smile meant, the answer wouldn’t change my opinion of the Kobe Bryant I met that evening. He was a real cool guy.