There he was. All six feet and six inches of him. A walking legend and icon. Someone I had only ever admired from afar.
Yet, there he was standing only a few feet away from me, and I had become speechless and frozen. Suddenly, nothing else in the world mattered.
I was a young teenager just trying to locate his parents, but instead found myself face-to-face with my sports idol, Lakers’ legend, Kobe Bryant.
Now, days after Kobe — along with eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna — was killed in a tragic helicopter crash in Southern California, this is the moment I will always remember when Kobe is mentioned. Not the five championships, not all the accolades, but the small moment we had together in a restroom at Disneyland.
My family and I were at Disneyland for my sister’s birthday in December of 2011. Upon arrival to the Grand California Adventure Hotel, I had my cell phone taken away because I was being the brat of a 13-year-old that I was and continue to be, only now in my twenties.
After checking into our room, we headed for the lounge inside the hotel. When we took a seat in the lounge, it dawned on me I forgot something back in the room. I got up from my seat and told my parents, “Please do not leave the lounge. You guys took my phone so I wont be able to find you.”
Of course, when I returned to the lounge moments later, my parents were nowhere to be found.
I began to scour the hotel trying to find my parents, even using the concierge phone to try and contact them.
As I continued to wander around the hotel lobby, I decided it was a good idea to go outside and walk toward Downtown Disney. I began walking toward a hallway that led out to Downtown Disney when I turned a corner only to see Kobe and his family. He was surrounded by loads of security and was headed my way. My next move was not to approach them, but instead retreat to the lobby. My body and mind traveled into disbelief.
I paced back and forth in the lobby, trying to act like what I saw was a dream. I replayed the brief moment a thousand times in my head and remembered seeing Kobe head left towards the restroom. My mind and gut told me to follow him — this may be your moment to meet your idol, Gabe. With nerves not yet processed, I did exactly that.
As I approached the restroom, I saw a worker guarding the door. I asked if I could enter and he allowed me.
I pushed the door open, and there he was. There was Kobe Bryant, dressed in his Mamba brand sweatsuit and looking down at his iPhone. I immediately panicked and I darted for the nearest open stall. I didn’t have to use the restroom, but I didn’t know what else to do.
After waiting for what felt like the normal amount of time for someone to be in a bathroom stall, I opened the door only to see Kobe lifting one of his daughters up to help her wash her hands.
I approached the sink to wash my hands as Kobe finished helping his beloved daughter wash hers. I began to reach for paper towels to dry my hands, fearing Kobe would not want to shake them if they were wet. In a moment of complete nerves and little thinking, I turned around to tell Kobe I was a huge fan and wished him luck the rest of the season. In return, Kobe said thank you and offered a fist bump as he saw me nervously drying my hands. I returned the fist bump and he exited the restroom with his daughter.
I left the restroom and Kobe was nowhere to be found. Shortly thereafter, I found my dad and told him what had happened. He saw the pure excitement and joy on my face, but questioned the validity of the story — I was trying to convince myself of the same in my own head.
I had no physical proof of what occured, only the memory. My memory of that day may have been just a small blip on his radar, but it was a huge blip on mine.
Kobe had the ability to touch many lives and affect so many people through basketball and his life after his retirement from the sport. Growing up in Bakersfield, California, there were no professional sports teams. But a little over a hundred miles south is the city of Los Angeles, with some of the biggest teams and sports figures in all of the world, and that's where we focused our sports fandom.
I’m not here to act like I knew Kobe deeply, but I wanted to tell my story the best way I know how. This process only helps with the disbelief of what happened Sunday. My mind only keeps taking me back to the thought of Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, and all the pain she must feel to lose her husband and daughter. My parents always told me you should never have to bury your kids. But nobody should ever have to lose their partner and child on the same day.
Going back to the moment at Disneyland, all I can think about is him saying thank you.
After these many years have gone by, this is my chance to say thank you. Thank you, Kobe, for the memories. Thank you for making me fall in love with the game of basketball. Thank you for making me become a fan of the Lakers. Thank you for being the reason that I begged my dad to drag me to Staples Center and pay for overpriced food. Thank you for giving me a glimpse into fatherhood. Thank you for showing me how daughters and one’s family are more important than work, even as a professional. And thank you for the fist bump — it meant the world to a 13-year-old kid who idolized you for years before and years after.
I’m not sure what this will do to help, but it made me realize we need to hug our loved ones. We need to appreciate those around us every day because tomorrow is never guaranteed.
Only nine short years ago, there was my idol giving me a fist bump, and today he’s no longer here.