When Kobe was drafted into the NBA, I was in fourth year of secondary school in Sacred Heart College. I played on the basketball team. I was no star. I eventually became known mostly for rebounds and shot-blocking, “Rodman” as my teammates would sometimes blurt out alluding to the then reigning rebound king Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls. I did not count my stats; so, I cannot say exactly how effective I was other than the nickname bestowed. At the time, as much as I enjoyed playing basketball, it seemed to me a profession I would never attain for insufficient height (6ft 1) and lack of genuine passion. I had good grades. I was in the top tier of my class at the time and aspiring to anything other than a doctor or engineer would be aspiring to misuse. So while I enjoyed watching basketball highlights and staying up late to watch the playoffs on CANAL+ HORIZONS (a french cable station), it always felt like I was watching a world of people whose lives and mindsets I may never truly comprehend.
Then there was Michael Jordan. He sounded like a professor when he talked about the sport. I could follow his logic for comprehension but not identification. He still was… different, a virtuoso.
And then there was KOBE BRYANT. He was seventeen years old. He was slim compared to Jordan, Malone, Barkley, Shaq and Penny. He ran just like the upperclassmen on our team at the time who were in the sixth form. Some were quite tall and often they made us underclassmen wonder whether we would one day see them in the American league as they played like they had the passion. I even had a classmate who dominated practices and games. He was the best on the team. In fact, he was OUR Michael Jordan. Jordan was unbeatable. He was the standard no one would take down. But then there was Kobe. He moved with the finesse of Jordan and leapt with the same aspiration in his gait. I had seen player after player try to outdo Jordan only to see their hopes crushed in the playoffs or the NBA finals. This was the same on our squad. We would never beat our Jordan. He also quite indomitable and I often wondered to myself, how do you slay the monster?
Kobe gave me hope. When Kobe spoke, I understood. He was an American teenage athlete whose press conferences denoted an affinity for composition. I knew of American teenagers with an affinity for composition. They just didn’t seem to display that alongside a passion for basketball. What’s more? He was precocious. He was given to expressing himself from a place of foresight and forethought. Values which were being instilled in us as teenagers at Sacred Heart College, Mankon. Our principal, Reverend Clemens Ndze loved to say to us with vigor C-I-R-C-U-M-S-P-E-C-T-I-O-N. Two aspects of my formative world were starting show signs of an alliance.
In my fifth and last year, my family had been planning to have me return to the United States, my place of birth upon completing my “O” Level Exam. (US High School Diploma equivalent). I had been growing heavily concerned that I would have trouble adapting after spending so many years in Cameroon and the possibility of struggling with culture shock. I had lost my American accent. I was now fluent in French (including basketball terms – to this day) and I was very insecure about having a heavily European-influenced fashion sense – as is the case in all of sub-saharan Africa because you know, conquest. All these were seeds to an anxiety I would not be prepared to endure.
Again, Kobe. He was born in Philadelphia, youngest in his family (like me), was taken to Italy where he adapted to a new culture and before he could get settled was flown back to the US where he would have to deal with being a teenager while excelling in school and sports at really high levels. Was this a sign? Was God showing me that I would be able to survive my return to the United States afterall? One of the tactics of survival/adaptation I was able to develop in boarding school was the power of example and at times imitation… Hmm… maybe this explains something else about my life track… but back to Kobe. Truth be told, I did not know the guy. I had never shaken his hand or stood in the same room with him but his story connected with me.
I saw someone who was trying to sketch his way into the Lakers starting squad alongside the then true threat to Michael Jordan in Shaquille O’Neal. I was dealing with the same level of pressure on my school squad. I often felt irrelevant and intimidated as I didn’t possess similar kinetic gifts to emulate someone like Jordan as I found his mentality to be somewhat intractable, my hope in staying with the team began to diminish… until I discovered Kobe. I saw his windmill dunk against the Chicago Bulls as Jordan chuckled and it hit me. “Wow them. Do something unexpected… show ferocity”. In sports, as much as athletes love the score, most players relate to and adapt to shows of ferocity. It is like the mark of belonging. If anyone remembers me from that time, I was highly envious of the gentlest angels. I never wanted to be perceived as being capable of hurting a fly. It was great for my reputation in catholic school among the teachers and students (hindsight they probably all hated it because it gave them little to stick me by and kept everyone at comfortable distance) But on the basketball court we would sometimes say “No Babies Allowed” (NBA), I was losing respect FAST.
An alter ego can be very invigorating when unleashed the first time. The surprise on the familiar faces who now take on an unfamiliar expression at the sight of you because you are doing something different, unexpected. It was a game between “houses” as we were often grouped. The Marist brothers had come up with four patron saints they would arrange us under and every year we would have interhouse games much like in the Olympic track, field and team sport categories. Basketball was one of them. I played for St. Peters. It was a Sunday, we had “Michael Jordan” on our squad. I wasn’t going to shine. I was anxious, envious, pissed. I would finish out my years in Sacred Heart and all I would be remembered for is as the timid nerd who was well-liked but went to finish high school in America and got eaten up by hallway bullies. Anxiety.
I slapped the ball so hard I could hear the gasp in the crowd. The louder the slap on a block the more embarrassing it was. I had just rejected an upperclassman. Despite the equality of the court, there was still a certain level of respect that was commandeered as we played alongside upperclassmen, especially if you were not a star offensive player. For the first time, I didn’t care about how I would be perceived. Behold, FEROCITY! I did not stop there. I proceeded to outrebound and block as many shots as I could in that game thus my basketball alter ego was born – RODMAN.
I had been looking up to Kobe but I discovered I was more like Rodman. I was grabbing rebounds off the taller upperclassmen and blocking as many shots as I could. I had no idea where the timing was coming from. I kept this on through my last year at Sacred Heart. I navigated both personas of the good boy during school hours and the ferocious “worm” during sports hour. I LOVED it.
Back to Kobe. He was in Sprite commercials and he was beginning to have a signature look with his afro. The last point of alignment was when upon returning to the US, I moved to Los Angeles, California, home of the LAKERS where Kobe played. I never met him. However, because I had been using the story of his growth in the NBA as inspiration for cultivating courage, just being in Los Angeles at the time felt like I had an extra sibling and a healthy reminder of the fun times I had with my fellow teammates in Sacred Heart. He had come to represent a transitional period in my life and unbeknownst to him, his transition influenced my courage to endure my transition.
Lastly, I would like to recount a significant moment of influence the story of Kobe had on me. I had a practice of walking up to then Westside Pavilion in West Los Angeles, where there was a Barnes & Noble bookstore. It was filled with college students and bibliophiles and what I loved about that store was I could find a book I was interested in and just start reading. No one would force me to pay or kick me out for being there too long. I landed on a copy of Kobe Bryant’s biography. He was definitely still pretty young to have one but I figured if he was considered accomplished enough to have one, I would find out what I did not already know. It took me two days (two trips, I didn’t sleep there). It talked mostly about his process and his routine. And then it hit me; we had another similarity. We were both gifted in the fields of our fathers. Kobe’s father was a basketball player. My father had been a published author. I had an affinity for composition and narration. I loved telling stories. Kobe slept with a basketball and practised with his father. I wrote short stories and gave to my father to grade. Kobe talked basketball with his father. My father read us prose and even had us act in University productions that eventually became teleplays. I made a different connection. If Kobe were following his fate and I mine, I would probably be suited to be a writer. This moment happened in my first year in Los Angeles. This realization sank in but I was unable to act on it at the time. My life track was, undergrad in biochemistry and go to UCLA for medical school.
Three years later, the Lakers won their threepeat over the New Jersey Nets. Kobe’s legacy in Lakers folklore was being etched into history. Eight months later, I was admitted into the Juilliard School of Drama.