Kobe Bryant was holding my Olympic gold medal in his hands, silently admiring it with his teammate Dwight Howard. Damn, how did I get to such a surreal moment?
It was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, one day after my teammates and I had won the gold in rowing. Like most other athletes who were done with competition, I was hanging out in the Olympic Village soaking in all the greatness and excitement around me.
On this particular night, the U.S. men’s basketball team had just won their game against Germany, 106-57, to advance to the quarterfinal. Though far from done with competition, the guys were out enjoying the energy of the Village just like any other athlete.
Except that these guys made millions and were recognized everywhere they went. So when Dwight Howard saw the shine of the medal hanging from my neck and asked to see it, I naturally obliged. What I didn’t expect was for Kobe Bryant to walk up to us eyeing the medal -- that Dwight had now put around his neck.
“Hey man, where did you get that from,” Kobe asked him.
“Oh, hi. It’s mine,” I sheepishly interjected.
And like an admiring fan, he quickly held out his hand and said, “Congrats, that’s cool. What’s your name?”
"My name is Susan, and I’m a rower”
We shook hands and he answered, “Nice to meet you, I’m Kobe”
I said the only thing I could think of.
He laughed and went back to admiring my medal. Unreal. I can’t even explain the feeling that I had as I realized that, despite all of his trophies at home, in this moment Kobe wanted something that I had and he didn’t have yet.
He was playing for his country and for the honor of an Olympic title. Kobe half-jokingly hit Dwight on the arm and said, “We gotta get that.” He was here to win.
And like any curious athlete, he started asking questions about what it took for me to get to gold.
“What is your training like? Do you just row all the time? For real, you go backwards? What happens when it’s really cold outside? Where are you from? Is there a lot of rowing there?”
Coincidentally enough, I came from a suburb of Philly, just like him. So I told him, “Actually I’m from Abington, near Lower Merion where you grew up!”
He thought for a second and said, “Abington. Yeah, the ghosts! What a mascot. Who chose that?”
We laughed. Funny enough whenever I ran into him afterward, he never remembered my name so he just called me “Abington.” That’s fine. I’ll take an inside joke with Kobe.
When the men’s U.S. basketball team ended up winning the gold in a fantastic game against Spain, they strutted through the Olympic Village sporting their new bling, playfully yelling at other athletes and volunteers. First stop? The McDonald’s in the dining hall.
I saw Kobe and yelled, “You got it!” and held up my fists like a proud mom. Kobe remembered me and invited myself and my teammate, Anna Goodale, to come and eat with the rest of his team. He was always interested in people’s stories and did his best to make us feel included. I didn’t care that it was Kobe. He was just a cool guy.
The cool guy and I continued to run into one another on our post-Olympic media tour. At the filming of the Oprah show, he didn’t opt for the private limo that was shuttling other big-name Olympians between the set and our hotel.
Instead, he wanted to be a part of the energy and rowdiness of the Team USA contingency, so he took the bus. I was the last person on the bus, so I plopped down into the seat next to him.
“Abington! What’s up?”
We went on to talk about his love of basketball and what it’s like to be such a big sports star. One of my favorite quotes was when he said, “I’m going to be honest. Sometimes I just chuck the ball up there in the direction of the basket, and I am just as surprised as everyone else when it goes in. And then it plays on SportsCenter for a week!”
We talked about training plans and injuries and how tough it is to be away from family, everything that two athletes would talk about. I had to ask him if he liked taking R&B singer Brandy to the prom. He laughed and told me that they were both very awkward, and she didn’t say much. But the prom picture was nice!
Kobe with a bad prom story. This guy was human.
I think back to this incredible competitor that inspired so many. He was passionate about the game and even more passionate about winning. And he could do it all with a smile. The money and the fame didn’t seem to waver his natural affability.
Even a day before the tragedy he was encouraging of others, congratulating fellow Team USA teammate and NBA rival LeBron James when he passed Bryant’s all-time scoring record.
Like many other fans around the world, I will mourn the loss of Kobe Bryant. Not just because he was one of the greatest basketball players of all time but because he brought an energy and joy to the people around him.
I’ll just consider myself lucky that I took that seat next to him on the bus.