Spenser Hill had been struggling for a while. He was lined up for a bone-marrow transplant that would occur on his 16th birthday as he battled leukemia. In his tough time, Hill knew exactly what he wanted when Make-A-Wish officials approached him.
He wanted to meet Kobe Bryant.
After his transplant was completed and the basketball fanatic began to regain his strength, Hill and his family made the cross-country trip to LA. Kobe was in the midst of his retirement tour in 2016, leading to everybody wanting just a minute of his time.
Hill got a chance to take the court at Staples Center and shoot around during pregame, but he hadn’t met his idol yet. During the game, Hill was shown on the jumbotron, getting a big cheer from the fans.
Still, no Kobe though.
After the game, it finally happened. Striding out of the locker room, Kobe greeted Hill and his family with a smile. He signed autographs and took pictures. Spenser’s day was made – one where he could forget about battling leukemia and instead could swap hoops stories with one of the best to ever play.
“He was really nice. And you could tell he really cared,” recalled Tonia Farmer, Spenser’s mom, about meeting Kobe back in 2016.
This week, hundreds of stories have poured out about Kobe following his tragic death in a helicopter accident Sunday. Bryant, 41, was one of nine people who perished as the group was traveling to a basketball game that his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant was scheduled to play.
The basketball community has mourned the passing of Kobe and his daughter Gigi. But they haven’t been alone.
The whole world has seemed to stop to pay their respects to the man everybody knew as Mamba.
When news broke Sunday, I was at Mud Bums. I didn’t know how to even comprehend the news. I sat silently for hours, hoping somebody would break the news that the report was inaccurate. It never happened.
My time in deep thought was finally broken when one patron approached and said, “Are you still writing sports for the Standard?” When I told him I was, he pointed to the screen broadcasting the news and said, “What are you going to write about Kobe?”
It wasn’t something I was prepared to hear.
One of the most poignant comments I’ve ever gotten about my column came from I guy I had never met. He simply told me, “I like reading your stuff, but nobody cares about the San Antonio Spurs or Kawhi Leonard.”
It was a sentiment I’d heard before, in and out of the office. So fair enough, I stopped writing about the NBA.
I can say this - with 100 percent certainty after talking with people around town this week – people care about Kobe Bryant.
I cared about Kobe for years. More accurately, I hated seeing Kobe on the other sideline of the Spurs. It wasn’t a real hate – it was the sports hate, where you know deep down your team is facing a guy it may not be able to stop.
I mean really, how could you stop Kobe? Defenses didn’t when he was on his way to 33,643 points. Teams couldn’t stop Kobe as he led the Lakers to five championships. An Achilles rupture couldn’t even stop Kobe – he got up, sank two free throws and then attacked the rehab process.
He came back and played three more seasons, including a final one where he could be there to inspire Spenser.
Now approaching his 20th birthday, Spenser, who also has Down Syndrome, has become a shooting sensation at local basketball games. He scored 36 points last year in a contest, nailing 12 triples as everybody shouted his name.
In that moment, he probably felt like Kobe – an unstoppable scorer who wanted to seize the moment. Spenser hit his final 3-pointer at the buzzer that day and was mobbed by teammates at midcourt.
When somebody steps up and sinks a game winner, undoubtedly followed by a clinched fist and jutted out jaw, that’s where Kobe and the Mamba Mentality will live on.
There’s always going to be a kid dribbling around, counting down the last few seconds in their head and getting ready to hoist the buzzer beater. They’ll gather up, let it fly and watch it soar toward the hoop.
When it sinks, they’ll say what we all say when we shoot our shots – “Kobe.”