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Kobe Bryant had a long, lasting relationship with Las Vegas

Updated January 26, 2020 - 6:55 pm

When Oscar Goodman was seeking support from an NBA legend to bring the league’s All-Star Game to town in 2007, the former Las Vegas mayor said the names of two fellow Philadelphians immediately came to mind.

“I’m more of the Wilt Chamberlain era,” he said. “But there was a lull there, until Kobe Bryant came along. Kobe was the kind of guy everybody looked up to. When it came time to have somebody who was going to say Las Vegas was a great spot, Kobe came forward.

“He loved Vegas, and we loved him.”

The NBA legend, who was killed in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles on Sunday along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, was among the first to promote Las Vegas as an NBA venue.

“I think it’s a good match,” Bryant said before scoring 31 points and adding five rebounds, six assists and six steals en route to earning his second of four All-Star Game MVP awards, at the Thomas &Mack Center.

“Basketball is the greatest show in the world,” he said. “Everybody loves watching, and what better place to have a great show than Las Vegas?”

Earning the All-Star MVP award was the highlight of Bryant’s playing career in Las Vegas, which included NBA preseason and USA Basketball exhibition games. Las Vegas was a basketball destination for his family — his father, former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, coached the semipro Las Vegas Rattlers during the 2003-04 season.

“Every year since 1998 like clockwork, Kobe entered the Thomas &Mack Center in October as a Laker wearing No. 24 or No. 8,” said Daren Libonati, the facility’s former director. “Then during the summer he would return with Team USA to prepare for the Olympic Games. He would always say, ‘Daren, you make your home feel like like ours every time we’re here.’ ”

Always the competitor

Gary Payton, a Las Vegas resident and teammate of Bryant’s in several All-Star Games and with the 2003-04 Lakers, struggled to hold back tears during an ESPN telephone interview.

“We got to share a lot of stuff and we got to be close,” said the 2013 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, regarded as one of the NBA’s most fierce defenders and trash-talkers. “I’d go up to him and say, ‘You’re going to have to earn this one,’ and he’d say, ‘(Don’t worry) I’m gonna earn it.’ He was always the one who wanted to compete, and I looked forward to competing against him.

“And then when I got to play with him, I got to meet the Kobe Bryant that is Kobe Bryant (the man), and that was good.”

Las Vegas Aviators media director Jim Gemma served as a liaison between the Thomas &Mack Center and the Lakers during the franchise’s preseason games in Las Vegas and shared an anecdote about a chance meeting with Bryant in the training room.

“Kobe was rehabbing his knee — it was just me and him in there,” Gemma recalled. “It was a Sunday in October. He said ‘Hey, would it be all right if I turned the Eagles game on?’ He couldn’t have been nicer.”

Ace among Aces

Bryant and his daughter were killed on their way to a girls’ youth basketball game — one of his passions since he retired after the 2016 season. Bryant coached his daughter and brought her entire team to Las Vegas for the Aces’ season opener at Mandalay Bay last May after the WNBA team relocated from San Antonio. He visited with the Aces’ players in their dressing room.

Former Durango High boys and girls’ basketball coach Al La Rocque texted photos of Bryant giving Lindy La Rocque pointers during a clinic at Durango before the coach’s daughter went on to play in four NCAA Final Fours at Stanford.

“He was on a goodwill tour for Nike. It was his birthday and he did a one-day clinic,” La Rocque said, adding that he would bump into Bryant and Gianna when Stanford — where Lindy La Rocque is now an assistant coach — played at UCLA and Southern Cal. “We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.

“Lindy was a freshman or sophomore and he gave her a personal clinic, showing her some moves. Anthony Marshall is in the front row in one of the pictures. When he signed at UNLV, I used to tell him it was because of Kobe and the clinic.”

Kobe Bryant’s star burned so brightly in Las Vegas that he could cause a reaction even when he was hundreds of miles away.

During the 2008 Summer League, Coby Karl made a basket for the Lakers, after which public address announcer Dick Calvert credited the two points to Kobe Bryant.

The crowd at Cox Pavilion roared.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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