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The family approached Kobe Bryant at a Los Angeles entertainment center the day he was signed by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996

By Jason Duaine Hahn
January 28, 2020 04:07 PM
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A young Kobe Bryant, fresh off inking a rookie contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, went out of his way to make sure a family received a memento during their chance meeting at a California shopping center.

Bryant joined the Lakers right out of high school in 1996, and while he was popular at the time, he was far removed from the fame he would experience over the next two decades as a five-time champion and NBA MVP.

Long before he would become one of the most recognizable people in the world, one family spotted Bryant at a Los Angeles-area entertainment and shopping center shortly after he was selected in the 1996 NBA Draft.

“My family came across him hanging out by himself at Universal City Walk,” Facebook user Celeste Perez recalled in a public Facebook post on Tuesday. “Wearing an all-white ensemble and a beret to top it off, Kobe looked like a lost member of Boyz II Men, looming tall over hundreds of CityWalk-goers.”

Kobe Bryant
Credit: Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

According to Perez, no one in the bustling shopping center seemed to recognize Bryant. So, recognizing their chance, the family worked up the courage to introduce themselves to the future superstar.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant
| Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty

“I clearly remember his face lighting up when she asked if he was Kobe Bryant,” she said of the family member who approached Bryant. “He motioned for all of us to come over, and so we all did. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, babies — he greeted our entire family warmly, answering all of our questions.”

While the family had a camera, it had run out of film, and with no pen or paper around, they couldn’t ask for Bryant’s autograph.

Still, they were elated by the chance encounter and invited Bryant to dinner with them at a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. nearby.

Wrote Perez, “So, we said goodbye and good luck, and in true Filipino fashion, invited him to have dinner with us at the new Bubba Gump’s. He declined, so we went to dinner, each one of us impressed with his kindness.”

But that’s not where the story ends.

Kobe Bryant
Years later, Perez’s nephew was able to meet Kobe Bryant and get a picture in 2018
| Credit: Celeste Perez

To the family’s surprise, Bryant later tracked them down at the restaurant to hand them postcards he had purchased and autographed for them. He signed them, simply, “Kobe Bryant, #8.”

According to Perez, Bryant had other postcards with him that had his signature. He appeared to have been practicing before approaching them in the restaurant.

“We must have been among the first to ask him for an autograph, I realize now,” she said.

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi
Kobe and Gianna Bryant
| Credit: Paul Bereswill/Getty

Fans, fellow athletes and celebrities such as Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen DeGeneres have all honored and shared stories of 41-year-old Bryant following his tragic death in a helicopter crash on Sunday that killed his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Many, like Perez, remarked about Bryant’s tenacity and dedication to basketball and family.

“We had no idea we’d be watching him for the next 20 years, through a three-peat and back-to-back championships that brought LA together, through countless records and thrilling games, through his beautiful, loving family and a short but successful retirement. Kobe inspired so many of us, in my family and in this town,” she wrote in her post.

“From him we learned to never be afraid to be the best, to demand excellence from yourself and those around you,” Perez continued, “and to commit yourself to your craft, your family, whatever it is you choose to create.”