Kobe Bryant salutes the crowd after his last game at Atlanta in December 2015. (Getty Images)
Venues industry veterans shared their unique perspectives on Kobe Bryant’s impact both on and off the basketball court.
Mike McGee, former general manager of the Houston Summit and part owner of the NBA’s Rockets, recalled that Bryant’s father Joe played for the team in 1982-83 and Kobe was a ball boy.
“I used to run him out of the Summit after practice and after games because he’d just want to sit out there and shoot,” McGee said. “He’d get all the other ball boys and they’d be out there with a pickup game going on.”
McGee said he ran into Bryant four years ago at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Newport Beach, Calif., near where Kobe lived, “and I walked over to him and said, ‘Hey Kobe, you probably don’t remember me,’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I remember you Mr. McGee.’ He had a serious impact in L.A. for sure and ultimately around the sporting world, not just basketball and not just in the U.S. either.”
Brad Mayne, president and CEO of the International Association of Venue Managers, who from 1998 to 2012 was president and CEO of Center Operating Co. and American Airlines Center, home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said he was mentoring a Boy Scout who earned the top rank of Eagle and when the young man revealed his love of basketball and that Bryant was his favorite player, Mayne contacted Lakers controlling owner Jeanie Buss seeking a Kobe-autographed item.
“She asked me to send her information of what the rank is, what it means, so I did, and a care package comes and I got an autographed basketball, an autographed hat, an autographed jersey and a long letter from Kobe to this young man telling him that he understood that only 2 to 4% achieve this and that he now had an obligation to help others as a leader,” Mayne said. “Just a really heartfelt letter, and that’s the kind of person that Kobe was. Not only a great basketball star but an incredible individual.”
Dave Brown, current COO and general manager of American Airlines Center, said Mavs-Lakers games had special energy.
“You knew it was a sellout and fans would get there early and stay late to get the autographs,” he said. “Being a star-driven league, he was one of those folks that helped propel the NBA through star appeal.”
Allen Johnson, chief revenue officer for the city of Orlando, including Amway Center (and previously, Amway Arena), said when the Lakers came in to play the Magic, who lost to the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals, it was usually a sellout with plenty of Bryant jerseys evident and other pro athletes in attendance.
“Tiger Woods when he lived here back in the day … Justin Rose, Brian Gay; baseball players around spring training in February and March … Tigers, Braves, Astros … depending on who was playing nearby that day,” Johnson said. Warren Sapp and other players from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers would also come out.
A videoboard tribute was put together by the NFL, with help from Camping World Stadium’s marketing staff, when the Pro Bowl was held in Orlando on the day of the crash, Johnson said.
Len Komoroski, CEO of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, said fans understood what Bryant was about. He compared Bryant’s impact to that of Michael Jordan and LeBron James and said Kobe was gracious, displayed professionalism, tenacity and a drive for excellence.
“For our fans, they felt privileged to witness his greatness. Look at what he meant to fans everywhere and we’re seeing that play out on a worldwide basis, one story after the other on the reverence he held, the respect and appreciation,” Komoroski said. “We don’t take a spreadsheet approach with this. Kobe was the iconic leader of the Lakers for so many years. We were just blessed to have someone of his rare stature that transcended everything. So much that he brought to the games and our arena could not be measured anyway, the energy, the excitement, how it lit up Cleveland when he was here. Those intangibles he brought to the table that are really respected throughout all of sports, that’s why he’s held in such high regard. The way he carried himself and the way that he approached his craft (and) ultimately, beyond his playing days, how he was approaching life in general, giving back and helping breed excellence and encouraging people to (not) give up on (their) dreams, to reach for the stars; that’s what we’re hearing a lot of.”
Kim Stone, GM of Chase Center in San Francisco and former GM at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, said when Kobe came to South Florida to play the Heat “it was one of the games that you’d circle on your calendar.”
“You knew demand would be very high. It was certainly one of the marquee games,” Stone said. “The venue would usually be sold out with nearly half the crowd a sea of yellow jerseys with Kobe’s name on the back. It would be one of a few times each season, along with Knicks games, that the arena would host that many visiting-team fans.”
Stone also noted that Bryant, the father of four daughters, was a champion of women’s hoops, and his support will be missed.
“It’s a shame his life was cut too short, and to have him and (former NBA Commissioner) David Stern pass in the same month, two legends of the NBA that really revolutionized the game is just a big blow,” she said.
Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment and former president/CEO of Palace Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Palace of Auburn Hills and Detroit Pistons, said local fans regarded Bryant with grudging respect.
“We always need villains and great players without exception are the villains, and that’s what you’re selling, whether you might like him, when he’s playing against your team, you don’t like him,” Wilson said. “They become a draw because they’re so great,” and deliver “something every single night that you think, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’”