I Didn’t Prepare Like Kobe, but I Still Won

Seeing the late legend dominate the 2002 All-Star Game almost didn’t happen a million different ways

I’I’ll tell you how the story ends: with me, four rows off the hardwood floor, watching Kobe Bryant win his first All-Star Game MVP while being booed by a savage Philadelphia crowd. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, still dating, are within shouting distance. To their right, the champ — Muhammad Ali. How I landed there sounds like a wildly embellished recollection, something out of National Lampoon’s Vacation. But it all happened.

Cue “Holiday Road.”

I never saw the superhuman version of Michael Jordan play live when he was hoarding championships in Chicago. There was no fix for that, but watching the legendary two-guard’s second act as a Washington Wizard still checked a box — and in 2002, All-Star weekends were still part of my February events rotation. With the NBA’s mid-season fun fest being a short trip down I-95 South from my New Jersey home, it made sense to jump into my small sedan and cross an MJ game off my bucket list.

Kobe was two chips into a Lakers three-peat, and his homecoming was a chance to shine — with his idol there to bear witness.

What I perceived as the value proposition was off, though. Sure, the opportunity to see Jordan compete in one of his last All-Star games had its charm, like catching Tom Brady in this year’s NFL playoffs. (Seriously, I say that without sarcasm.) But the winning experience was really this: Kobe was coming home. The kid from Lower Merion High School could show out in front of his day one supporters. Young Mamba, who operated more like an assassin in those years, was two chips into a Lakers three-peat, and his homecoming was a chance to shine brighter than all of his contemporaries — with his idol, Jordan, there to bear witness. He planned for moments like this.

There was just one problem. I didn’t have tickets to the game.

I don’t move well without a roadmap. I can think on the fly, sure, but I’d rather build a flowchart that covers all scenarios. My guy Datwon Thomas, though — then the editor in chief of King— operates well under uncertainty. Improvising on the ground is his superpower, and with that mindset, he proposed heading to Philly to attend Michael Jordan’s Classic event and figuring out the rest as we go. Being in my twenties, married with no kids, that dice roll wasn’t all that risky. Worst-case scenario: We’d see a few folks at MJ’s event, catch a cheesesteak for the road, and head back north.

The pre-aux drive down was fantastic. Between us there wasn’t a CD we didn’t have. We were fans of Jay-Z and B.I.G.’s catalog and held A Tribe Called Quest in high regard. The juxtaposition of Brooklyn’s finest and Queens’ jazzy crew turned out to be the calm before a storm of really bad-good luck. Or good-bad luck. I can’t call it.

As we crawled the gridlocked streets of Philly looking for the location of MJ’s event, I heard a pop. It wasn’t gunshot loud, but it was enough to know something was amiss. The steering wheel started to turn right. I knew what that meant. A flat tire was trying to deflate us.

Worst-case scenario: We’d see a few folks, catch a cheesesteak for the road, and head back north.

Good news: There was a gas station nearby. Bad news: We would have to go in reverse, so one of us had to push. Worse news: The red fire engine screaming down the block behind us would also have to reverse. The rotten cherry on top of the bad news: We weren’t in a great neighborhood, and the dudes heckling us from the park wasn’t the most comforting experience.

Once we got parked safely I called AAA, who quickly placed a doughnut on the car. Datwon and I drove off and partied well into the night. One party led to two others, and it was 4 a.m. by the time we called it a night. Inebriated and hotel-less — all of Philly was booked for All-Star weekend — we decided to sleep it off in the car. But just as I made peace with the car’s retractable seats, Datwon remembered that he had a Marriott Preferred Members card.

By some miracle, the kind woman at the front desk when we called told us to come by and she’d see what she could do. By some second miracle, there was one room available, but she was reluctant to let us have it. Her hesitation didn’t make sense then, but it would the next morning: The room, a decadent space with high ceilings, was on the floor where the NBA players were staying. Based on the cost, she must have given it to us at room rate. We captured zero photos. But it really happened.

The next morning we cleaned up, left a nice tip for whoever was cleaning the room, and bolted to the escalator. The hallways were quiet and there wasn’t much foot traffic. As we turned onto the escalator we noticed a lanky, tall man ahead of us. Once he got in view of the folks in the lobby, a chorus of screams erupted — it was Kevin Garnett. When we got to the same spot where Kevin had been standing, there was a tiny crescendo, but that died like a baby wave with no real pickup.

Then we got the call. Tickets for the game would be at will call. The tickets were holdovers for guests of one of the players, but the plug was able to work some magic and get them transferred to us. We went to a clothing store to pick up a white tee and a change of underwear and socks before rushing to the stadium to wait for the tickets to arrive.

The All-Star Game wasn’t the only sought-after event in Philly that weekend. Many had made the journey to see a high school kid named LeBron James take on another stud, Carmelo Anthony, at Oak Hill High School. While we waited at the stadium, several people passed us to pick up their tickets, while ours still hadn’t arrived. Just as I was psyching myself up to go on this LBJ quest, another call came in asking that we try the will call one more time. And there they were.

Watching Kobe win MVP that night felt, at least to this lifelong Laker fan, like a typical Laker result: The team and its players win by any means. But it also felt like Young Mamba wanted more. He wanted to feel that hometown love. Despite having beaten the 76ers convincingly in the finals the year before, he wanted the city to be proud of him.

He may not have gotten that, at least not on the surface. But getting booed in Philly is its own type of love — the unconditional kind given to a homegrown hero, even when he’s taken out the hometown team.

On that afternoon, I felt like I landed where we were supposed to be. I was supposed to be there to clap for my guy among those boos. I was supposed to witness the player who would surpass Magic Johnson as the quintessential Laker, take home the W and MVP, and transition into his next phase: cementing the legacy that would confirm his place among the all-time greats.

Last night, in Philly, Joel Embiid wore a retired number 24 to salute the legend. He scored 24 points, the last two on a patented fadeaway jumper on the baseline — yelling “Kobe” as he did it. This time, no boos; chants of “Kobe’’ echoed in the building. Watching at home, I smiled as I imagined the smirk on Kobe824’s face.

Jeers to cheers — as it should be.

Jermaine Hall is the editor in chief of LEVEL. When he’s not running his two sons and wife from place to place he’s watching a Lakers game and drinking seltzer.

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