A call from Kobe Bryant — The Undefeated

Two years ago, after coming off the road from promoting a book — I’m not sure which one — I stop at my mother’s house to check in. This is routine, a thing I started doing in part to make sure my mother has everything she needs, but also, to ground me. To remind me that I am still just a son, just a brother. That my career is an appendage — an arm or leg of who I am — but not at all the thorax of my being. Because my mother doesn’t care about autographs and awards. She talks to me like a mother talks to a son. Like family talks to family.

“Jason, I’m glad you came to see me,” she says after pressing her lips to my cheek. “I want to hear all about your travels, but first —” a smirk creeps onto her face — “I need you to fix the printer.”

And so it begins as it often does. The tinkering with buttons, powering off and powering on, tapping the illuminated screen, listening for familiar sounds while my mother sits in a swivel chair and laughs at Family Feud.

This feels normal.

And then, my phone rings.

“Hello?” Strange that I would answer an unsaved, unrecognized number. But I do.

“How you doing?” the voice on the other end asks.

“Who is this?” I expect it be someone I’d met along the way. A teacher. A librarian. A bookseller.

“Kobe.”

“Kobe who?” I respond, the phone tucked in the crook of my neck, as I continue tampering with my mother’s cantankerous printer. “The survey says,” chimes in the background.

The person on the other end of the phone repeats, “Kobe.”

I stop tinkering. Stop pressing buttons and checking ink. Straighten up. My mother turns away from the television and we catch eyes. I mouth, Kobe, which could have been as easily read as coping, or cool beans, or whatever other words share similar mouth shapes. But she caught it. My mother knew exactly who was on the line. She gets up and leaves the room, and before I could pull it together and say anything else, Kobe asks, “Where are you?”

“Um … I’m at my mom’s house.” The confusion causes a lump in my throat, a lilt in my voice.

“Ah. How’s your mother?” This question doesn’t feel like a pleasantry. It doesn’t sound like smoke. It sounds like Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, wants to know how Isabell Reynolds — my black mama — is doing.

“Ah. How’s your mother?” This question doesn’t feel like a pleasantry. It doesn’t sound like smoke. It sounds like Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, wants to know how Isabell Reynolds — my black mama — is doing.

“She’s good, she’s good,” I say, trying my best to force my timbre back down to its normal register. I also need to understand what is happening, and can’t manage small talk, so I decide to take a more direct approach. “Kobe, forgive me but I have to ask, why are you on my phone?”

He starts laughing. And then, the reception gets fuzzy. Static. His voice begins to break up and before he can answer, the call drops.

I stand there for a moment, looking at my phone screen in a strange state of flux, as if it had become a remote to an alternative life. As if the last two minutes was a strange hallucinatory blip, and now I was back to reality. The printer was still broken. And my mother was still my mother. And I was still just her son.

Power off. Power on.

The printer screen lights up, again. So does my phone.

“Hello?”

“Jason, it’s me again. Sorry about that. Service gets a little choppy out here. Can you hear me?”

Suddenly, for some reason, this feels normal.

“I can hear you.”

“Cool. So here’s the thing. I’m calling because, well, let me be honest. I hadn’t heard of your work or anything, but my daughter, GiGi, came home going on and on about your book, Ghost. And so, I wanted to first and foremost thank you for that.”

He goes on to tell me that he’s read the whole series, and that it struck him because he’s been using stories of his own to help GiGi understand basketball, and life, for years. Magical stories about how frustration causes the rim to get smaller. Allegorical tales to calm her in the moments she feels defeated. He asks me to be involved in the publishing company he’s starting as part of his Granity Studios, where all the books would use sports and magic to do what he’s been doing for his daughter, for other young athletes around the world. I love the idea, but turn him down because I can’t take on anything else.

“No problem,” he says. “Save my phone number, anyway. Feel free to reach out whenever.”

We hang up.

The Family Feud theme song is playing and the winners are hugging.

All of this takes place in, maybe, 11 minutes total.

For the next two years Kobe generously mentions my name in many of the interviews about his publishing company and the books he and his collaborators are making. We give each other social media shout-outs, and he even sends me a pair of sneakers to celebrate the release of his latest book.

But in the wake of his death, one of the many things I can’t stop thinking about is that call. That moment I answered the phone, and the ease in which he said, “How you doing?” The familiarity of it all.

Perhaps it was because he knew more than anyone that he was Kobe Bryant, a giant, an icon, a hero to so many. But I can’t help but think it was something else. Something less performative. That just like my mother talks to me like a mother talks to a son — like family talks to family — to keep me grounded, I wonder if Kobe simply understood that as much as he was the Black Mamba on the court, basketball, like life, doesn’t work properly unless it touches the ground, over and over again.

And that call felt familiar because it was familiar. Because he was familiar. He spoke like a man who knew what it was to try to fix a printer, or get his children to believe in themselves, or indulge in a good story, or search for a decent phone signal. And for me, despite all his athletic accomplishments, all the autographs and awards, he will be trapped in those 11 minutes — 660 seconds, or so, of normalcy — for the rest of my life.

Jason Reynolds is the New York Times best-selling author of All American Boys, the Track series, Long Way Down, For Everyone, and Miles Morales-Spiderman. He is an American author who writes novels and poetry for young adult and middle-grade audiences, including Ghost, a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *