At a 2018 star-studded Hollywood lunch, the NBA legend won over everyone including this Clippers fan.
Before I began writing here at Los Angeleno, I worked at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, where a few times a year I was surrounded by super famous people.
One of those occasions was the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon which was in some ways cooler than the Oscars because 95% of those famous people were all in one cozy room together, mingling, schmoozing, and often times meeting each other for the first time.
You’ll see actors meeting musicians that they’ve always loved, legendary directors chatting with young animators. Those brave enough to ask for selfies, ask, and receive them. There in that small room are the perky and the profane, the witty and the wonderful. All of your favorites. Everyone is giddy and smiling.
And as clichéd as it may be, on that one afternoon, they are so very happy simply to be nominated.
I heard murmurs leading up to the 2018 Luncheon that some were nervous that when Kobe was nominated for an Oscar he wouldn’t be warmly received by some long-time members because he wasn’t really a cinema person. He didn’t have a history of filmmaking — and let’s face it, he was a jock. A really successful one, but pretty much his whole career revolved around getting a ball into a hoop.
He also had a few controversial episodes in his past.
Because life is bizarre I happened to be near the check-in area at the Beverly Hilton right as he arrived. He was a bit under the weather and he did appear to be a tad nervous. For good reason — this was not his home court. And he too might have been worried about his reception there among relative strangers.
Who wouldn’t be a bit intimidated?
He checked in, was greeted by the Academy officials, got his name badge (as if), and acclimated himself to the scene. He had just one assistant of some sort. A manager maybe? An agent? In this small affair this is typical. The guest list is small, there aren’t even that many members of the press invited.
Recently the Noms Luncheon shifted venues to the larger Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland. But up until this year the event was held at the Beverly Hills Hilton which had one of the shortest red carpets ever in relation to the stars who walk on it. Likewise, there are a mere fraction of the photographers at the Luncheon compared to the throngs on Oscar Sunday.
When Kobe entered the red carpet, the intensity from that small group of photographers drastically increased.
Kobe! Kobe! To your left. To your right. Right here!
The man was 6’6″ on a carpet that was just inhabited by a parade of humans of more normal stature, how hard could it be to photograph him?
He smiled, they smiled. And then he was led to a star-studded cocktail party.
What was incredible about his attendance was how many of the biggest stars elbowed past film legends to say hi to this Laker.
Some were brash, others tried to play it coy. For once it was they who seemed a bit star-struck. In a town often derided for being phony, their love for him was pure.
One nominee who jumped right in was Allison Janey. Listed as an even six feet tall, Janey must have had four-inch heels on because unlike the vast majority in the room, she stood nearly eye-to-eye with Mamba.
Who would have guessed that these towering noms would soon be Oscar winners as they were chatting it up like old pals. It was exactly what the luncheon was designed to be: peers from different walks having a chance to commune with each other.
In this case, everyone seemed to wait their turn to bond with the man. Had this ever happened to an Animated Short nominee? It was cute.
I’d been lucky enough to attend a handful of those lunches and I didn’t see this magnetism happen to Leo or Lady Gaga or Spielberg… but Kobe got swamped.
After the housekeeping is completed and the nominees are given advice about how to have a prepared speech because time really flies on Oscar night, each nominee is called one-by-one and they sit or stand for an inevitable “class photo.”
Some favorites in the room get louder applause than others when their name is called. Apparently, at this year’s luncheon, which was held on Monday, Korean director Bong Joon Ho received the loudest reception “by far.” But two years ago it went to the basketball great from Lower Merion High School.
For some reason he seemed approachable. Was it because in this arena he was, like us, a fish out of water? Did he seem more human because for once, among all these seasoned filmmakers, he was the underdog?
Because of his size, the stage manager wisely sat Kobe on a chair instead of having him tower over the other noms. And it just so happened to be right next to the the sole Oscar statue in the photo.
All of this should have been a hint to how L.A. has mourned Kobe this week. Just as these nominees warmly welcomed Kobe, all of L.A. these past days has grieved at his tragic death.
Unlike most celebs, Kobe lived in Orange County, did most of his work in downtown L.A. and spent a great deal of time in Calabasas and Thousand Oaks where he built the Mamba Academy. He was literally everywhere in L.A. and the photos memories that Angelenos have shared these past days have shown that just as he was loved, he loved L.A.
Weirdly, he won me over as well. Growing up in Chicago, when I moved to L.A. in the ’80s, I couldn’t really jump in the Showtime Lakers bandwagon, so I adopted the Clippers as my local NBA team.
Initially, Kobe seemed testy, immature and privileged. He didn’t appear to appreciate how lucky he was to have such a great coach in Phil Jackson. And for sure he didn’t seem grateful to have Shaq on the team. As big of a Clipper fan as I was and am, Shaq quickly became my favorite Laker.
But over time Kobe’s intensity grew on me. That chip on his shoulder became his secret weapon as critics continually compared him, unfavorably (and unfairly) to Michael Jordan. Eventually I viewed him as who he was (as opposed to who I thought he should be): a stone-cold champion who did things his own way for one reason only, to win.
That afternoon two long years ago I watched Kobe win over his fellow nominees and members of the Academy.
And a few weeks later he was awarded that coveted Oscar.