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Kobe Bryant was the NBA's greatest heel on the court, for the way he ruthlessly ripped the hearts out of his opponents and their fans. But off the court, Bryant understood the power of his celebrity and human connection.
On Monday, Facebook user, Kristen O'Connor Hecht, shared a story on how Kobe took time away from his busy schedule to spend time with a dying child. At the time Hecht worked at a hospital in Phoenix while her husband, Tom, was the Director of Cooperate Partnerships for the Suns. Hecht explained that often times their jobs would intersect, when she would ask if her husband could get Kobe Bryant to sign an autograph for a sick kid who shared his name.
"A day later, Tom called me and said, 'He'll do it!'" Hecht wrote. "I was thrilled. I thought I would bring a ball or whatever it was to work. 'No, he read your story and he wants to come meet the little boy.'"
Without notifying hospital security, media, or public relations, Kobe crept his way into the building to meet the child. They spent close to an hour playing basketball until it was time for Kobe to get ready to play the Suns.
"As we got back in the limo, Kobe turned to me and said, 'Kristen, what can I do to help? Is it a financial thing? Because I can take care of that,'" she recalled. Unfortunately, the child was suffering from a severe heart defect but he was too small to get a transplant.
A week after Bryant's visit, the little Kobe passed away. Yet, the time he spent with his idol was invaluable. Little Kobe's mother contacted Hecht close to a month after her son's passing explaining that those moments were the happiest times of her son's life, and that the pictures he had with Kobe were the only photos where he's smiling.
"According to Kobe's PR he did this for people everywhere but the deal was—no PR," Hecht explained. "From that day on he's been my hero and when people tell me that they don't like him I would say, 'Let me tell you a story...'"
Hecht's story went viral across social media. It's just one of many stories that have been told about Kobe's kindhearted nature since his passing. While Hecht's story happened at the height of his celebrity, another Facebook user, Celeste Perez, recounted a time when a fresh-faced Bryant showed his appreciation for his fans.
"My family came across him hanging out by himself at Universal City Walk," Perez wrote. "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."
Per Perez, this was right after he was drafted in 1996 so no one in the shopping mall recognized the young Laker. Seeing this as an opportunity to get an autograph, they approached Bryant.
"I clearly remember his face lighting up when she asked if he was Kobe Bryant," she said when describing her family member approaching 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."
"We’d run out of film to take a photo with him, and no one had paper or a pen for an autograph. 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," she continued.
"Later, Kobe would track us down while we ate. He said he felt bad that we didn’t get a picture, so he’d bought some postcards from a kiosk and autographed them for us to take home. We passed them around in awe. I was fascinated by his penmanship. They were signed, in beautiful cursive: 'Kobe Bryant, #8'. I noticed he had other postcards that he’d practiced his signature on in his hand. We must have been among the first to ask him for an autograph, I realize now. Kobe stayed for a little bit, and we promised we’d watch every one of his games as a Laker."
Just a year prior to Perez's story, Bryant was a standout basketball player at Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania. He was one of the first players in the modern era to transition directly to the NBA from high school. During his high school dominance, Kobe wore the no. 33, which was retired by the school in 2002. Lower Merion High School will remember Bryant by holding a 33-second moment of silence during Tuesday night's basketball game.