The morning of Dec. 5, 2015 was clear in Atlanta. Anticipation was high for the Saturday afternoon SEC football championship game at the Georgia Dome between Alabama and Florida.
The city, though, had a more prominent sportsman visiting that day other than Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and his team had stayed overnight in Atlanta after losing to the Hawks the previous night at Philips Arena. Now, before heading off to Detroit, Bryant and the Lakers bused to Georgia Tech for practice at the Zelnak Basketball Center.
For Bryant and the Lakers, it was another practice in another city. For the handful of people who were on hand, a visit from one of the game’s legends, a man now being mourned after his death in a helicopter crash Sunday, it was a memory to savor.
“He was probably one of the most humble and professional and kind people I’ve ever have come across, especially for someone of his stature,” Simit Shah, a Tech assistant athletic director, said Monday.
It isn’t unusual for NBA teams to use Zelnak as they come through Atlanta. Typically, it’s Western Conference teams on a swing through the East that have stayed in Atlanta after playing the Hawks before flying off for their next game.
Tech staffers attempt to keep the visits low key, not publicizing the practices and giving the teams space. On this day, the men’s basketball team was in New Orleans to play Tulane. The women’s team was to play a 2 p.m. home game against USC-Upstate. The building was practically empty as one of the game’s greatest practitioners went about his business.
For most of practice, Shah was the only Tech staff member there, on hand to record images and video to use for the men’s basketball team’s social media accounts.
It was an auspicious time in Bryant’s career; he had announced only the previous weekend that he would retire at the end of the season. But it struck Shah that Bryant, who sat out that practice for treatment but met with media afterwards, was quite personable at a time when he might have been expected to retreat.
On his way in, he took a series of photos with members of the Tech women’s team in the parking lot of the basketball center.
“He was very accommodating to the whole thing,” Shah said.
After the media session was done, Bryant stuck around to chat with Shah and another visitor.
“In my mind, if you have a superstar at that level, you would think they would maybe be a little indifferent or kind of passive,” Shah said. “He was literally just kind of chatting, shooting the breeze with us like it was no big deal.”
Eventually, Bryant asked if they wanted to take a picture together. Shah, who said he had been working up the nerve to ask, was taken aback by his geniality.
“I was like, Sure thing,” Shah said.
Soon after, Bryant was headed out the door. Bryant wasn’t the first basketball great to set foot on Tech’s campus. The list includes Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, who have played there as opponents of Tech, the Hawks (when they played at the old Alexander Memorial Coliseum before the Omni opened) or the Dream.
He won’t be the last, either. But, on a December morning, without even putting on a uniform, he left a distinct impression.
“Candid, honest, funny – you couldn’t have had an interaction with a celebrity of that level that could have been more positive,” Shah said.
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