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I Played Basketball With Kobe Bryant During the Prime of His Career. Here’s What It Was Like

Since Kobe Bryant died—along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others—in a helicopter crash three years ago today, I’ve heard from friends, including ones I haven’t spoken to in years, on what seems like a weekly basis. They’ve all, by happenstance, come across a clip, most often on Instagram or TikTok, of Kobe Bryant discussing foul-shooting technique, or sharing his tricks of the trade on defense. Is that really you, they often ask, with him in the video, asking questions? (It is.)

The latest instance was Tuesday night, when a high school classmate pinged me on Instagram. And there I was, in another IInstagram reel, playing meek defense on Bryant, as he mockingly tells me, “don’t reach!” The user put an emotive piano tune over the action, serving as a somber reminder that he’s gone.

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When TIME produced that video, in which Kobe Bryant gives me (and fans worldwide) a free basketball lesson, almost 14 years ago, no one could ever imagine what it would become: a viral memorial to Bryant’s undeniable charisma, competitive drive, and unabashed love of the game. The video, designed to provide beginning players and weekend warriors with tips on improving their hoops games, was plenty popular before Bryant’s passing: the 7-minute, 36-second clip had amassed some 4 million views on TIME’s YouTube page in the first 11 years of its existence. But in the three years since the crash, that audience has more than doubled: the Kobe “Free Lesson” video now has more than 9 million views, making it the third most-watched YouTube video in TIME history, behind a feature about the 9/11 “Falling Man” photo (22 million), and a 40-second clip showing “The Awkward Moment When Vladimir Putin Got A Puppy As A Gift” (11 million).

The Kobe video has attracted an ever bigger audience on social media, thanks to intrepid users packaging portions of the clip across platforms. A personal favorite: after LeBron James missed two key foul shots late in a game early in his Los Angeles Lakers tenure—the Lakers lost—one wise guy mocked him by superimposing LeBron’s head over my body. “LeBron” listens intently as Kobe explains Foul Shooting 101.

The Pitch

People regularly ask me about how that video came about. Well, 2009 was still the somewhat early days of web video, and TIME was seeking to tell multimedia stories (We still are!) Having covered sports for some six years at that point—and having dealt with athletes and their publicists—I thought training and technique videos could be an attractive proposition for notable sports names. Athletes, as is human nature, don’t mind talking about how they do the amazing things they do. And athletes, in general, dislike talking about gossipy news of the day: who’s being a pain in the butt in the locker room, who are the weak links on the team, whether the coach is getting through to the players day-to-day.

Read More: Kobe Bryant Had a Singular Impact on His Game and the World

This pitch had none of that. This pitch was timeless. Kobe Bryant’s free-throw-shooting technique would be just as relevant in 2023, and beyond, as it would be in 2009. Parents could watch the video with their kids, and their kids would watch with their kids, and so on.

To his everlasting credit, Kobe bought in. (As did Oscar de la Hoya and Novak Djokovic and a slew of Winter Olympians in advance of the 2010 Vancouver Games. I often joke about coming up with MasterClass before MasterClass, but lacking business acumen to charge people to watch.)

An Off Day in OKC

So Vanessa Kaneshiro Garber, our video producer at the time, and I took off for Oklahoma City, where we’d meet Bryant on a Lakers off day in February. OKC was an ideal spot, as the Thunder were in their first year in Oklahoma after relocating from Seattle. Kevin Durant was a second-year player, Russell Westbrook was a rookie, and the team wasn’t very good—the Thunder finished 23-59 that season. So there was not much media in town for this game. Bryant would have time to do a demonstration, the day before L.A. faced the Thunder.

The Lakers worked out at Southern Nazarene University, and Vanessa and I arrived near the end of the L.A. practice session. In exchange for the extra court time, I wore a Southern Nazarene University T-shirt in the clip. Fair deal.

Bryant embraced the project, which put us all at ease. Still, if I come across as jittery in the video, there are good reasons. For one, I couldn’t quite believe that Bryant was doing this. Here he was, in his absolute prime—he was coming off an MVP season and about to win the first of another repeat pair of NBA titles—and he was all in. I felt less nervous than stuck in an excitable fog, knowing that we had something good.

And for another, at that point I had little on-camera experience. The biggest tell is my excessive head-nodding as Kobe speaks, which I’ve always rued. Vanessa gave me a pro tip before the interview. In off-camera conversations, journalists often use filler words—like “right”—as subjects are talking, to kind of prod interviewees along. Right, right, keep talking. But on camera, the “rights” are a distracting sound for the viewer. So Vanessa told me to nod instead. So I did heed her advice. But being green, I took it to an embarrassing extreme.

Read More: Kobe Bryant’s Greatness Made Him a Hero to So Many Kids. What Happens When a Child’s Hero Dies?

In fact, for years after the clip posted, I had this masochistic habit of occasionally checking in on the YouTube comments. Many remarks were of a similar vein: why did TIME pick a bobblehead to talk to Kobe Bryant? The interviewer is clearly a dork who never picked up basketball before. That one rankled, as I did play in high school and college. Did you not see that hook shot, over Kobe Freaking Bryant, at the 7:05 mark? (Feel free to watch, on a loop, dear reader).

Finally, a number of years ago as I was again conducting this sorry exercise, one commenter—just one—came to my defense, noting that I had in fact had a relatively successful basketball career and was a veteran sports journalist at TIME. My pride swelled, before sinking right back into the pit of my stomach. For I then spotted the handle of my fearless advocate: SDevBronx.

I happen to know a woman with the maiden name Susan Devine—SDev—who grew up in the Bronx. The only person sticking up for me, in this mean internet world, was my mom.

Final Thoughts

A majority of the feedback, however, has been heartening. The video accomplished its goals. Commenters have said they’ve watched it dozens of time or more, and gone out to the courts to practice. Parents have seen it with their kids. Youth coaches have told me they send it to their players. Weekend warriors took to it, hoping Bryant could give them an edge. Many people seemed to return to it after Bryant died, recalling how they had watched the clip when they were younger, and looked forward to watching it with their own children.

And it’s all because of Bryant. “It was such a change for me compared to all the other celebrities we usually interview,” says Kaneshiro Garber, now a freelance producer in Hawaii, her home state. “Most celebrities treat interviews like a PR chore because they are selling movies or TV shows. It makes sense – it’s usually a sales pitch and they are exhausted saying the same thing over and over again just to sell a product. But for Kobe I could immediately tell how much he loved basketball. To go into that much detail with you: hand placement, body placement, getting your head straight, the psychology of it. He was so respectful and interested in what he was trying to communicate. You could tell he absolutely loved the work he was doing. He was really fully present with you and he was happy. It was such a rare, enjoyable day.”

Kobe Bryant was a complicated character. His passing doesn’t change that fact. He could treat teammates with disdain. The 2003 sexual assault charge against him—the case was dropped in criminal court after the alleged victim declined to testify, and a civil case was settled out of court—clouds his legacy. You can’t claim to know someone based on a 20-minute interview that’s condensed into a seven-minute clip.

But watching the “Free Lesson” today is still instructive. It’s another reminder that Bryant, who died at 41, was really just starting the off-court chapter of his life. The post-NBA career was already showing great promise—Bryant won an Oscar in 2018 for Best Animated Short Film, for example—and the video displays his smarts and curiosity. He comes across as a basketball professor. Bryant was already coaching Gianna at the youth level—they were on their way to a game that tragic day on January 26, 2020. If he ever wanted to teach the game to others, at any level, he could have made a fabulous coach. Or most likely, leader of any kind.

The conclusion of the clip hits harder now. At the end of the demonstration—and before the 40 seconds of b-roll after the credits where we’re just kind of goofing around playing one-on-one—I ask him if he has any final thoughts. “Have fun,” he says, looking straight into the camera before flashing the peace sign.

“See ya when I see ya.”

Kobe Bryant Time Magazine Cover
Photograph by Michael Muller–CPi Syndication