With limited English, 10-year-old James Kim broke the ice at lunch with his new classmates talking about Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and how they took the Los Angeles Lakers to the championships in 2001.
Now living in Long Beach, cheering for Bryant was how Anne Milo Shanahan’s family still connected with cousins back home in the Philippines.
Laker fans gather in front of a mural of Kobe Bryant on the 1300 block of Lebanon Street across from the LA Convention center in Los Angeles Monday, January 27, 2020. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
And, watching the basketball legend run the court on television with her 90-year-old grandmother are special memories for Yvette Tung.
“That’s what you talked to people about,” Tung, 38, of Hacienda Heights, said. “All of a sudden, you have integrated. You’re in LA now.”
Southern California’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community grew significantly in the 2000s, just as Bryant reached his peak with the Lakers. For many in the community trying to find their place in the ever-sprawling region, Bryant was their gateway to Southern California and its culture, to a classroom with few immigrant peers, to a family divided by generations or continents.
And with the news of his death and eight others on Sunday, Jan. 26, in a helicopter crash in the Calabasas hills, several said they still find themselves mourning days later.
“Kobe was our guy,” Josh Chung, 26, of Los Angeles, said. “Now, it’s all gone.”
In 2000, Kim was dropped into foreign surroundings when his family moved from South Korea. He hadn’t watched many Laker games in Korea, but in Burbank he found new friends as he fell in love with the team just “when Kobe and Shaq were going nuts.”
“It was always the topic of conversation you can bring up to people,” Kim said. “Our core friend group was white kids, Mexican kids, half-Asian kids, but we were religiously following Kobe. That was really what tied us together.”
“Ask a Korean” blogger who writes under the pen name T.K. Park moved to Cerritos from Korea as a 10th grader in 1996, just as rookie Bryant was emerging with the Lakers.
“Just starting conversation was so much easier. You had to just talk about the Lakers,” said Park, who now lives on the East Coast. “It’s like magic, where you have to say a certain word and you gain admission into the society.”
Southern California is “self-segregated,” he said, “there’s nothing that really holds it together other than sports.”
And, you didn’t have to be a kid to find a lifeline in Bryant. Tung said her grandmother emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in the mid-1990s. Ready to move beyond the safety of a familiar mahjong club, her grandmother gravitated toward watching Laker games, Tung said.
“She would relate to the small guys because my grandmother used to be a small guard too,” Tung said. “And she really, really appreciated that Kobe makes most of his free throws.”
Her grandmother doesn’t know English well – she calls players by their numbers – but she and Tung can connect watching and talking about the Lakers.
“It’s really been a connecting tissue,” she said.
Shanahan came to the United States from the Philippines when she was 4 and has lived in Long Beach ever since. She remembers when Bryant visited the island country in 1998, dancing with the locals and checking out basketball courts.
“It really helped the Filipino community feel close to him,” Shanahan said. “We don’t have a lot of prevalent icons, so he kind of felt like that for many of us.”
Chung said he also saw a dedication in Bryant that resonated with him and a lot of his friends.
“We grew up with people telling us, whether parents or coaches, you have to work hard,” he said, “and that’s that immigrant narrative that a lot of us saw in Kobe.”