Just a few miles from where I live in Los Angeles, watch-lover and global mega star Kobe Bryant died this morning (at time of writing) in a tragic helicopter crash. He was just 41 years old and still pretty new to his post-basketball career (he retired from the game in 2016) after many years of being a major draw at Los Angeles Lakers’ games. I’m not an experienced sports spectator, so I’ll leave those more knowledgeable about Kobe’s career to sum up the totality of his life on the court. I did, however, get to meet Mr. Bryant on several occasions, given his involvement in the luxury watch industry. He was a legit fan of watches, as well as items of quality. Kobe was known among his colleagues and fans as among the more cultured, well-spoken, and worldly of basketball players. It was a reputation he carried with pride.
When someone important passes, those of us who had an experience with that person like to share stories because it helps memorialize and make permanent those memories. It’s sad that I’ll never again get to ask Kobe about his business venture into watches or see the grin on his face when dons a fancy Hublot with his name on it. My first experience with Kobe Bryant was purely digital, back in 2009 when, on Facebook, he “liked” an article I wrote about the upcoming Nubeo Black Mamba watch. I was pretty proud of that back then. Kobe was, after all, an investor in Nubeo — which was an incredible luxury watch brand born of the mind of Spanish watch and jewelry designer Ivan Castro.
Even as an investor, Kobe Bryant wanted to be represented in the Nubeo product collection, which had Castro design the incredible Black Mamba watch (one of Bryant’s on-court nicknames was “Black Mamba,” after the dangerous African snake). This was in about 2009, and at the time the Black Mamba (perhaps still today) boasted having the most complicated watch case ever designed, with well over 100 parts. After having the opportunity to debut the Black Mamba watch to the timepiece-enthusiast community, I later went hands-on with the Nubeo Black Mamba watch here.
2009 was also saw a major financial crisis, and one consequence was the unfortunate loss of Nubeo’s main investor. The brand ceased operations soon after and, to my knowledge, none of the Black Mamba watches were ever actually released for sale in the market. To me, that makes it one of the most interesting luxury watches in modern history — and now with Kobe gone, I think the story has even more appeal. I recall a few years later speaking with Kobe about Nubeo, and he was clearly still sour about it given his expectations for the brand. No doubt, as an investor, he also probably lost some money. I am also pretty sure he was tiffed at there not being Black Mamba watches out there in the world.
After the Nubeo experience, Kobe’s appetite for being a part of a luxury watch brand seemed to subside. He then formed a long lasting relationship with Swiss Hublot, who would eventually produce at least three different limited-edition watches themed after Kobe Bryant (who was also a brand ambassador). The first of those watches was a “Black Mamba” being the 2013 limited edition Hublot King Power Black Mamba (aBlogtoWatch hands-on here). Two years later, in 2015, Hublot and Kobe Bryant released the limited edition Hublot Big Bang UNICO Retrograde Chronograph Kobe “Vino” Bryant watch (aBlogtoWatch hands-on here). That release was quite interesting not only because it featured a chronograph that could allow you to measure the specific length of a professional basketball game, but also because Kobe and Hublot decided to debut it in California’s Napa Valley wine country.
In 2016, Hublot’s final limited-edition watch in honor of Kobe Bryant was also a celebration of his official retirement from playing professional basketball. The final watch was not a sports-style watch but rather something dressier and more about Kobe’s upcoming lifestyle. Limited to just 24 pieces, the final watch for Kobe Bryant was the (aBlogtoWatch hands-on here) Hublot Classic Fusion Kobe Bryant “HeroVillain” (yet another nickname from Kobe) and featured both a moon phase indicator a small snake woven into the dial.
One of my most enduring memories about Kobe Bryant is from an experience at one of his retirement parties here in Los Angeles. My understanding is that he enjoyed multiple retirement parties hosted by various groups. At a private home where this event was hosted, Kobe had a game of his own for the guests to play. Toward the end of the party, a sheet was placed on each of the tables that was prepared by Kobe Bryant. It was a sort of “Mad Libs” game about his career. He wanted each table to collectively fill it out and then select someone to publicly read it out load to him with the stage’s microphone.
I said before that I am not a seasoned sports spectator, nor am I someone who has kept track of his professional career. I say this because, to fill out the Kobe Bryant Mad Libs, you more or less needed to know this stuff. At the time I recall being bemused by his assumption that all party guests were as clearly aware of his life and career as he was. With that said, no doubt Mr. Bryant has fans all over the world who can recite his career highlights in their sleep.
The guests at my table at the event seemed quite concerned about not appearing foolish when it came to completing this word exercise. As the “writer” I was left to fill out the sheet, knowing that sooner or later a microphone would be carried to our table and Mr. Bryant’s expectant gaze would be on us. Not having more than my experiences with Kobe to go on, I set forth to fill out the Mad Libs sheet in a way that I felt would be both humorous and… well, not-offensive to the man. Some “roasting” is to be expected at retirement parties, no doubt.
I wish I had the paper with me still. It’s been lost with time. I do however recall getting the chance to stand up and read it to Mr. Bryant, in front of all the other party guests. This was no easy feat, as I had just viewed how Kobe mockingly scolded others whose completion of the word game did pass his exacting muster. My strategy was to be more poetic and intellectual as opposed to factual. It worked — and my recitation of the work (that 90% of the other table guests didn’t contribute to) not only left Kobe appearing contemplative but also intrigued. I did good. At the least, I recall being among the only readers whom Mr. Bryant didn’t laugh at. It was a good thing he was in a good mood that night. Like many ultra-celebrities, Kobe Bryant didn’t mind expressing his thoughts both on good mood and bad mood days.
It would have been really nice to experience a maturing Kobe Bryant who, no doubt, would have returned to the world of luxury in the future after his children grew up a bit more. The world will not have that to look forward to, but at least the wrist-watch community who recalls Kobe Bryant with fondness can look back at his interesting contributions to the world of horology.