WARSAW – Ann Sweet still remembers the first time she noticed Kobe Bryant playing basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers.
It was the late 1990s and the Warsaw native had the game on TV, in part to keep an eye on Rick Fox, the Warsaw High School basketball legend who had become a starter for the Lakers.
“I saw this scrawny teenager come out of the blue trying to guard Karl Malone … and it was Kobe,” Sweet recalls. “Here’s this little teenager taking on NBA superstars. After I watched a few games, I got hooked. He was so determined and so focused.”
That focus and determination she saw in Bryant came at a time of deep despair and depression for Sweet. She had lost her daughter in a traffic accident in 1997 and her husband died months later from a heart attack.
The personal tragedies left her nearly incapable of talking and she began shutting down emotionally.
But somehow, Bryant, an emerging NBA superstar with a big heart, a glorious smile and a motivational spirit, caught her attention and helped Sweet through her bout with depression.
Much of that inspiration comes from Bryant’s Mamba Mentality mantra, which encourages people “to do the very best you can do to become better than you think you can be.”
Bryant turned the theme into a book and a foundation and once told an interviewer, “It’s the ultimate mantra for the competitive spirit. It started just as a hashtag that came to me one day, and it’s grown into something athletes — and even non-athletes — embrace as a mindset.”
For Sweet, the Mamba Mentality made a difference.
“I was in such a low, low point … I had to have that in order to pull myself out of the depression,” she said.
Sweet, 73, remained a fan throughout Bryant’s career but admits she was more interested in the person than she was about the Lakers’ success on the court. She said she found him to be gracious and polite.
“Once I started feeling better, I wanted somehow to pay him back because I really appreciated the inspiration he had given me and that’s why I reached out to the camp.”
In 2012 she learned Bryant hosted a summer basketball camp for kids in Santa Barbara, Calif., and she decided to get involved. She contacted Bryant’s organization and was eventually told there were no available jobs, but if she came out, they’d put her to work.
In the first year of the week-long camp, she worked in a store that sold Nike shoes and shirts. In the following three years, she managed the store.
“Kobe asked me to come back the next year and the next year and the next year,” she said.
By the third year, arrangements were made for her and Bryant to meet and he offered to meet with her and her family in the future when the team was playing the Pacers in Indianapolis.
At the fourth camp, one of Bryant’s associates, who had heard about Sweet’s past tragedies, urged her to share that story with Bryant the next time they met and she did.
“I think Kobe and I had a special relationship. Just like we don’t know how God plans things, I don’t know why, but we thought alike,” she said.
It was a friendship that transcended age and race, and Sweet is quick to note the uniqueness of their connection – an older white woman from rural Indiana connecting with a black man who had become one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.
“It was always amazing to me that with all the millions of people he interacted with, he knew me by name,” she said.
Over the years, she came to view him “as a dear, dear friend.”
But that friendship was altered on Sunday, Jan. 26, when Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others were killed in a fiery helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif. He was 41.
Sweet learned about his death in a call from her son Sunday. She was among millions who were stunned to learn of his passing. Friends who know of Sweet’s connection to Bryant left messages of condolences on her Facebook page.
Like many, she’s mourning his loss. “I’m sure going to miss him,” she said quietly.
Much of her concern immediately afterward has been for Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, and their three surviving children.
“It takes a lot when you lose your husband and your daughter. Just like Vanessa did,” Sweet said.
Sweet has plenty of memories and memorabilia featuring Bryant.
Her iPad holds about 50 photos of him at of his basketball camps, some posing with Sweet and others of Sweet and her family with Bryant after games in Indianapolis.
An entire wall in her basement is also dedicated to Bryant. There are four jerseys, framed and autographed, along with other memorabilia. The most recent jersey is signed “To Ann with love, Kobe.”
The last time she saw Bryant was in Las Vegas last year when Bryant was speaking at an insurance convention. They gathered in a boardroom before his address.
As was the case with many of their meetings, it started with a hug.
“The most memorable portion of that was that he always wanted a hug. He hugged me when he saw me. And then when it was time to go, he said, ‘I need just one more hug,’ and that was the last thing he said to me.”