February 28, 2020

The Uplifting Wave of Kobe Bryant

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers belong to everyone in L.A., but their greatest players belong especially to the immigrants and refugees of this city. 

When they resettle here, as we did in 1989 from Iran, they’re often downtrodden and traumatized. If the city were an underwater urban jungle, they would be the smallest fish in the unforgiving big city pond. 

For all their hard work, talent and sacrifices, immigrants might not feel a semblance of empowerment and self-worth for years. I felt hopelessly behind my American-born peers, with one exception: Like them, I was now an Angeleno, which meant that everything from the Hollywood sign to local sports teams belonged to me, too. 

For tens of thousands of Iranian Americans in Southern California, many of whom came to the United States with nothing, there was a feeling that even if we were smaller fish, we were uplifted in the same powerful wave as the biggest sharks: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and, for many of us, the greatest of all time, Kobe Bryant.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a miserable youth. But during those years, the Lakers, led by Kobe and Shaq, won three consecutive NBA titles and, as I watched those spellbinding games on TV, I felt like I had a personal stake in Bryant and the team’s success. If they won, I won. 

There was also something else. For thousands of traditional but non-Orthodox Iranian Jewish families in L.A., there were two constants about the weekly Friday night Shabbat dinner: family and the Lakers. 

Imagine: amazing food, your favorite cousins and an NBA championship on the same night. Watching the Lakers on Friday nights brought Shabbat to life for us, especially for my aunt Shahnaz.

My cousin Arash introduced his mother (my aunt) to the Lakers. She was immediately hooked. And unlike many Middle Eastern mothers, she had found a shared experience with her young son. “The day Arash took me to my first Lakers game — with my son next to me and Kobe on the court — was one of the greatest days of my life,” she said. How many Persian mothers get to say that?

In the City of Angels, only a few are chosen to fly the way Bryant soared on that basketball court. 

I’ve never seen anyone panic as much as Shahnaz when she would walk into the living room to catch a glimpse of the TV while holding a giant platter of her famous Persian rice for Shabbat dinner, and asking for minute-by-minute updates about the game. 

But when she caught a glimpse of Bryant’s face, she’d take a big, dreamy breath and cry, “I adore him!”

While I was growing up, NBA championship games that coincided with Shabbat dinners were truly a hoot. We cursed opposing players with delightful Persian-language insults (“Jason Kidd is a dead cow.”) because we had conflated our identity with a sports team. Can you blame us? Kidd, by the way, played for the New Jersey Nets and faced off against the Lakers during the 2002 NBA finals. 

What could possibly inspire a middle-aged Persian mother who still was acclimating to American culture to cheer or cry over a basketball team?


Like a thunderous wave, Kobe Bryant lifted us and made us feel strong. Invincible. Immortal. 

Until he died in an unimaginable way. It’s not right to say this: All life is sacred, but Kobe Bryant was too good to die. And because he was good, so were we.

My aunt cried all day on Jan. 26, when Bryant, his daughter and seven others perished in a helicopter crash in Calabasas. I cried, too. 

In the City of Angels, only a few are chosen to fly the way Bryant soared on that basketball court. 

He wasn’t supposed to crash and fall. 

Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke wrote that in his last phone conversation with him, Bryant said of L.A., “I feel such an appreciation. I can never pay the city back for what it’s given me.”

But Kobe Bryant paid us back immeasurably. For at least one refugee family, he brought pride, prowess and a promise that Los Angeles would, indeed, be very good to us.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.