Kobe Bryant meets Rudy Ruettiger
Bryant had already been on the court for two hours and normally doesn't take a break from his pregame shooting routine for pictures and autographs, but he had just heard the girl finish a stirring practice rendition of the national anthem and happily obliged as the man thanked him and introduced himself and his daughter.
"I'm Rudy Ruettiger and this is my daughter Jessica Ruettiger," he said. "She's singing the national anthem before the game."
"Rudy?" Bryant said as a smile came over his face. "The movie?"
"Yeah," Ruettiger said.
"That movie changed my life," Bryant said.
Suddenly the roles were reversed and Bryant was the star-struck fan who wanted a picture.
Bryant was a sophomore at Lower Merion High School when he first saw the movie "Rudy" in 1993. He would see it at least a handful of times in theaters and by his estimation, "a hundred" times on tape. Bryant said the film motivated him to work harder than he ever had before and continues to inspire him to be the first one at the practice facility and the last to leave.
"When I saw it I told myself if I can play as hard as Rudy with the talent I have, anything's possible," Bryant said. "I've met a lot of people in my life but that one there, man, that one [messed] me up."
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Bryant was already having flashbacks of his days at Lower Merion High School as he sat courtside at Power Balance Pavilion four hours before tipoff. He had just apologized for uttering a gay slur at a referee the night before and was thinking back to old classmates who had been called the same derogatory term at school.
"It's been a tough day," Bryant said. "For me it's about the bigger message. I made a mistake in terms of what I said but it's also the responsibility it carries with it. I don't want kids to think that's it OK or cool to call kids that or tease them because of that. I don't stand for that. I never have. I've been in so many altercations in middle school and in high school protecting kids from that. I certainly won't be a part of enhancing that and the feeling that it's OK. I just won't."
Ruettiger and Bryant spoke about adversity and the importance of giving back and inspiring those who might look up to them as role models.
"We talked about struggles and I said it's not how hard you take a hit, it's how hard you get back up," Ruettiger said. "When you hit a certain status in life you want to help people. It meant so much to hear him say that the movie changed his life. It blew my mind. I couldn't believe it. What do you say to a guy like Kobe who is so excited to meet you?"
As Ruettiger walked away with Jessica and his son Danny, Bryant turned to a Lakers staffer who had just walked onto the court and pointed to Ruettiger.
"You want to meet the person who's had the biggest influence on my life?" Bryant said. "That's Rudy. The real Rudy Ruettiger."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.