It was Jan. 24, 2004, and 8-year-old Jeffrey Mckenzie hid behind his mother Linda and grabbed her legs. His wish to meet Kobe Bryant was about to be granted.
“I couldn’t believe he was actually walking toward me,” said Mckenzie, recounting the story in April 2016.
“I was in the fifth grade,” he said, and he had sickle cell anemia. His mother had taken a job at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the organization offered her son the opportunity to become a recipient.
When Bryant appeared, the young Jeffrey ran to the 6-foot-6-inch Los Angeles Lakers star and gave him a big hug. Then he wouldn’t let go.
“I just remember as a mom how much it touched me to see Kobe reach back down and embrace Jeffrey, because he had gone through so much,” Linda Mckenzie recalled.
Bryant had experience granting the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses. He had appeared for Make-A-Wish more than 100 times over 20 years. And that was just one example of Bryant’s philanthropic work, some of it through the Lakers and the NBA, and other times on his own.
Bryant died on Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people, including Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. He was 41.
The basketball phenom’s career spanned two decades with the Lakers, with whom he won five NBA championships and became an 18-time All-Star.
Basketball was also part of his charity work. He volunteered for the Boys & Girls Club of America, often hosting basketball camps. He participated in the league’s NBA Cares initiatives, where he helped build homes and basketball courts, stocked food pantries and supported reading initiatives.
Bryant was the official spokesman for After-School All-Stars, a national children’s charity that provides after-school programs to 72,000 kids. In 2008, he was named a spokesperson for Aid Still Required, which helps people left behind after natural disasters and other crises.
Besides his work with sick kids through Make-A-Wish, Bryant also supported cancer initiatives. For instance, he participated in a fundraising effort for Stand Up To Cancer in 2012 that raised more than $80 million for cancer research.
Bryant and his wife Vanessa launched the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, originally named VIVO, in 2007. From 2012 to 2017, the organization reported revenue of more than $2.5 million, with $1,035,472 reported in 2012, according to IRS tax filings.
They sponsored international enrichment experiences for minority college students and provided domestic and international youth scholarships for the Kobe Bryant Basketball Academy. Combating youth homelessness was another cause that Bryant felt strongly about and the family foundation partnered with Los Angeles organizations Step Up on
Second and My Friend’s Place to combat homelessness in the area.
For three years, Bryant also served as the honorary chair of United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ Annual HomeWalk, a 5K run/walk that raises awareness about homelessness. The foundation also supported Mamba FC, a fee-based youth soccer club in Orange County that teaches young athletes “how to become leaders and independent thinkers, while working together as a group to achieve a common goal through health and fitness.”
Bryant had global appeal and in June 2009, he established the Kobe Bryant China Fund to raise money for education, sports and culture programs for children from both China and the U.S. More than $6.15 million has been raised for those efforts. The Bryants are also founding donors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture with a $1 million pledge in 2017.
Besides making donations, Bryant used his presence to highlight causes. On April 4, 2016, the Lakers’ community relations department did a 10-day campaign on its Instagram account titled #KobeintheCommunity that highlighted such moments over his 20-year career.
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The events included celebrating schools with 100% completion rate in a Lakers Reading Challenge, hosting holiday parties for kids from Boys & Girls Clubs around Los Angeles and joining President Barack Obama in assembling care packages for wounded warriors in Washington.
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There were also less formal, less heralded moments. On a foggy day in December, Bryant stopped his car at a Newport Beach, California, intersection. He stepped over the wreckage from a motor vehicle accident to help direct traffic and talk with the victims until police arrived.