Kobe Bryant was drafted into the NBA in 1996. That’s the year the love for Bryant began for most.
But for AJ Moye, the one-time Master Trainer of Basketball at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, his love for Bryant started in the summer of 1995.
“I saw Kobe play in ’95 at an AAU tournament,” Moye said. “I was 13, he was 17.”
The following summer, two months before Bryant turned 18, he was drafted and traded to the Lakers. Moye’s summers were spent in Los Angeles with his father. Naturally, he begged to go watch Bryant in the NBA Summer League, which was played at Long Beach State at the time.
“I remember going to watch Kobe … I remember the Clippers had Keith Closs with that big afro,” Moye said with a chuckle. “Kobe had 31 or 36 points. Something crazy.”
Moye recalls Kobe being interviewed after the game about his relentless work ethic, countless hours in the gym, all day and night. To which Bryant responded: “It’s true, but I believe in myself. The most important thing is to believe in yourself or nobody else will.”
Moye said it instantly had an impact on him as a young teenager: “It sparked something in me.”
Moye’s true basketball ascension began there, but it also unknowingly generated the start of a relationship with Bryant. Moye went on to become a nationally recruited player at Westlake High in Atlanta, which earned him an invitation to a notable All-American basketball camp. Bryant, a former invitee of the camp, was a guest that year.
“I got to meet Kobe that day. I told him my story about watching him at Long Beach,” Moye said.
Moye was part of Bobby Knight’s final recruiting class at Indiana and became a pivotal piece in the program’s team that in 2002 won the Big Ten championship and made a NCAA national title appearance. After college, Moye played seven seasons of professional basketball in the U.S. and around the world.
Over the years, Moye said he crossed paths with Bryant. But it truly came full circle when Moye was hired at the Sports Academy to be the Master Trainer of Basketball. The facility, a 100,000-square foot sports mecca of sorts founded by Chad Faulkner in 2015, would be rebranded The Mamba Sports Academy in 2018. Since Bryant’s death one year ago, the facility removed the word “Mamba” from the title after it was requested by Bryant’s estate.
For nearly three years, Moye was the Master Trainer of Basketball at the Mamba Sports Academy, frequently talking hoops with the NBA legend. Now, his same title remains, but with no more “Mamba.”
“For me, losing Kobe was losing someone I looked up to my whole life,” Moye said. “I can’t even begin to equate, specify or speak about the loss suffered by Vanessa, Natalia, Capri and Koko.”
The day Bryant, along with eight others including daughter Gigi, died in a helicopter accident, hundreds mourned the death of the Laker legend at the front steps of the academy. Jerseys, flowers and other items were left to honor Bryant.
The Sports Academy, located in Thousand Oaks, doesn’t plan to do anything public to honor Bryant’s death, according to Faulkner. However, the staff does plan to gather privately Tuesday on the anniversary of the tragedy.
“We won’t do anything publicly really out of respect of the family,” Faulkner said. “There’s a lot of pain for Vanessa (Bryant’s wife) and the daughters knowing that was their destination. For us to do anything big and bright doesn’t seem appropriate.”
Faulkner knows the academy will forever be known as part of Bryant’s legacy to the community, and he anticipates fans coming to the facility Tuesday.
“One of the most beautiful experiences I had was watching the memorial grow right in front of the building over the course of a month,” said Faulkner. “We would never stop that. I think that’s an important part of the grieving process, people are entitled to grieve however they need to to heal themselves.”
For Moye, that healing process is something he’s still coming to grips with.
“Kobe is still so present, so felt, you know?” Moye said. “It will never really feel like he’s actually gone.”