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PBA stars James Yap, Gabe Norwood recall game vs. Kobe Bryant

Perhaps no NBA player had more influence on Philippine basketball fans than Kobe Bryant, whose untimely death early Monday morning (Manila time) shook the local basketball landscape.

Bryant was a frequent visitor in Manila and left unforgettable memories every single time, starting from his first trip in 1998 up to his final foray in 2016.

But no visit probably topped his 2011 trip, when the NBA lockout allowed Bryant and other superstars to compete against the PBA All-Stars and the Smart-Gilas national team at the Big Dome.

Led and coached by the Laker legend and flanked by other big names such as Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, James Harden, Chris Paul and others, the team -- named the Smart All-Stars -- scored a 131-105 romp over the PBA selection in what was the first of two exhibition games.

Rain or Shine fixtures Gabe Norwood and James Yap were on hand for the PBA side that day and fondly recalled feelings of excitement and awe as they prepared to take the floor opposite Bryant.

"In my mind, I was really excited and my mindset that day was that I really wanted to defend him. That man routinely dropped 60 points in the NBA," Yap shared in Filipino.

"The event itself was crazy. To have Kobe there, to have KD, James Harden and those guys. It was just an awesome experience," Norwood said. "But to have Kobe here in the country once again... this was a common place for him to come back to, and I felt like it probably felt home to him, and the support that he got in the sport, especially that day, was unbelievable. So to go up against him in that type of setting was pretty awesome, just to go from fan to opponent, even if it was just for a short amount of time."

As the game itself unfolded, the two didn't waste any time savoring the chance to rub elbows with the Black Mamba himself.

"I think the whole environment was so boisterous, you know. He had a lot of fun in there," said Norwood. "It's kind of like an All-Star game type of setting. So you had the highlight Kobe, but you also had the, 'Hey post me up, I'm gonna try to get a bucket and score on you, Kobe.' So there was that cool balance of show and competition that I'll always remember."

Yap, playing for B-Meg Llamados back then, had a more in-your-face kind of encounter after having his defensive skills tested by Bryant himself in the low post.

"I'm admittedly not much of a defensive player, but my mindset was to really defend him, to really work hard against him on defense. But he was just really, really good," Yap raved. "I remember he had great footwork, he could spin fast, and he was strong. That's why he could do 80 points in the NBA. A high jumper, athletic. Really, really talented."

"When he posted me up, I was able to tap the ball and send it out of bounds in the baseline. But when he did it a second time, he just brushed me off," he added. "That's when I saw how Kobe could do it in the NBA."

Aside from the obvious presence of overwhelming talent, Yap said it was Bryant's approach and respect to his opponents that stood out in those 48 minutes.

"He really played hard in game. He wasn't willing to lose to anyone. He doesn't look at whoever he's playing; he's just going to play and beat you. That was the 'Mamba mentality'. He didn't care who you are," he said.

Meanwhile, Norwood thought it was the Laker star's work ethic that showed in their brief time against each other.

"You just see the human side, too. As an opponent, whether you're in the NBA or you're playing overseas or college level, you just love the game. I think his work ethic spoke a lot to how he played and how he presented himself and how he went out and competed," he noted. "I think that can speak to any level of the game. You go out and compete, stay true to yourself and work hard (and) you know you can go out and compete against anybody."

"I grew up, I wasn't a Lakers fan. It took a while for Kobe to grow on me, but he makes it hard not to. You know, his work ethic, just really understanding his mental side," added Norwood.

Nine years after that one-of-a-kind opportunity, there are only feelings of sadness over Bryant's unfulfilled potential in business and in his other post-retirement ventures.

"I thought it was some sort of joke because I read about in our chat group in Rain or Shine. Coach Caloy (Garcia) posted it. In that chat group, we were just fooling around. But when I checked elsewhere, it was apparently true," said Yap.

"It's saddening because he was just 41 years old. He just retired. He hasn't fully enjoyed his retirement. That was supposed to be the time he can finally enjoy because when you're in the NBA, you don't really have a lot of time with your family because you keep traveling," he added. "And his daughter (Gianna) was there too. So it's really saddening. No one thought this would happen."

While the grief remains, Norwood and Yap are grateful to have had the chance to be able to make lasting recollections about the future Hall of Famer.

"It was wild experience, you know? Like I said, we build these kind of common bridges through the game of basketball," said Norwood, who recounted a conversation with Bryant and Danny Seigle about winning high school titles in Pennsylvania. "It's just a cool little bond, even if it's for a short moment. Just to have that conversation and for him to go back and forth with us like he was a PBA player, not an NBA player. He brought himself down to our level and that was pretty cool. "

"I'm really blessed that I was able to play him. That's once in a lifetime," Yap relished.