Editor's note: This story was originally published on Dec. 7, 2015.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The equipment manager came out of the Los Angeles Lakers locker room Sunday night with a message: “He’s getting close.”
In reality, he’d been waiting far longer -- almost his entire life.
Slay idolized Bryant growing up in Brunswick, Georgia. He emulated his moves on the basketball court and insisted he wear Bryant's jersey number throughout middle school and high school basketball. Earlier this week, he talked about how emotional he got when he found out Bryant would be retiring and how much he wanted to meet him.
On Friday after the Detroit Lions walkthrough, he found out he would be meeting Bryant. Slay grabbed the blue No. 23 jersey he wore during Detroit's 27-23 loss to Green Bay on Thursday night. He took it home with him. He brought it to the basketball game Sunday -- and got Bryant to sign it.
Then Bryant told Slay to send him one of Slay's jerseys. Bryant wanted it for his collection. He wished Slay luck this season and moved on to the next group of people waiting for a couple of minutes with the NBA legend.
“I’m in a zone right now,” Slay said. “That’s my dawg. That’s my boy, man. It’s great to see him out here, see him play in person, meet him in person, shake his hand. And he was kind of excited about getting my jersey. So it ain’t get no better than that.”
This was the seventh time Slay had watched Bryant play in person. It was the first time he met Bryant -- and Slay told Bryant how much of an inspiration he had been. Slay has often talked about how Bryant is his favorite player and how he's looked up to him.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Bryant said. “What I enjoy hearing from them is how my mentality or my approach to the game is something that has inspired them. Something that they think of when they’re preparing or they’re training, and it’s inspirational for me as well to hear that from them.”
Slay and Bryant took pictures together and shared some words of encouragement. Never mind that Bryant was 2 of 15 shooting in a blowout loss to the Detroit Pistons -- Slay was happy to sit behind the basket and watch him shoot all night long.
Slay's love for Bryant's game goes back to when Slay was 9 and he would go to the local park with friends and mimic Bryant's moves. Slay said he got his first Bryant jersey -- a blue Lakers throwback -- from his mother, Stephanie Lowe, when he was in high school. He now owns five.
His mom also took him to his first Bryant game when he was a sophomore in high school, when the Lakers were playing the Atlanta Hawks. He had nosebleed seats then. On Sunday night, if a player’s nose bled, he could have seen it up close.
But Slay’s moment came after, in a generic hallway by the Lakers buses.
Slay met and got an autograph from Metta World Peace, who also said he wanted one of Slay's jerseys.
Slay alternated between checking his phone, chatting with the person he brought to the game and trying to contain his excitement as he waited for his chance to speak to Bryant, in an atmosphere not unlike a pre-concert meet-and-greet with a star recording artist.
Slay morphed from an NFL cornerback to a giddy millennial about to meet an idol. He couldn't bring his "Slay Loves Kobe" sign like he planned (he said signs weren't allowed courtside) and didn’t hug Bryant, either. He didn’t get Bryant’s game-worn jersey like he'd dreamt about, but he got a couple minutes with Bryant -- and Bryant later said he knew who Slay was because he's an Eagles fan, even if Slay didn’t know realize that Bryant had recognized him when they met.
“I just met the guy and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ I’m still looking at him, just taking pictures,” Slay said. “Like wow. I really want to hop on the bus and go where they’re going at. Like, ‘Let’s go, Kobe.’
“It’s a big deal. Big deal, man. Only thing bigger than this is if I’m in the Hall of Fame. If I ever get in the Hall of Fame, that would be big. That’s how big this was. This is big. I just met Kobe. It don’t get no bigger than that. I wouldn’t get this excited about meeting LeBron, but Kobe, I could just scream.”