How Kobe Bryant Eased the Pain of One Family’s Tragedy

Bryant met Joey Heredero in 2010. (Photo: Courtesy of the Heredero family)
Bryant met Joey Heredero in 2010. (Photo: Courtesy of the Heredero family)

Beyond the “Black Mamba,” past the gritted teeth, behind the steely gaze, out of earshot of the trash talking, there is another Kobe Bryant.

This one prefers to stay in the background, generally unseen and unknown by the public. The Kobe Bryant loved or hated by fans is demanding of teammates and vicious with opponents, a tough and unyielding figure in search of another shot, another win, another ring.

The lesser-known Bryant is much different — kind and considerate and with a big smile. That’s the Bryant that Linda and Joe Heredero will never forget.

The couple from Lake Havasu, Ariz., had three children, daughters Rhiannon and Desiree, and a son, Joey.

In 2009, Joey, then 21, was diagnosed with an aggressive, high-grade form of bone cancer.

In February of 2010, his left leg had to be amputated when the cancer spread. A month later, the cancer had entered Joey’s lungs. In May, with fluid filling his lungs, Joey was airlifted to a Los Angeles-area hospital.

Through it all, Joey continued to follow his beloved Lakers and Bryant, his favorite player. It was Joey’s refuge from reality.

“How cool would it be if I actually got to meet Kobe,” Joey told his family. They knew that would be the ultimate boost for his sometimes sagging spirits.

While keeping a low profile, Bryant has been heavily involved in charity work over the years, but he usually cut back during the playoffs, determined to keep his focus sharp. When the request to see Joey was made, Bryant’s Lakers were beginning the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns, Joey’s hometown team. Still, Bryant agreed to talk to Joey.

On May 17, 2010, two days before the planning meeting, Joey’s temperature shot up to 106 degrees.

“Can I still go?” he asked his oncologist, William Tap, according to family.

“If I said no, would you listen?” Tap replied.

He didn’t need to hear Joey’s answer. He already knew what it would be. “All right,” Tap said, “but if you go, you have to get Kobe to sign something for me, too.”

Despite his pain and high fever, Joey managed a smile.

When he woke up on the morning of May 19, his temperature had dropped. His determination to keep his date with his hero had been rewarded.

“Joey’s biggest worry,” Linda said, “was that, if he didn’t get better, he would make Kobe sick right in the middle of the playoffs.”

After the Lakers defeated the Suns that night to go up 2-0 in the series, after Bryant had dressed and met with the media, he walked into a private room at Staples Center where Joey, his mother, and his sister Rhiannon waited.

“Hey, Joey where were your seats?” Bryant asked, going on to describe his own experience watching a game as a teenager.

They chatted. Bryant signed every item Joey had brought with him and then took pictures with the family.

When Bryant finally left, Joey’s face was glowing.

“He talked to me like he had known me for years,” Joey said. “We chatted like we were old buddies.”

“What a class act,” Linda said of Bryant. “He took the time in the middle of all he had going on to light up a young man’s life.”

On June 11, just over three weeks after he met Bryant, Joey died.

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SOURCE: Steve Springer
USA TODAY Sports