Photographer Andrew Bernstein knew Kobe Bryant since the late Laker legend’s rookie season in 1996. Over the years, the two became friends, and eventually collaborators on a book. Photo Courtesy of Andrew Bernstein

Andrew Bernstein was in his South Pasadena photo studio this past Sunday morning, sticking to his usual weekend routine, when the awful news broke.    

“I usually spend a couple of hours in there just kind of catching up for the week coming up,’’ said the 61-year-old San Marino resident, who is the official team photographer for the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers. “I turn on a lot of loud Springsteen music, and I don’t really pay attention to my phone.

“And then my phone started buzzing like crazy a little after 10 o’clock, and I didn’t know what was going on. People were texting, ‘Is it true about Kobe? Is it true about Kobe?’ And I had no idea what that meant.’’

But soon, like the rest of world, Bernstein would find out. Yes, it was true.

Lakers media day, 1996: The first picture Andrew Bernstein ever shot of Kobe Bryant – the first of between 300,000 and 400,000 he would snap of “The Black Mamba.”
Photo by Andrew Bernstein

Kobe Bryant, 41 years old — a Laker legend, a worldwide icon, a father of four — was one of nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna, nicknamed Gigi, was also among those who died in the fiery wreck.

The news that shook the world hit especially close to Bernstein, who is now in his 38th year of shooting NBA games.

Bernstein knew Kobe Bryant from the very beginning. He was there in 1996, when an 18-year-old Bryant first joined the Lakers, a skinny rookie straight out of high school. Bernstein was there on April 13, 2016, when Bryant dropped 60 points against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center in a Hollywood ending to an all-time career.

And Bernstein was there for just about every magical moment in between — snapping what he estimates were between 300,000 and 400,000 photos of the man known as “The Black Mamba.” Over the years, the two became friends, even collaborating on a book, “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play,” in 2018.    

“I was in complete shock and disbelief,’’ Bernstein said on Tuesday, recalling how Sunday played out. “I finally got the TV on, and I was watching I believe CNN or something, and they showed the sheriffs at the (crash) site, and it started to really hit me – I just couldn’t believe it. I was numb, absolutely numb.’’

Bernstein said he had to leave his studio to pick up his daughter in Glendale – “and as we were driving back home, we heard the horrible report that his daughter was with him. I just had to pull over. I just started sobbing.’’

A young Bryant delivers an electrifying slam-dunk. Photo by Andrew Bernstein

‘Very, Very Close’

Over 24 years and those hundreds of thousands of photos, Bernstein recalled that he and Bryant developed a special bond – one that gave the photographer particular insight into Bryant’s brilliance and fire.

“We were very, very close as colleagues … and I think we were friends, too, because we shared some very private things about each other, spent a lot of private time together,’’ Bernstein said.

What stood out for Bernstein was Bryant’s “relentless pursuit of being great, an obsessiveness, an infinite curiosity with everything that would bring you to the next level.’’

“He had a very famous quote that said, ‘If you’re not obsessed with what you do, we don’t speak the same language,’ ’’ Bernstein recalled.

Bryant carried that fire into all his endeavors, even off the court – including his book collaboration with Bernstein.

“I brought the idea to him and his marketing team about a couple of months before he was going to retire,’’ Bernstein said. “I said, ‘Look, we should really think about doing a coffee-table book of sort of my greatest hits, my favorite photos of him, and have Kobe write the captions, and maybe some chapter headings and stuff.

“I prepared a prototype of what I thought I wanted it to look like and all that stuff, brought it down to his office, and we all sat around a coffee table.’’

And then Bryant became all-business, just like on the basketball court.

“He went through the prototype,’’ Bernstein said, “and very politely looked at every picture and then closed the cover, and said to me, ‘Well, the good news is we’re gonna collaborate on a book. The bad news is, for you, it’s not gonna be this one.’ ’’

Bernstein laughed at the memory.

“He knew exactly what he wanted to do,’’ he said. “He wanted to do a book that finally let people into what made The Black Mamba tick. He was very enigmatic and very mysterious. No one really understood what the meaning behind The Black Mamba was. I mean, we all knew it was a vicious snake, venomous, deadly and all that. But what was the true meaning behind it?

“And as that started to get peeled away, I understood that it involved how he approached the process of greatness.’’

Focus was at the center of that Mamba mentality, Bernstein recalled.

“On planes, with guys that were sleeping, he was breaking down game films,’’ said Bernstein – who called his friendship with Bryant, “a dream come true.’’

“Think about one player, playing for one team in one city, photographed by one guy – it was too good to be true, really, when you think about it,’’ he said.

April 13, 2016: Bryant exits the Staples Center floor after scoring 60 points in his career finale. Photo by Andrew Bernstein

‘Very Inspiring’

One of the many illustrative Bryant stories that sprung to Bernstein’s mind happened in 2008, when the U.S. Olympic basketball team was training in Las Vegas.

“You know, it’s Vegas, these are young guys, they’re out after practice, it’s night time, and they’re doing what young guys do in Vegas – but not this guy,’’ said Bernstein, who accompanied the Olympians that year.

“One night, a few days into training camp, I got a call from (Bryant’s) trainer — ‘Hey, Kobe’s up in the suite (working out).’

“And I look at the clock and it’s like 2:45 in the morning. I’m like, ‘You’re kidding!’

“So I throw on some sweat pants and grab my camera, and there he is with his Pilates instructor, he’s got the Pilates machine set up in the living room of the suite, and lo and behind, like, five hours later, he’s the first guy in the gym.’’

That Mamba intensity quickly spread to the rest of the team.

“Slowly, you started to see one or two other guys show up at the gym first thing in the morning,’’ Bernstein recalled. “Then you’d start to see the guys not out as late at night as they were. And by the end of that training camp, he had instilled this work ethic. … It was very inspiring.’’

Another story that came to Bernstein’s mind took place in the 2009-10 season, in a moment that led to one of Bernstein’s favorite photos of Bryant.

“He was pretty beat up. He had couple of busted up ankles, he had some knee issues, he was dealing with a shoulder issue, he had broken finger that entire season,’’ Bernstein said.

The Lakers were at Madison Square Garden in New York, just hours after a game in Cleveland the night before. Most players in Kobe’s condition would have sat out this game.

“(But) there was absolutely zero chance that he was going to call it in that night,’’ Bernstein said. “First of all, Madison Square Garden was the mecca of basketball to him. He had some of his greatest games in MSG. But he had always said that injury was not going to define (him).’’

The memorable photo that Bernstein captured showed Bryant sitting at his locker-room stall, meditating, shutting out the pregame noise and bustle about an hour before tipoff. His feet were in a cooler.

“There are a lot of things going on in the locker room (and) he didn’t have a private place to do his meditation, like he would at Staples Center,’’ Bernstein said. “I didn’t want to disturb that with the click of a shutter, but I had to shoot it, and that turned out to be one of my favorite pictures ever.’’

In what Bernstein calls “one of my favorite pictures ever,” an injury-battered Bryant meditates in the locker room before a game at Madison Square Garden. Photo by Andrew Bernstein

Family Man

Bernstein also recalled how Bryant poured as much heart into his family as he did into his game.

“I was actually there in the locker room when they won the championship in 2000,’’ he said. “And he introduced Vanessa,’’ his future wife.

“That’s the first time any of us had met her, and she fit in really well – she got a champagne shower like everybody else,’’ he said.

Bernstein said that Bryant, while still a player, would also bring his two oldest daughters, then quite young, into the press room during interview sessions.

“It was beautiful,’’ Bernstein said. “I think he was probably the first athlete to do that. Now we see it all the time. … He’d have them sitting on his lap, one on each knee, in little Laker Girl outfits, it was really sweet.’’

Bernstein said he last saw Bryant about two weeks ago, at a game at Staples Center.

“He came with Gigi,’’ he said. “He was sitting about 15 feet away from me. Of course, I said hi, I took their picture, we chatted, I chatted with Gigi a little bit. That’s when LeBron came over and said hi to ’em and all the guys came over.

“And then last week I was in Paris for an NBA event … and I got an email that our book had won a prestigious award. I texted him, and he was super-excited. He acknowledged that we did a great book together.

“And that’s the last I heard from him. It was last Thursday.’’

The tragic events of Sunday still have not fully sunk in, Bernstein said. The world lost an icon. But he lost a friend.

“I’m completely emotionally numb,’’ Bernstein said. “It helps to talk to you and other people who have contacted me about interviews.

“It’s keeping me from completely falling apart.’