FORT MYERS, Fla. — Kevin Pillar grew up in Los Angeles in a family of five: his mother, father, brother, and Kobe Bryant.
Such was the bond Angelenos felt with the NBA superstar. Pillar's family ate dinner to Laker games. They sat on the couch together to watch Laker games. They watched Bryant grow up over 20 years in L.A.
"It's a crazy thing to be so connected to a professional athlete," the Red Sox outfielder said. "I felt like he was the older brother of me and my brother. He felt like part of the family. It's hard to understand if you didn't grow up with him on your television screen, and it's weird to say, but that's just how we felt about him."
When Pillar and his wife Amanda were expecting their first child, a daughter, in 2017, they wanted to give her a K name so she'd have the same nickname — KP — as her dad.
They eventually narrowed their choices to two: Kennedy and Kobie. They went with the latter, in honor of Bryant.
"We want to be the best at whatever we do, whether it's being a professional athlete, a reporter, a journalist, the way I attack being a dad, the Mamba mentality is with me," Pillar said. "The name just seemed fitting. In some small way it was a tribute to Kobe Bryant, more so it was a K name that we just thought was cool. We kind of always thought that the boy name or unisex name was cool for a daughter. I would love nothing more as my daughter grows up to have the same passion for sports that I did."
The name feels tragically poignant now, thanks to the helicopter crash that killed Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, last month. Pillar got the news while at a park with his wife and daughter and hoped against hope it wasn't true.
"I'll have that memory as long as I live," he said.
Pillar never met Bryant, but he had hoped they would cross paths during Bryant's epic second act, which included an Academy Award for the animated short film "Dear Basketball," opening the Mamba Academy, and becoming a fierce champion of women's sports.
"It's been a slow process, the healing process," Pillar said. "Even more so now with him gone, a lot of his greatness has surfaced. I probably watched three or four hours of Kobe Bryant games on NBA TV last night, and I still end up in tears, because I feel for him, I feel so much for his family, just how much he gave to that sport, and he was entering that second chapter of his life and being a full-time father and loving every second of it, and his passion for women's sports is something that I guess immaturely, I never really thought about a whole lot until I had a daughter of my own.
"You have a girl and you want to be able to give her the world and you want to be able to see gender equality in sports, but more importantly in life."
Pillar always viewed Bryant as a fully formed person, not just an icon. The 2003 sexual assault charges that complicated his legacy are a part of his story.
"What I started to realize as I got older is he's flawed and he's a human being and he owned up to his mistakes, and it's how you rebound from them," Pillar said. "In the second act of his career, he had that Mamba mentality and the desire to be the best at whatever he does, and that's something that transcends sports. People apply the Mamba mentality to anything they're doing. In some ways, if you're not applying that to your profession, your life, you're cutting yourself short."
Bryant co-authored a number of children's books after his playing days, and Pillar had wanted to pitch him on a series about baseball, but now he'll never get the chance.
"That conversation's never going to happen," he said. "That's going to haunt me for the rest of my life."