There is something totally pure in it, these children's core belief that Kobe Bryant is special and that him being there for them makes them special, too. Even when they blank out on their prepared questions or get so nervous that they don't say anything, they can still convey that special feeling, because the smile speaks for them every time.
"I couldn't stop smiling," said Cody Thorington, a 15-year-old from Davenport, Iowa, after meeting Bryant on Sunday at Staples Center. "And I can't stop smiling now."
The whole point is that they want to meet him, yet the love is not unrequited. The reason it really works is that he wants to meet them, too. It's why Bryant has met or is scheduled to meet every child who has ever asked the Make-A-Wish Foundation for him. The total will reach 100 in the coming days, a statistic that when you get down to it is more notable than whether Bryant ever scores that many points in a basketball game.
"This is a tremendous honor, a tremendous blessing, to help out and provide that moment of escape," Bryant said. "When I have the opportunity to do that, I'm going to do every single one of 'em."
The kids go into it believing they know Bryant, and perhaps they do to some extent. But Bryant believes he knows them, too. He has always viewed himself as an underdog who prides himself on his tenacity and has set out to do everything in life early.
Not unlike a child who has to face a life-threatening illness and must focus and strive for more.
"They're all fighters," Bryant said.
So on some level, there is a mutual respect in that room - which is ultimately what makes any relationship click. And it always clicks, whether it's just a 10-minute chat with a follow-up call or Bryant rents out Dave & Buster's for a day, or he flies to Las Vegas when he hears a child can't make a flight to meet him and might never leave the hospital.
For Chris Chavez, 14, to have met Bryant in March is quite a leap from November, when Chris had to rally after being in intensive care for three weeks with complications from chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma and was told that he wasn't strong enough for a bone-marrow transplant and thus might not see 2007. It's quite a leap from January, when his heart stopped during a blood transfusion and he had to be brought back, eventually getting a pacemaker.
The all-expenses-paid trip from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles from the Make-A-Wish Foundation wasn't just a reward for the difficult past, it was a lift for the difficult present and future. Said Chris' mother, Hasani: "Due to his illness, we pretty much lost everything - our house, our car and even our dog. But that's OK. As long as Chris feels good, we all feel good, too."
Bryant brought his wife and daughters to meet Chris, who was with his brother, sister and parents. The Chavezes later said that it felt more personal that way. Bryant prefers that no one outside the families be in the room.
"You get a chance to connect," he said. "You actually have dialogue with them. There aren't a million people around or cameras all over the place or you're talking to a big crowd. You're talking to an individual and his family, and that's the best part about it."
Chris had Air Zoom Kobe I sneakers on his feet. Cody has his sunglasses propped atop his bald head, just like some kid did that day he announced he would "take my talent to the NBA."
Cody had been originally scheduled to visit in December, but his treatment eliminated those plans. That happens a lot. Newport Beach's Brent Alcaraz, 17, missed Bryant's 65-point game March 16 because of doctor's orders after the mouth sores from chemotherapy for his high-risk leukemia got too dangerous. Brent was released from the hospital Friday and might yet make it to a game and a meeting with Bryant before the season is over.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation (www.wishocie.org) is about helping those with life-threatening illnesses, not necessarily terminal ones. Not every ending can be happy. That's why Bryant flew to Las Vegas in June and at least was able to bring some happiness before the ending for a 17-year-old named Juan Carlos.
They played video games in his hospital room. Bryant remembers the boy's girlfriend was there with his brother, sister and parents. Bryant remembers being complimented on his sunglasses, which he made into a gift for Juan Carlos.
"A couple weeks later, sure enough, he passed away," Bryant said.
What Bryant knows for sure is that no one was thinking about potential sadness while he was in that room. He has figured out that his best approach is to be himself, especially when he considers himself an optimist.
"They just want to appreciate each moment," he said. "They just want this moment to be special. This is their wish. So you have to put those emotions aside and not be worried or fearful for them, because they're not for themselves."
They're fighters, remember.
So the NBA superstar who has "carpe diem" (Latin for "seize the day" as the cover of his Web site knows he will never lack for something to talk about with them. That theme comes up repeatedly while Bryant is answering questions for Cody.
Bryant talks at one point about "taking one day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other and enjoying the next day." He talks later about being motivated by adversity and other people's doubts: "It makes you absolutely crazy. If they say you can't do it, prove them wrong."
Cody, whose form of cancer (rhabdomyosarcoma) is generally considered incurable, doesn't just smile. He nods in understanding.
But, I guess Kobe haters on here are going to say it's a biased report because it came from a west coast newspaper in California. I bet the haters are even going to dig so low they will say crap like "the story is fabricated" or "Kobe is just is doing this now to rehabilitate his image"