DUBAI // He may not have taken to the court to play, but NBA legend Kobe Bryant still captivated thousands of fans by his mere presence in Dubai last night.
The American University in Dubai’s Knights Arena was packed with more than 2,000 supporters, most of whom could barely contain their excitement as their hero made his entrance on to the court.
Cheering and screaming his name, plenty of the spectators tried to get closer to the sporting legend by running on to the court to take a picture.
Bryant was in the UAE as part of his Kobe Bryant Health and Fitness Weekend, which ended last night with a game between the Black Mambas UAE celebrities and Real Madrid.
“I wasn’t disappointed that he didn’t play because he has been carrying an injury, but the very fact he is even here made it completely worthwhile,” said Josh Cox, from Australia.
“I’ve been a fan of his for many years but you don’t have to know anything about the NBA to know who Kobe Bryant is.”
Bryant, 35, was the celebrity team’s coach and helped them achieve a 72-63 victory.
“It’s important to be active,” he told the crowd during the half-time break.
“Whether it’s basketball or football it doesn’t matter – as long as you’re healthy. Get out with your friends. Don’t be lazy. Play, have fun, compete, be active.”
The star picked five youngsters from the crowd to take part in a competition and free T-shirts were fired out to fans throughout the game.
There was also a show-stopping performance from American rapper Soulja Boy, who was part of the celebrity team. The singer enthralled the audience during the break, performing his US number one Tell’em.
Neil Generoso, 35, from the Philippines, was so determined to get a ticket for the game that he made sure he was prepared as soon as they went on sale.
“I’ve been a LA Lakers fan since I was 10-years-old and to get the chance to see Kobe Bryant in person is a once in a lifetime opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he said.
“I’ve grown up going through the highs and lows of the team over the decades so I had to be here.”
Mr Generoso was hoping to get a matching pair of basketball shoes signed by his idol after the game.
“I have a two-year-old son and I want to get his shoes signed as well. He is already a massive basketball fan.”
For school friends Karim Wehbe, 15, from Lebanon and Bashir Jarrah, 16, from the US, getting to see Bryant sitting a few feet away from them on the team bench was an opportunity too good to miss.
“As soon as we found out he was coming to Dubai we decided we would make sure we were here for the game,” said Karim.
“It’s the first time I have seen an NBA star in real life and I think it’s amazing.”
Both have been Lakers fans for the past five years and hoped to get their hero’s autograph.
“We regularly wake up to watch their games at 5am, but to be in the same basketball court as Kobe Bryant is awesome compared to just watching on TV,” said Bashir.
“I like everything about Kobe. The way he plays and the way he acts on and off court and how he is so determined is really inspiring.”
Lifelong LA Lakers supporter Neron Bosilkovski, from Macedonia, believes Bryant is one of the all-time greats.
“I would say that he is the greatest player since Michael Jordan,” he said. “There is no weakness in his game. He is a complete player.”
The US ambassador to the UAE, Michael H Corbin, was at court side and met players from both teams.
“I think it is wonderful that an NBA megastar like Kobe Bryant has come to the UAE,” he said.
“This kind of initiative will really help to promote and educate people on the benefits of living a health and active lifestyle.”
As part of his visit, Bryant also held a basketball skills clinic for 40 pupils at Gems American School, in Abu Dhabi, on Thursday.