Kobe Bryant was my favorite basketball player growing up—an idol of sorts. I would often try to emulate his moves on the basketball court, and always yell out “Kobe!” every time I’d shoot anything into a trashcan. His posters were on my wall, his jerseys were in my dresser. I was the ultimate Kobe fan…
But that would soon be tested in the winter of 2010.
It was a little under five years ago when I found myself in a predicament. I had heard the news about Kobe’s decision to sign an endorsement deal with Turkish Airlines—a decision that would add to the profits of a government that continues to benefit from the wholesale murder of Armenians and their dispossession. I despised that government; was I now to loathe this man, too?
As a young member of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) of Canada at the time, it was inspiring to see our Western United States ungers taking the lead on the effort to tell the world why this was a misstep for Kobe. They would start a campaign urging the National Basketball Association’s top superstar to rescind his contract with Turkish Airlines and to make a statement separating himself from the actions of the government of Turkey.
The Armenian youth felt as if Kobe’s deal with the devil stood in stark contrast to public statements he had made calling for an end to the genocide in Darfur. Moreover, Turkey’s long list of human rights violations, including its ongoing denial of the Armenian Genocide, restrictions on free speech and expression, and its continued support of the genocidal government of Sudan, were enough evidence that the endorsement would seriously damage Kobe’s reputation.
At the time, several media outlets started becoming interested in the AYF Western Region’s campaign urging Bryant to drop his Turkish deal. What began as coverage in the local Armenian press quickly snowballed into coverage from major media outlets. Soon, the local affiliates of mass media giants like Fox and CBS were interviewing familiar faces across the border. Kobe’s star power had worked in our favor, and the Armenian youth took advantage of the situation to make their voice heard.
It was also around this time that Kobe’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers, was preparing to come to Toronto for an away game against my beloved Toronto Raptors. Normally, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to see my favorite basketball player in action, but his recent decision had upset me tremendously. In retrospect, it was probably naive to think that our message would be reason enough for him to drop the deal. It probably didn’t even occur to him to reverse his decision.
The night before Kobe’s Toronto game, a group of friends were over at my place. We were watching videos on YoutTube of our California ungers talking about Armenian cause to reporters visiting the AYF headquarters in Glendale. It was then—less than 24 hours before tip-off in Toronto—that we decided to join the protest and hold a demonstration outside Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. And so it began: a trip to the 24-hour Home Depot for supplies; the preparation of press releases, media advisories, and protest banners; drafting speaking points in case we met members of the media; and printing out fact-sheets about the Armenian Genocide. Time wasn’t on our side, but we didn’t really care…the truth definitely was.
We went into the bitter Toronto cold head-first, not knowing what to expect. Less than 30 of us, determined to get the word out about what we considered a big mistake. We held banners that read “Kobe: Do the Right Thing,” and “Morals over Money,” but not a whole lot of people paid much attention to us. The protest would last less than half an hour—it didn’t take long for the staff at the arena to escort us off the property. Our lack of preparation time hadn’t allowed us to file for a permit to hold a demonstration. But what was to follow our last-ditch effort was nothing short of amazing.
Kobe’s last game in Toronto was on Dec. 7; a little over a week ago, Bryant announced that he would be retiring at the end of the 2015-2016 season. Considering I would never see him play in my city again, I decided to tune into the game on my laptop. It’s safe to say that he wasn’t the shining star I had once tried to imitate while playing the game I loved. The years had caught up to Kobe, and the now-37-year-old looked like he was, in fact, ready for retirement.
After the closing buzzer and a well-deserved win by the home team, I thought back to that cold December day in 2010, when my friends and I decided to greet the superstar with protest banners. I also thought back to the press coverage our last-minute demonstration had received. I decided to do a Google search of the protest and saw several articles—both in the local and international press—that wrote about our effort. I began to reminisce. It was endearing to re-read the rushed press releases we had blasted out to any news station we had an e-mail address for. Then, scrolling down the list of search results, I stumbled onto something that caught me off guard. Our little stunt was referenced in an American college-level textbook on international entrepreneurship as a case study of an advertising campaign gone wrong (International Entrepreneurship: Starting, Developing, and Managing a Global Venture, by Robert D. Hisrich).
I couldn’t have felt prouder.
We didn’t think much about our protest that cold December day—it could have been better planned and executed. But to see our efforts mentioned in a passage in a textbook five years later made it all worthwhile.
It’s been almost a year since my friends and I graduated the ranks of the AYF; our days of organizing last-minute demonstrations are over. But after my Google search into the past, I am convinced that the youth has no reason to think it can’t effect change.
The truth is on your side, ungerner. Seize the moment and make a difference.