Hoop Story #045: Anthony Gilbert, Writer & Co-founder of Sole Collector

Hoop Story #045: Anthony Gilbert, Writer & Co-founder of Sole Collector

Walk us through your early memories of Basketball in Philly and meeting Kobe for the first time, what happened? 

90’s basketball in Philadelphia is one of, if not the best decade the game has ever seen. I say that with all due respect to Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, Hal Lear, John Chaney, Marilyn Stephens, Hank Gathers, Yolanda Laney, Dawn Staley, Lionel Simmons, Pooh Richardson, etc. 

However, during the 1990’s, everyone was coming of age within that 10-year span. Aaron McKie, Eddie Jones, Rick Brunson, Kerry Kittles, and Jerome “Pooh” Allen dominated at the collegiate level, while Rasheed Wallace, Cuttino Mobley, Alvin Williams, Jason Lawson, Adonal Foyle, Shawnetta Stewart, Sean Colson, and Malik Rose excelled in high school. Last and most certainly not least, Kobe Bryant started to emerge on the blacktop and Sonny Hill League. By ‘94-’95 he was so fundamentally sound as a complete player, that it was evident he would play at the NBA level. I didn’t realize at the time that it would be much sooner than later.

I met Kobe through his oldest sister Sharia. She and I were friends and she began telling me about her brother, and I had never heard of him. This was 1994, so news didn’t travel as quickly as it does now. Besides, they lived outside the city, so his buzz was there and not necessarily around Philadelphia. The elite hoopers knew him because he was playing up against guys 4-5-years older than him in pick up games and hood tournaments. I inadvertently challenged him during a playful conversation with his sister. She relayed the message and he walked directly to me after one of her volleyball matches. He made it clear that we needed to settle things on the court and that he very much wanted to play 1-on-1. I didn’t play him, however it opened the door for a lifelong friendship and genuine trust of one another.

Collage of three images of journalist and founder of Sole Collector Anthony Gilbert. Clockwise from top left: with Reggie Miller, Spike Lee, and Derek Jeter

You worked with the Liberty and then the NBA in communications, how did those experiences shape your career? 

The WNBA gave me an opportunity that I would not have gotten with any other professional organization. This was the summer of 2000 and the league was in the early stages, so the experience was very hands-on, and I was able to learn at a rapid rate. I worked in the team media relations department, and I did everything from handle credential and interview requests, to player appearances at the NBA Store. The front office was small and everyone’s door was open if you wanted to learn more about the business. I soaked everything up like a sponge; it was a defining moment and a solid foundation for me to build my career upon. The Liberty lost to the Comets in the Finals and I went back to school invigorated. I had just worked with the New York Knicks and Liberty, and called Madison Square Garden home for 6-months. 

Going back for my final 2-semesters was difficult. I could not focus on my student job, school newspaper, and the things that once meant so much to me. I had taken a bite out of the Big Apple and I wanted more. I passed the time by applying for the NBA league office, and I started an internship with the Philadelphia 76ers, working with their media relations team during the week and on game days.

The 76ers won the Eastern Conference, and lost in 5 Games to the Lake Show. Prior to beating the Celtics in 2010, Kobe once told me that coming home and winning the ship in Philly was the best of his then 4-rings. He elaborated by saying, so many people wanted him to fail when he came out of high school, and this was his way of proving himself right.

I always wanted to make it to the NBA. I was able to come to the realization at 15, that I needed to come up with a different plan. I knew I would never be good enough to play in the league, so I did everything in my power to get there by any means necessary. I was offered a job in February, so with that in place, I could enjoy my last semester and not have to worry about finding a job after graduation.

I was ecstatic because my lifelong dream of the NBA had become a reality. I learned about corporate America and I had to suppress the little boyhood aspirations, because this was the league office and I was working with adults who had families and real world responsibilities. I grew up really fast, and one of the really cool moments was that the upcoming All-Star Weekend was going to be in Philadelphia. I had come full-circle, and the cherry on top was Kobe winning the MVP. He was booed and a bit embarrassed. I was in the building, cheering, and the fans started booing me too. That wasn’t even the craziest part of the game. Michael Jordan had a break away, clear path to the basket, and he missed the dunk. A rare sight from MJ, and sitting courtside were Muhammad Ali, and Joe Frazier, which for boxing historians was a surreal thing to see. I am thankful for my time there. It was a dream come true.

Collage of three images of journalist and founder of Sole Collector Anthony Gilbert. Clockwise from top left: with Joel Embiid, LeBron James, and Andre Iguodala

In 2011 you were involved with an NBA lockout game in Philly at Palestra. Who showed up and what was the atmosphere like in there? 

I accepted a job with Nike in their retail brand marketing division in April of 2010. That summer during the World Basketball Festival in NYC, Nike Sportswear debuted a film that I was featured in at the Apollo Theater. The film Air Force 1: Anatomy Of An Urban Legend was something I had worked on about 5-years prior with acclaimed French director Thibaut de Longeville. I can honestly say that experience was the highlight of my 4-years with Nike. I was interviewed on the carpet, and when I made my appearance on the silver screen, the audience started clapping and cheering. I will never forget that night.

The second unforgettable night was in West Philadelphia on 33rd and Spruce inside the famed Palestra. The NBA was in a lockout dispute and the players were barnstorming in different cities. Nike financed everything and they worked with Rahim Thompson who was commissioner of a highly successful high school basketball tournament, The Chosen League. He secured the venue, staff, and particulars, and I through Nike Basketball produced the uniforms and Basketball Never Stops t-shirts. The game was electric with LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony against some of the best NBA players from Philadelphia, including Kyle Lowry. His steady play helped Team Philly walk away with the victory. Steve Stoute was courtside, and World Wide Wes was sitting on the ground along the baseline. It was packed and the line outside never dissipated. People figured it was better to be in the vicinity than to leave. The thing that stands out the most was the heat. It was extremely hot inside the arena and if it wasn’t for the star power on the court, the humidity would have ruined the event.

Journalist and founder of Sole Collector in three photos with Kobe Bryant and Dawn Staley

You wrote about Spike Lee and then got the opportunity to work on a film with him. How did that all go down? 

I first met Spike on set for the Jordan XX commercial. I was there for SOLE Collector Magazine to interview him. He was all business and I learned a lot about being on set observing him. Spike Lee and Ahmad Rashad are the reasons why I went to college. I wanted to either direct films, or be on NBA Inside Stuff. Either way my heart would be content, and my dreams fulfilled. Once the shoot wrapped, he walked over to introduce himself. I have to admit, I was hyped. I had informally met him several times at Madison Square Garden, however this was different. I was getting an exclusive interview on the set of a Jordan commercial. Everything went well, and he even sent me an autographed copy of his book Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It. From that moment forward, whenever I would see him, it was always love. 

Fast forward to 2014, and Mo’ne Davis became one of the most recognizable people in the country after Sports Illustrated put her on the cover during the Little League World Series. Her story intrigued me and since she is from South Philly, I put the word out that I wanted to meet her and her folks. My homie Salim Weldon knew her mother and he connected us. I offered to work pro bono as a public relations liaison for Mo’ne and her family. My first order of business was to get them free copies of the Sports Illustrated with Mo’ne on the cover. Prior to that, they had been buying as many as they could find. A few days later, Spike Lee contacted the SI offices inquiring about Mo’ne, and they provided him with my contact information. Someone from his team in Los Angeles called and said that he would like to speak with me. I agreed to the call, and a few minutes later, Spike Lee was pitching to me an idea for a documentary. He didn’t realize who he was speaking with, nonetheless we agreed to meet in NYC for dinner. He called my room so we could meet in the hotel lobby. I walked off the elevator and he yelled out, “IT’S YOU… AW MAN, LET’S GO!” 

Over dinner he discussed his plans for a commercial and documentary. There was one thing...he needed me to convince her mother to approve and sign off on it. It took us a few weeks to make it happen, and once everything was signed, we shot over a 3-day span and finished on time. I worked with Spike Lee on a documentary in South Philly. If you would have told me something like that while I was in film class, I am certain, I would not have believed you.

How did your relationship with Kobe develop over the course of his career and what have you been able to learn from him? 

When Kobe made the announcement to enter the draft, I was speechless. He never spoke about entering the draft, he just prepared himself for it. I knew he was good, I did not know to what degree his basketball knowledge and skill set had grown to. No one is going to believe in your dreams like you. He had put in the work and he had the utmost confidence in everything that he set his mind to. 

I was in college when his career began, so it was more like, okay, he did it and the Bryant family is on the west coast. I wasn’t certain what the future would be. I cheered for him and Eddie Jones. The Lakers became a team I would use in video games and I paid more attention to them in the late 90’s than any other franchise. I was invested from a distance, yet Kobe would come home during the off season in the beginning. He would visit his cousin John Cox at Engineering and Science High School, and he would continue to work out at some of his old stomping grounds like Temple University and the Kaiserman JCC on Haverford Avenue. I would see him every now and then, and it wasn’t until after college that he and I started working together on a professional level. 

Once I became a sportswriter, our friendship went to another level. We both understood that we could help one another. My focus was to always get him on the record to talk about home and what Philadelphia means and has meant for his career, and in turn, as his stock rose, he took me along for the ride with full access and interviews. He gave me inexplicable credibility that I still have to this day. He was a superstar and I made a promise to myself and his sister that no matter what, I will only report on things pertaining to basketball. Nothing about his family, or personal business, just Kobe the guard from Lower Merion High School. 

I learned two things from Kobe. The first is that I never saw someone who loved basketball as much as he did. It is too difficult to explain the dedication and love he had for the game. His film Dear Basketball is the best way to understand it. The second thing is that Kobe did not reward bad behavior or a poor work ethic. He was always on his game and he had high expectations for the people around him.

What's next for you? 

I have been writing and covering a multitude of sports for nearly 2-decades, so now is the time to reflect and write about my life and career. I am in the process of penning my first book. It is something that I have always wanted to accomplish and I have to complete it. I have been fortunate to be present for some iconic sports moments, and I have covered and met the biggest and brightest stars from all over the world. The time is now to do this for my family and legacy.

Outside of that, I will continue to write and mentor the next generation of journalists. It is important that I help to lift others up, while I continue to climb. I am also working on a history of basketball through the lens of Philadelphia with a local organization called Philadelphia Youth Basketball. They are looking to build an elite basketball training facility in North Philadelphia. They hired me as a contractor to help highlight the rich history of basketball in the city.

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