Jason Berkowitz was 25 when he got a call, in 1998, to teach Kobe Bryant to tap dance.
It came as the NBA was on strike — the lockout lasted from July 1, 1998, to Jan. 20, 1999 — and Bryant, then in his third year with the Los Angeles Lakers, had unexpected free time on his hands, and he used it to focus on his feet.
Berkowitz, an aspiring dancer who had recently moved to L.A. and signed with the iconic Bobby Ball Talent Agency (known for repping dancers), got the gig to teach Bryant, but he couldn’t tell anyone.
“I was just a young Jewish kid with dreadlocks and rhythm, but I had never tap-danced a day in my life,” Berkowitz recalls of how he responded when his new agents called with the top secret gig. “We can’t tell you who it is, but we have an incredible gig for you to teach somebody who wants to learn tap dance. We think you’re going to connect.”
Berkowitz agreed. He kept it from his family and even his roommate until Bryant unexpectedly left a voicemail on their machine. At their first meeting, “I asked him point blank why he wanted to learn tap, and he told me that he knew Michael Jordan took ballet and as one of his heroes, he wanted to do something similar to learn rhythm, balance and coordination. He was doing something to emulate his heroes and to be the best at his craft.”
Berkowitz had to take classes himself so he would have lessons to pass along, but he recalls Bryant being impressed with one of the first moves they went over — a sort of floating, forward-moving moonwalk. “He was so cool and playful, just really into it,” Berkowitz recalls of those early lessons. At one point they had to move to another dance studio after Bryant was spotted inside the first location. They also had to cut short a trip to buy tap shoes at Capezio in Hollywood near the Walk of Fame after the 6-foot-6 star was noticed by fans.
“He wasn’t a superstar in the room. He was a dude and we worked together. He was even curious about my career and what I was doing and generous in hearing about my dreams.” Their time together only lasted a few months; after the lockout ended the NBA played a shortened 50-game season, with Bryant’s Lakers losing in the conference semifinals to the eventual champs, the San Antonio Spurs. (The Lakers would win it all the next three seasons.)
Berkowitz, who now serves as CEO of Arrow Certification, which does online, cultural and compliance training for restaurants, says he was devastated by the news that Bryant and eight others (including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna) had died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
Even though their run-in happened nearly 20 years ago, he always expected that he might bump into Bryant again one day. “This guy seemed indestructible,” he says. “He was a fighter; a determined, badass warrior. Knowing that I won’t ever bump into him again really gets me. I realized that I had this incredible pocket of time with him where he was a friend and he gave the smallest little piece of my life so much added value. This is all so sudden and tragic.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.