"We were on our way from Phuket, and suddenly, the bus stops. There are fifty people on this bus, and these police, slash ... soldiers come on and they start bullying people up front. They see the two hippies in the back with backpacks, and they come up to us and they start putting the nub of their guns into our guts. Jabbing us with the butts of their rifles.
"They physically accosted us a little bit ... they didn't kill us, and that was good, you know, they could have killed us and that would have been it, which happens all the time when you're traveling to remote regions ...
... You know ... what's two more tourist bodies swept up in the jungle?"
Nearly four decades and a long career in the sports-entertainment industry have vaulted Vic "the Brick" Jacobs into an entirely different universe than the one occupied by the hippie and recent college grad that survived a brush with the kind of military aggression pervading many areas of Thailand during the communist insurgency spanning the 1960's, 70's and 80's. Yet, as anyone who has heard him on the air can attest to, that long journey hasn't left Vic the least bit jaded about his work, the city that he ultimately called home or the players he covers -- including one Kobe Bean Bryant.
The backpacking adventurer who once happily endured a twelve-hour trip on a small-scale livestock carrier turned ferryboat just to reach a paradise in Koh Samui that he'd only heard about from English travelers and Tony Wheeler'sLonely Planet has grown into something of a cult figure in LA's sports media landscape. For over two-and-a-half decades now, Vic has been broadcasting his own unique brand of Zen-Buddhist philosophy over the airwaves of greater Los Angeles, transmitted in Haiku form, enunciated in Spanglish.
For sixteen years, or since "The year of the first golden ball", Vic has held true to a pact with Kobe to not tame his unwieldy coiffure until Bryant hangs up his sneakers for good.
Vic's appearance -- beard, poncho, and shoulder length hair that spills from an assortment of colorful fur hats -- radiates the purple and gold aura of some psychedelic high priest of Eastern European orthodoxy. It has also become synonymous with his radio personality. Now, with Bryant's retirement looming on the horizon, Vic "The Brick" might soon need a haircut.
Navigating late afternoon traffic on the renovated streets of West Hollywood's upscale design enclave wasn't exactly where I'd hoped to be when Vic's number popped up on my caller ID. Though at this point, I would have taken the call anywhere. Researching Vic's life was a kaleidoscopic cross section of sports and pop culture, but you can only do so many deep dives into the archival audio of The Karl Malone Show with Vic "the Brick" Jacobs before -- perhaps while sifting through the ramblings of a radio caller known only as George in La Verne -- you hit a bit of a wall. (Though to be fair, the show was actually good, entertaining radio, earning bonus points for Vic's chemistry with Malone and an all too appropriate musical opening -- a re-imagined version of the hit Chic single, Le Freak, that replaces the titular "Freak out!" lyrics with "Lockout!" to commemorate the NBA's 1998 work stoppage that made the Mailman's temporary foray into broadcasting possible).
On the phone, as on the radio, you might start off wanting only a peek into Vic the Brick's rose-tinted world. This, of course, is irrelevant. You're pulled into his metaphysical orbit almost instantly. His free-form cadence welcomes all comers, his New York accent awash in some mixture of California cool and an unplaced mysticism. He's feelin' you.
Though Vic spent his formative years in Forest Hills, an upper-middle class neighborhood in Queens, the ideas and values emanating from the west coast caught his attention early on.
The east coast had Woodstock, sure, but to hear Vic tell it, something was always missing. "Los Angeles was always my mission, because I always felt the greatest vibe coming out of southern California. The light was most intense, it was an amazing illumination."
Vic was drawn to the city's "movable feast" and its willingness to embrace what he terms his "whacky, Zen-Buddhist state of consciousness kind of sportscast."
After a few intermittent stints in various newsrooms around the American Southwest and Fresno, CA, Vic finally found himself truly at home in Los Angeles in 1988.
(Photo credit: VTB Nation // Derek E. Hingle, USA TODAY Sports)
Kobe Bryant was eating french fries in his hotel room in Long Beach, CA on a summer day in 1996. When Vic came in for an interview, Bryant was still munching as he iced his legs.
He was 17 years old, and had yet to play an NBA game.
Still, years before his 36 points vs. the Suns in a Summer League contest would retroactively become the stuff of YouTube legend, Bryant was already creating a buzz in the Southland and beyond.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's John Smallwood took note of the buildup leading up to Kobe's first Summer League game:
Bryant, the Lower Merion High School star who had become the youngest lottery selection in the history of the NBA draft, knew the standing-room-only crowd that normally wouldn't fill one section of Long Beach State's 5,000-seat Pyramid for a summer game hadn't come to watch Lakers' bench-warmers and free-agent prospects.
The line for tickets didn't wrap around the building because there are a lot of Pistons fans in Southern California.
Nope, these people wanted to see Bryant - ``Kid Kobe,'' ``Teen Idol,'' ``the most skilled player'' whom Jerry West, the Lakers' executive vice president of basketball operations, said he had ever worked out.
For two weeks, Lakers fans had listened to the hype.
They were tired of the mystery; sick of only seeing clips from a high school all-star game.
"Instant karma. Instant karma from Kob'" he remembers. Though their first meeting lasted only about thirty minutes, Vic knew transcendence when he saw it. Having spent some of his college years in the company of Allen Ginsberg and Paul Blackburn, Vic was no stranger to poetry. To him, it was easy to see it playing out on the basketball court every time Kobe stepped onto one, "I felt his aura. I felt this insane vibe ... I knew I was in the presence of a great poet."
Artistry. Poetry. Vic's descriptions of the game skew toward the abstract. He is drawn to its beauty—his depictions of the action more Jackson Pollock than John Madden. Vic's personality on air and off is somehow shtick and not shtick all at once. As Eric Nusbaum wrote in a profile of Vic for Vice Sports earlier this year:
You might call what he does performance art. He plays an exaggerated version of himself, delivering unrelenting positivity and Zen-infused madness. At first, you can't tell if he's serious. His radio delivery is part Eastern proverbs, part Catskills corn. He invents his own language. The Staples Center is the Downtown Hoops Dojo. Vin Scully is The Enlightened One.
But the thing about Vic the Brick Jacobs is that it's all real. The haikus and the Spanglish. He writes his emails in all capital letters. His life is written by an acid-tripping novelist
It goes on. Pau Gasol is the Benevolent One out of Barcelona. Jerry Buss is the Pope, and an artist. Kareem was a basketball deity. Magic, a revolution. Vic once buddy-taped his own fingers to show solidarity with Kobe after the Mamba had broken his pinky and declined surgery. Vic's website sells T-shirts displaying his likeness that are equal parts Shepard Fairey concept and Grateful Dead Stealie. There is an entire section on Vic's Wikipedia page titled "Bamboo Use".
But as Nusbaum notes, it's all real. Vic doesn't espouse the saccharine wackiness of your typical drive time radio host. These are not gimmicks. Vic's passion and love and the eccentric exterior they're packaged in are no act.
Nor is his Lakers fandom.
When the Shaq-Kobe feud burned hottest in the early 2000's, threatening to engulf the Lakers' budding dynasty, Vic broke the fourth wall and attempted to insert himself into the fracas. Plenty of fans had called the station over the years to commiserate with Vic and voice their frustrations over the inability of the Lakers' two heavy hitters to put their differences aside when it still would've mattered.
Talking was cathartic, but Vic wanted to take real action.
"I incessantly emailed Mitch Kupchak and the Laker organization to let me solve this problem for them" Vic recalls. "My solution was to take them to the Bahamas. Have their people with them. I'm with them. And we negotiate, we broker a peace treaty. You know, with Dr. Buss, or the Buss family, and we're all there, and we bring this together so we don't rip to shreds what could be the greatest sports dynasty in the history of sports."
Vic never got his wish. Though Shaq and Kobe both enjoyed plenty of success after their breakup had them playing home games on opposite coasts, he bristles at hearing the two of them discuss their "workplace beef" so cavalierly now.
"Screw that" Vic says of the far too late reconciliation. "Why couldn't you two absolve yourselves of the ego?"
Vic still has immense love for both men, he'll just never understand why they couldn't see the opportunity they had before them. "I wanted them to work together" Vic remembers. "It was the greatest one-two punch in basketball history."
It wouldn't be the only time Vic thrust himself into a quintessential Lakers moment.
Although he attends plenty of Lakers games and events every year, it's still always visually refreshing to spot Vic in the thick of various media frays that envelop players and coaches during press availability. His ponchos, sunglasses and fur hats are like forum blue and gold Easter eggs among the seas of muted tones, polos and pants suits.
You've seen Vic too. Any Lakers fan old enough to go to the mall without parental supervision has the indelible image of Kobe Bryant'sgame winning shot against the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of the Lakers' 2006 quarterfinal series burned into his or her cerebral cortex. Even if you didn't see the game live, you've likely contributed to the almost 740,000 views the video has amassed on YouTube over the years.
"I burst past the Laker girls, jumped on the court, in the throes of this amazing zenith of Kobe's playoff career" - Vic the Brick
There are so many classic moments at the end of that game, it can be difficult to keep them all straight in your head: Smush Parker and Luke Walton taking turns accosting Steve Nash, Kobe's high-arcing, game-tying layup with 0.7 seconds remaining in regulation, Kobe bear-hugging Smush's head while whispering sweet nothings into his ear just minutes before the game-winner. Lamar Odom's reaction is priceless too.
What you probably don't remember is Vic's reaction as Bryant celebrates the win with a primal scream—his first, in Vic's recollection.
"My passion drove me to Kobe. I felt that connection with him. And I burst past the Laker girls, jumped on the court, in the throes of this amazing zenith of Kobe's playoff career, hitting a game winning playoff shot, and I just wanted to join him in this pure bliss" Vic remembers. "I'm pumpin' my poncho and my purple and gold mink fur right behind Kobe as he evokes his first primal scream."
Sure enough, at the 3:24 mark of the clip, we see Vic the Brick peeking out from behind Kobe's left shoulder, sporting his classic outfit along with a walrus ‘stache and soul patch, one hand pointing skyward, the other toward Kobe. Another classic Laker moment, another Easter egg.
Whether or not that was literally the first time Kobe ever emitted a primal scream isn't really the point. The evolution of Bryant's career has often been augmented for dramatic effect regardless of how real it may have been on its own. Kobe giving the Lakers a 3-1 lead over the heavily favored Suns was, at that point, the pinnacle of his post-Shaq success. The primal scream into the rafters of a delirious Staples Center was the perfect distillation of that: Kobe, standing alone, his greatness the primary driving force behind postseason glory.
With the narratives surrounding Bryant's career, it's been a mixture of the authentic and the embellished. Some would see Bryant as a tormented artist, his life and career progressing in chromatic stages—his early years painted a brilliant yellow, followed by a deep blue, always searching for some ultimate violet. Others would cast Bryant as the lone wolf who finally learned to pack hunt.
Kobe has always inspired us to grasp at hyperbole. Apologists militantly (and often irrationally) defend the Mamba's legacy against all challengers. Detractors run his numbers ragged through a brutal obstacle course of advanced metrics. We churn out dubious analogies and superimpose allegories of redemption and solitude.
Kobe is Icarus.
Kobe is Othello.
Kobe Bryant and the Big Honey Hunt: The Berenstain Bears Corollary.
Kobe is like a surgeon performing the most delicate of operations while wielding a scalpel strapped to a baseball bat ... or something.
See? It's sorta fun.
The comparisons, the dramaturgy, the pseudo-academic deep cuts -- part of what makes #24 such a compelling character is the simple fact that his career deserves almost all of it. Whether it was the inherently polarizing nature of the national docudrama swirling around his early and middle years or the near-aesthetic perfection that characterized his late-prime title hunt, one thing Kobe could never be accused of was failing to effortlessly drive a plot line.
Were Bryant's story not so overflowing with actual depth and substance, the fact that it seemed as if a Bob Costas human interest piece preceded each of his playoff journeys might have come off as hollow. Or more so, at least. This is what you get when an overabundance of the ethereal qualities we demand of our champions combines with a lanky, athletic dominance that would have made a lesser player a garden variety All-Star all by itself.
Bryant's has been the rare case of a reality that refuses to be undermined by any amount of hype or overstatement. If you tried to pitch a movie about a precocious boy wonder who's journey took him from the top of the world to the nadir of being accused of one of the more heinous crimes a person can commit back to the top of the world again, you'd be laughed out of the meeting.
Ehh ... it's a little tired.Let's hold a beat here and circle back when you've come up with something believable. Leave your number with the front desk and we'll get a call on the books.
Now, with Kobe acting as the elder statesman and incumbent superstar on a team with lukewarm expectations and a host of talented, yet unproven youngsters, we get to work a whole new set of angles. Maybe Kobe is painted as a potty-mouthed caricature of his former self. Perhaps we'll comment on how Kobe's efficiency and effectiveness have waned (they have) or how he often lacks self awareness (he does—though not as much as some think). Maybe the wolf analogy will rear its head again. Something or other about teaching the young pups how to kill.
It was only supposed to last a year. Less than that even. When—sometime during the 1999-2000 season—Vic and Kobe originally agreed to let their freak flags fly by steering clear of the barber's chair until LA won its first title of the new millennium, the pact was only supposed to last until mid-June at the latest.
"Kobe was rockin' the afro, " Vic remembers. "I was growing my hair, and I said to Kob' in a practice, I said ‘Kob', let's do this: let us not cut our hair until we snatch the golden ball.' He says ‘Yeah, let's do that Vic.'"
Then a funny thing happened. The Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers in six games to claim their first of three consecutive titles, the remaining vapors of John Salley blew into the cosmos, and Vic's hair remained uncut.
Unsure of what to do, Vic asked Bryant, "I said ‘Kob', now what, do I cut my hair?' He says, ‘Vic, why don't you cut your hair when I retire?' I said ‘Kob' that's a great idea.'"
One peek at Vic's current hairdo confirms that he's kept his word all these years, but what's his plan for when Kobe finally hangs em up?
Vic doesn't expect that to happen as soon as you might think. "I believe he'll play at least one year after this year, depending on his health." Vic admits that it could be quite the culture shock when the time does finally come—"It'd be totally crazy. It's a different time and space"—but he's not setting anything in stone just yet—"I've got to huddle with Kob' and we have to reassess the scenario."
Maybe it seems overly hokey that Vic the Brick's hair should stand as the sands of time for Kobe's career arc. Bryant upholding his end of some Faustian bargain by descending into a fiery perdition the moment his final game is complete would certainly make for a more compelling visual than a smock-wearing Vic the Brick mugging for the camera as some hairstylist asks if he wants a little more off the top. Still, expecting anything grandiose out of the end of Bryant's career would almost undermine the actual raw material that gave way to his mythos in the first place.
This isn't to say we haven't mythologized Bryant's journey—we have. We've long ago shot past the point of it being cliché to talk about Kobe's 4AM offseason workouts or solitary all-night shooting sessions, but that doesn't mean they aren't genuine.
Vic the Brick isn't the Kobe Bryant of radio—he would never invite that comparison. Besides, Vic's in his own stratosphere. Still, when Vic waxes poetic with bodhisattva virtue, he's not putting on airs. Vic's shtick may be shtick, but it comes from the heart. He cares. He really is feelin' you, Lakers fans. It's real. It's a revolution, man.
When Kobe jacks up a shot from four feet beyond the three-point line with 18 seconds on the shot clock, it's not just for show. From an outsider's perspective, in that moment, Bryant somehow, impossibly, seems to think that his attempt was the best way for his team to score—and ultimately win—empirical data be damned. When Kobe erupts into a jaw-jutting supernova on the court, it's easy to caricaturize, but not inauthentic.
It's all inextricably blended. The legend and the reality. The lore and the mundanity. They inform one another in a seemingly endless feedback loop that eventually spits us out in a strange new place where Vic the Brick getting a haircut somehow seems like a perfect coda to the career of an NBA icon—whenever it's truly over.