Todd Walker was working in the mortuary Monday, preparing the body of a 14-year-old boy, a kid he'd coached in youth football for five years, for a funeral later this week. Larry Malik Grayson was shot in the head two days after his last freshman football game at Berkeley (Calif.) High School.
It happened at a friend's house. Somehow a gun appeared and Malik died. The shooting may have been accidental. The details seem unimportant, but the senselessness isn't and neither is the frequency. Too many lives are being lost or changed because of guns. Too many kids -- good kids, kids who play football or baseball or basketball, kids who go to school and try to do right -- are dying on the streets of places like Berkeley and Oakland.
One of Walker's nephews, a 13-year-old, was shot in Oakland earlier this year when someone fired into his house. He survived, but is now blind. Walker prepared the body of another of his former Berkeley Junior Bears football players last month, a 15-year-old. There was a 13-year-old track star shot and killed as he just walked down the street less than a week before he was to start at Skyline High School.
Walker's heart breaks and his anger rises. As a youth football coach and funeral-home worker, he fights the gun culture and the death culture. He fights the pervasiveness that threatens to turn youth gun violence into just another annoyance of modern life, along the lines of a dropped phone call or a pothole. He tries to use sports to create a positive alternative.
And then last week, he went home and was watching a game when a new commercial for "Call of Duty: Black Ops" came on his television. Seen through Walker's eyes, the content was bad enough. A woman in high heels, a hotel concierge, a guy in a fast-food worker's outfit -- they're all shooting automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades in an urban warfare setting.
He was already disgusted, but about halfway through the spot, Walker did a double take: Wait! Wasn't that Kobe Bryant?
Seriously, is that really Kobe Bryant carrying an assault weapon with the word "MAMBA" on the barrel? Did Kobe Bryant, the highest-paid player in the NBA, take money not only to advertise a shooting game but actually shoot -- or simulate shooting -- an automatic weapon while doing it? None of his people, not his wife or his agent or someone in the NBA offices, advised him against this?
"I couldn't believe it was him," Walker says. "What's wrong with him?"
Walker gives funeral-home tours to every team he coaches. He tries to hammer home the reality of death by putting kids in cardboard cremation boxes. He shows them the tools he uses to drain bodily fluids and the chemicals he uses to prepare bodies. It probably wouldn't play in the suburbs, but Walker's trying to fight a culture that glamorizes death with tattoos, airbrushed T-shirts and roadside memorials. He's fighting a culture that has desensitized death to the point where fantasy has overtaken reality. In the process, the permanence of death -- "That person is gone," Walker tells the kids when he closes someone inside the box -- is often lost.
Those responses might be coping mechanisms or a natural defense against the reality of a situation that some deem hopeless, but Walker fights anyway. The glamorization troubles him. The lack of shock troubles him. He thinks people who don't value death are less likely to value life.
And then he sees Kobe shooting an assault weapon on TV, along with Jimmy Kimmel and those other "ordinary" people, including an overweight girl wearing glasses and a revenge-is-mine smile as she fires into a building. (She's apparently in the throes of a self-esteem bump, but it doesn't take much of a leap to see her as a geek settling things with a gun.) At the end of the spot, the tag line -- "There's a soldier in all of us" -- manages to diminish and trivialize the work of real soldiers while sending one of the most irresponsible messages in the history of advertising. (The ad campaign is everywhere, including on ESPN's family of networks and this website.)
"This is exactly what we're trying to fight," Walker says. "I'm looking at a 14-year-old boy right now who got shot in the head, and then I see Kobe get on TV looking like a damned fool, holding an assault weapon and wearing the same stuff the kids are wearing when they kill somebody. The look on his face -- all smiling and happy. This is the attitude we're trying to get away from. It's OK for him, though, because he's never had to worry about going home to the ghetto. That ain't his world."
The NBA has a dress code. Break it and get fined. The NBA has a code of conduct. Break it and get fined or suspended. The NBA made an example out of Gilbert Arenas when he brought a gun to work. Walker asks, "Where's the NBA on this one? What the hell is this guy doing? He needs to explain his reasons for that."
The Lakers, through their public relations people, say they haven't dealt with any backlash from the spot. "Not a Laker issue," says VP John Black, who referred me to Bryant's agents, who had no public comment.
It's well known that Bryant is involved in military charities and feels a kinship with American soldiers. He reportedly trained with actual black ops soldiers to prepare for the commercial. At the game's launch, Bryant helped present a check for $1 million to the Call of Duty Endowment for returning soldiers.
Robert Kotick, the CEO of Activision, which makes "Call of Duty," considers his game a tribute to the military. It's a claim that's undercut by a commercial that makes its "heroes" appear to be regular people using their lunch break to take down a helicopter and fire a few rounds into a building.
For all his basketball talent, Kobe has always tried to develop the street cred that doesn't fit his background. Walker says, "If he's looking for street cred, he should do a commercial where he's throwing that assault weapon into an incinerator. We're trying to send a message that guns aren't the answer, and we've got an NBA player on television shooting that big-ass gun with a stupid-ass look on his face. We can't win."
Walker has an idea he knows will never happen. He wants to give Kobe the same tour he gives his young football players.
"I'd like him to come in here and see what I see," Walker says. "The bodies, the tools, the chemicals -- he needs to see it and smell it. He damned sure needs to see it."
Walker had to get off the phone. He had to go back to work. The Lakers come to Oakland to play the Warriors on Jan. 12.
The offer stands.