Gameti artist finds inspiration in late basketball star Kobe Bryant

The death of basketball icon Kobe Bryant has painter Darrell Chocolate recalling the origins of his career: how his interest in art was piqued by sketching Bryant and other basketball stars in a high school classroom in his home community.

Darrell Chocolate began his art career by sketching Bryant and other basketball stars in high school

Darrell Chocolate with his sketchbook. The artist drew sketches of Kobe Bryant as a teenager that would ultimately serve as inspiration to pursue a full-time career in art. (Peter Sheldon/CBC)

Like millions of fans, Darrell Chocolate found himself in shock last weekend as the news of basketball icon Kobe Bryant's tragic death broke. 

"It was just kind of disbelief that a basketball icon that I grew up watching [had died]," Chocolate, an artist and painter from Gameti, N.W.T., said. "I drew a lot of his photographs, of him dunking."

The connection between an international sports star and a painter from a small Tlicho community may seem unlikely. However, for Chocolate, photographs of Bryant, and other NBA stars, were simply the inspiration that was available to him in his Gameti high school classroom.

"A lot of us kids in class would have these magazines, and sometimes we'd have SLAM magazines," he said. "A lot of the photos in the magazine itself were basketball plays, dunking, doing crossovers.

"What intrigued me the most was their dunks, just the way they're in midair ... just the human figure of it."

Chocolate began sketching Bryant, along with other high-flyers of the era: Steve Francis, Vince Carter, and Michael Jordan among them, creating realistic depictions that caught the attention of his classmates and teachers. 

The sketches are filled with detail and realism, like Chocolate's current work. He says that he will paint a tribute to Bryant following the basketball star's death. (Peter Sheldon/CBC)

Ultimately, he says, that led to his fledgling career as a full-time artist: a painter who does work on commission, Chocolate has seen his work grace the cover of the territory's latest phone book.

And so an unlikely connection was born. Though he never met Bryant, who died on Sunday in a helicopter crash, along with his teenage daughter and seven others, Chocolate says that he always looked up to him.

"I don't play a lot of basketball myself. I'm just a little guy, you know?," he said, laughing. "I like watching basketball. Kobe Bryant was one of the players that I admired."

And though the former Los Angeles Lakers star is gone, his connection with Chocolate's art remains — with his death bringing him back to his early work, the artist says that another tribute is in the works.

"I'll definitely have a little project on him on canvas, I'll probably paint him," he said. 

"That's what I liked to do back in high school, so I'll probably have a little project, of his past dunks."

Based on an interview by Peter Sheldon