It’s Sunday morning and both Truman State University basketball teams are preparing to get back into the gym after winning their respective road games just the night before. Most days you can walk into the gym the day after a win and feel the warmth radiating from the coaches and players and hear the excitement on the court as they recall memories of yesterday’s victory and prepare for the next, but this Sunday the floor was quiet. Despite the taste of victory still fresh on their tongues, the only sound to be heard was the bouncing of a ball and the occasional squeal of a planting shoe. Just minutes before the two teams were set to take the court and begin their long week of preparation, they received the news that former NBA superstar and Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant lost their lives along with seven others in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles. As the Truman men’s basketball director basketball of operations and a former player, I was among them that morning receiving the news.
The first time I ever watched Bryant play basketball was in my mom’s classroom at the school she worked at when I was a child. It was late and she had paperwork to finish, so to help me pass the time she turned on game one of the 2010 NBA finals. As an eleven year old kid I had just begun to find my own love for basketball, but I had not yet become invested in the sport. As I continued to watch the game one player kept catching my eye: Kobe Bryant. The way he moved around the court and his defender so effortlessly made me believe that even an eleven year old kid from Iowa could play the game the way he did. His hustle to every ball on the floor or every rebound proved to me, a kid who only knew a little bit about the game, that he was willing to do anything to win. For four long quarters I watched Bryant give every ounce of effort in his body to a game that meant little to me at the time. By the end of the game my mom had nearly finished her paperwork, and turned to me to ask what I thought of the game. At the time I didn’t understand the context of what I was witnessing, all I knew was that I wanted to play the game just like Kobe Bryant did. I wanted to be so committed to one goal that I was willing to do anything to achieve it. That is what Bryant did. He turned little kids into dreamers, and dreamers into workers.
Bryant, also known as the “Black Mamba”, was not just any basketball legend. Bryant entered the league straight out of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Bryant’s dominance began in 2000 when he, alongside Shaquille O’Neal, captured his first career NBA Championship and began a run of three straight championships from 2000-02, the first such run since Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls just seven years before. This jumpstarted Bryant’s career as one of the best scorers in NBA history. After winning two more championships back-to-back in 2009 and 2010, Bryant suffered an Achilles tendon injury that would sideline the Mamba for a year. Bryant’s hard-fought return to the court resulted in his climb up to third on the list of the NBA’s all-time scoring leaders before delivering one last memory on the basketball court in the final game of his career. In one of the most watched games in the history of the NBA, Bryant scored an incredible 60 points at the age of 37 and became the oldest player in the history of the NBA to score 60 or more points.
Beyond the court Bryant was an Oscar winner for his short film titled “Dear Basketball” which told the story of Bryant’s career from his perspective and gave the world an understanding of his love for the sport he played. In the film, Bryant describes how he gave his heart to the sport of basketball, however those who followed Bryant after his retirement from the NBA saw another side of him. Bryant was known for his unmatched work ethic and his devotion to the game of basketball. This devotion brought out a passion on the court, garnering him the respect of all members of the NBA community. In his days after basketball, Bryants’s dedication to his family was what he fully invested in.
Bryant was known to take his daughter Gianna to watch basketball games all over the country as she shared the love for the game with her father. He was a committed supporter of women’s basketball, a sport in need of a voice to help it transcend to the level of the NBA and other major professional leagues. He often commented that his daughter Gianna was better than he was at her age and would someday help move the sport forward for women. Ultimately, what Bryant demonstrated was an unbreakable commitment to the things in life he loved the most. From basketball to his family, Bryant’s life centered around the things he held closest to his heart, and he would stop at nothing to ensure that.
On that Sunday morning, though the floor was still silent and the hearts of the players were sore with the news, the Bulldogs pressed on through the remainder of practice with the memory of a legend and a hero of the sport still on their minds. Many of the Bulldog players grew up idolizing Bryant as he poured his heart into the game he loved. Many of them watched as he hobbled back to the free throw line in pain with only one Achilles tendon intact because he was unable to surrender without knowing he gave everything within him. They saw Bryant, at age 37, take the floor for the final time and produce every single point that he was able to muster for a world and a sport that was not ready to see him leave.
And so, the Bulldogs did as Bryant taught them. They took the floor with sore bodies and busy minds because they had seen it done so many times before by a man wearing the numbers 8 and 24. And though the court in Pershing Arena and so many other courts around the world were still and silent that Sunday morning, the hearts of those who loved the court as Bryant had taught them to were at peace.