Kobe Bryant played his entire 20-year NBA career in purple and gold, but he still shared ties with the athletes who don blue and gold 12 miles west of the Staples Center.
“(He’s) the reason I wear No. 24,” said redshirt sophomore forward/center Jalen Hill.
UCLA men’s basketball’s road game against Oregon tipped off roughly four hours after Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Sunday morning. Hill said having to take the court that day was eerie, and he needed to call his parents to tell them how much he loved them after the game.
Although the Bruins eventually lost to the Ducks 96-75, freshman guard/forward Jake Kyman said he and his teammates played with a “Mamba Mentality” from start to finish because of a new perspective on basketball.
“(Mamba Mentality) is what (Kobe Bryant) brought to the game,” Kyman said. “The fact (is) that this could be your last game – who knows – so you’ll play your hardest no matter what and you’ll give it your all like it’s your last game.”
Kyman grew up in Orange County, one hour away from Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers’ home court – but his new college coach hails from over 2,000 miles away.
Coach Mick Cronin was born in Cincinnati and coached there up until April 2019. Cronin said in order for his friends and family back home to understand how Angelenos are coping with Bryant’s death, he needed to equate it to if former Cincinnati Reds All-Star Pete Rose had died at 41.
But having a 13-year-old daughter of his own, Cronin said the situation became very difficult to address with his family.
“It’s a lot for my daughter to process,” Cronin said. “She sees a picture in my office of (Bryant) and I. That’s the great thing about having a daughter – she’s worried about if I’m okay. But it’s just tragic for the entire city.”
Shareef O’Neal, who announced his intentions to leave UCLA on Jan. 22 was closer to Bryant than any of his former teammates – his father, Shaquille O’Neal, played with Bryant from 1996-2004.
Shareef O’Neal’s Instagram post Sunday morning showed he and Bryant had been direct messaging just hours before Bryant’s death. O’Neal wrote that Bryant was a great uncle, coach and mentor who helped lift him up when times were tough.
Another former Bruin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, posted his reaction to the death of his fellow Laker in a Twitter video Sunday.
“He was an incredible athlete and a leader,” Abdul-Jabbar said in the video. “He inspired a whole generation of young athletes.”
UCLA women’s basketball also played the day of Bryant’s death, tipping off against Washington State less than an hour after the news broke. While coach Cori Close learned of Bryant’s death just after the national anthem, she didn’t tell her players until after the final buzzer.
“I’m very grateful to be able to experience the things I get to experience with these young women,” Close said. “There’s no words that make it any better.”
Junior forward Michaela Onyenwere briefly seconded her coach’s sentiments and said the loss was overwhelming.
“It’s obviously devastating – he was a basketball legend,” Onyenwere said. “(I) just have prayers to his family.”
After the game, the UCLA Bruin Marching Band took the court in the shape of Bryant’s No. 24 to play “The Mighty Bruins.”
Touching tribute by the UCLA band to Kobe Bryant following UCLA's victory over Washington State. pic.twitter.com/k7KnBSJj2m
— Michael Waldman (@MWaldmanDB) January 26, 2020
Bryant took summer classes at UCLA in 1997 following his rookie season and he regularly worked out in Westwood as a teenager with former NBA player and current ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. Bryant was also a mainstay at on-campus pickup games in the late 1990s, inspiring Rico Hines to reorganize the runs at the Student Activities Center almost two decades later.
But while Bryant made a name for himself as an All-Star and world champion basketball player, athletes from all over Westwood said they felt a deep connection to him.
UCLA gymnastics was getting ready to board a flight to the Bay Area for a Monday-night meet with Stanford when the team heard Bryant had died. Coach Chris Waller said travel is hard enough for the team considering some of the gymnasts’ fear of flying, but Bryant’s death made things especially difficult on them over the weekend.
“When we got to the airport, we debriefed about it and we could still feel it weigh heavily on everybody,” Waller said. “It was emotionally exhausting, and (senior) Kyla (Ross) came off the beam and literally said ‘I think my exhaustion is finally hitting me.'”
Sophomore Margzetta Frazier and junior Nia Dennis competed with “24” etched on them, and they weren’t the only ones honoring the former Laker in the Bruins’ eventual 197.575-196.250 victory over the Cardinal on Monday.
“We tried to just be super grateful for where we’re at and the people that we ourselves (are) with,” said senior Felicia Hano. “I think we definitely had that Mamba Mentality (on Monday), which is being relentless and never giving up and never letting an obstacle stand in our way – and I think we really embodied that.”
Redshirt senior Nicki Shapiro was born and raised in LA, but grew up a fan of the LA Clippers rather than the Lakers. However, she too dedicated her performance to Bryant, saying she and her teammates wanted to continue his legacy of perseverance and intensity.
“We were doing it for (Bryant) and everything he represents,” Shapiro said. “We took the responsibility to the best of our abilities to continue what his message was and pick up where he left off.”