Shockwaves rippled across the sports world Sunday with the news that NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
All across social media, tributes, stories and memories poured in. For basketball coaches, players and fans young and old, Bryant meant so much to them. He was so many people’s favorite player. Their idol. The first NBA jersey they ever owned.
For the basketball community in Haywood County, those sentiments were no different.
Like most of the world, the initial reaction for many local basketball figures on hearing of Bryant’s death was shock. Disbelief. This doesn’t happen. Kobe Bryant doesn’t die. He’s invincible.
“I kind of just said I don’t want to believe that,” said Tuscola JV boys basketball coach Brandon Brooks “I was in shock for a little bit. He’s been a big headline for so many years and been a big part of my basketball journey watching him play growing up. It’s just one of those surreal moments that I don’t really want to believe. People like that don’t ever go away. You think of them as these high figures that that’s never going to happen to them.”
Many members of the Haywood basketball community were among those captivated by Bryant’s jaw-dropping accolades. He won five NBA titles. Dropped 81 points in a game. Scored 60 in his final game at 38 years old. Made two free throws with a torn achilles tendon. Sits fourth all time in NBA scoring. The list goes on.
Several players and coaches in Haywood County, including Tuscola girls assistant coach Spencer Norris, who played at Smoky Mountain from 2011-15 and two years at Montreat College.
“He meant a lot,” Norris said. “Everybody talks about Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and all these guys, and they impacted my basketball life too, but Kobe, I saw him firsthand, watching games and stuff. Him being a leader, that guy had something different than everybody else did. And it motivated me to have what he had even though I never could have that. That was something that was instilled in him by God. God just said, ‘Here you go. You have this drive like Michael Jordan has, to be the best.’ And I don’t care what anybody says to me, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are right there.”
The basketball coaches in Haywood County try to instill an endless drive to succeed on and off the court in all of their players.
When looking for an example of that, they don’t have to go further than Kobe Bryant.
“He didn’t have to outwork everybody, but he took that mentality and let everybody know that he was going to outwork people,” said Tuscola boys head coach Nathan Messer. “Kids need to see that. To be good, you’re going to have to outwork people. That means you’re going to have to do extra work and it isn’t just coming to the gym when you’re supposed to come to the gym. It’s going somewhere else and working on the off time. He took that whole thing to his life with his family.”
For players that want to honor Bryant through their play, and keep his memory alive, there’s no better way to do it than pouring in that same work ethic and dedication on and off the court.
“To be that kind of player that wants to be like Kobe, those are the qualities that you’ve got to possess,” said Pisgah girls head coach Brandon Holloway. “Those that make others around you better, being willing to sacrifice hour upon hour of honing your skills to be at an elite level, putting the work in and not caring about the glory. Just playing because you love it. I think that speaks to what Kobe was. He didn’t do it because he had to; he loved it. He was passionate; he wanted to be one of the best there was.”
Pisgah boys head coach Jonathan Whitson was a member of the Bears’ 2005 state championship team.
He and his teammates idolized and looked up to Bryant growing up, and he hopes to see his players inspired by those same qualities.
“You’ve got to play your own game, but you can model your game after someone,” Whitson said. “Just because he played so hard. It didn’t matter what circumstance was presented for him, he was going to go in and play just like when he tore his achilles that game, he went and shot two free throws and came off. That’s just the competitor in him. And hopefully the guys here and not just here but in Western North Carolina, across the United States and the world see that and they play the game like he did.”
For Whitson and his teammates, basketball tended to dominate their conversations.
Bryant was always a central figure in their talks and debates, especially for Elliott McDowell, whose son’s middle name is Kobe and whose house is filled with Lakers and Bryant memorabilia.
“We used to always stay the night at each other’s houses, and we’d play outside on the lowered rim with the smaller ball,” McDowell said. “That’s all everybody wanted to be. We were always fighting over who got to pretend they were Kobe. He inspired us to get out of the house and try to emulate him. He kept us playing and kept us wanting to win. We won a lot growing up, but we never won a championship. He won one and then another and he lit the fire for us. All of us looked up to him. We all watched basketball games together and we’d be in awe, and then we’d go outside and start playing. He gave us the mamba mentality. We were from a small town and people didn’t want to take us seriously, but it was like yeah we’re here and we’re coming for you.”
Bryant’s impact goes far beyond the NBA courts. He was a huge advocate for the WNBA and women’s basketball in general. He and Gianna were on their way to one of her travel games at the time of the crash, and she was coming into her own as a young basketball player. She harbored dreams of playing women’s basketball at the University of Connecticut and playing in the WNBA.
Those who have been a part of women’s basketball in Haywood County were thankful for Bryant’s contributions to opening the game for all.
“He’s helped advance the game in general,” said Jake Robinson, another member of that 2005 Pisgah team. “I’m a father of a five-year-old little girl. One of the things I appreciated most about Kobe once he retired was that he embraced and tried to bring more recognition to women’s basketball. He was an advocate for the WNBA and advancing their abilities and the structure of that organization. I think he was just someone who knew that he had to use his platform to do something more than just play the game. He had to figure out ways to influence the younger generation and to try to grow the game globally and across gender lines so that there was equitable benefit for everybody.”
Many believe it was Bryant’s love for his four daughters, and desire to share his passion for basketball with everyone, that led him to this important work.
“I think it just speaks volumes to who he is and his passion for the game and the love of the sport,” said Tuscola girls head coach Pam Bryant. “He has four daughters, and I think his big thing is being an advocate for what he wants his daughters to be a part of. I just think when you have someone like a Kobe Bryant, like a mentor, or just the icon, to see that it doesn’t matter, male, female, there’s no separation, it’s just he loved the game of basketball. It was his passion, and he wanted to share it with everyone, not just a certain group of people.”
Others appreciated Bryant’s ability to change attitudes towards women’s basketball and women’s sports.
“It’s great, because a lot of people look down on women’s basketball,” said Tuscola senior Brittany Steppleton. “[People say], ‘Women aren’t as good as men’, they don’t get recognized like men. But since he supported it, it showed people do actually watch women’s basketball and people actually care. For him to support it led other NBA players to support it. It looked good and felt good for someone to support women’s basketball rather than looking down on it.”
Bryant’s attitude and self confidence from the moment he stepped foot on an NBA court inspired millions.
He came into the league as an 18-year-old saying he was going to be better than Michael Jordan. While the debate of whether he was is a worthy one, that confidence and belief continues to resonate with local players.
“I think he was definitely a person that helps kids, because he showed you that anything was possible,” said Tuscola assistant Zach Shepherd. “When he got into the league, he talked about being better than Michael. He worked hard every day to reach his goals. I think that’s what kids today can take out of it. If you work hard, you can achieve things that people don’t think you can achieve.”
Bryant’s hard work and confidence has shown countless players that they can do anything they set their minds to.
“He just played a big part of showing that no matter where you come from or what kind of person you are, you can always play basketball,” said Pisgah senior Carter Jones. “I still carry that with me today, seeing that this is the first year I’ve played basketball since about middle school. Even though I haven’t played in a long time, I’m not the peak performer, I can still go out here and play, because anybody can play basketball.”
For others, it was the “Mamba Mentality” of outworking everybody, and doing what was necessary to get the job done that drew them to Kobe Bryant.
“Kobe always had a mindset, a mentality,” said Pisgah senior Steph Rogers. “‘We’re going to win. I’m going to go get this rebound. This shot’s going to go in. We’re not going to lose today. He always had that passion. He was a really good basketball player. I’m not that good of a basketball player, but Kobe always gave me the passion to always have that mindset. I may not be the best jumper out there, but I’m going to get this rebound. I might not be the best shooter but this shot’s going to go in. I might not be the best player but I’m going to continue to contribute to this win somehow.”
While Kobe Bryant’s loss will be felt in the sports community, and by those who knew him, for years to come, his legacy will never die.
Even for young kids who don’t really remember watching him play, an act as simple as yelling ‘Kobe!’ when shooting a paper ball into the trash will continue to show how far his reach went, even into the mountains of North Carolina.
“I think it’s huge,” said Pisgah athletics director and former boys basketball coach Casey Kruk. “I think even following basketball and following Kobe Bryant like I did, even seeing the videos now, there’s some things that I’d forgotten about and there’s some things that I didn’t know. People come forth and tell stories. I think it’s incredible to see a person like him that touched so many lives, even young kids. My sons and I go out and play in the backyard and we still holler ‘Kobe’ when we shoot a turnaround jumper. That’s just an influence that he had. Watching him now with the kids growing up now, this is a major event for a lot of the younger generation, because he was their hero and will be their hero forever. But it’s great to see him being honored the way he has been, even in such a terrible tragedy.”