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'Tells you how fragile life is': Michigan State men's basketball reflects on Kobe Bryant's death

January 30, 2020
Senior guard Cassius Winston (5) is helped up by his teammates during a game against Northwestern.The Spartans defeated the Wildcats, 79-50, at the Breslin Student Events Center on January 29, 2020.
Senior guard Cassius Winston (5) is helped up by his teammates during a game against Northwestern.The Spartans defeated the Wildcats, 79-50, at the Breslin Student Events Center on January 29, 2020. —
Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

“Family.”

That’s how the Michigan State men’s basketball teams breaks out of its huddle. And after the death of former NBA player Kobe Bryant on Jan. 26, that chant meant a little bit more.

“One of the things that people lose sight of is that (Bryant) was a tremendous basketball player and he taught everybody how to work hard and how to compete at a high level, but he was a family man after that,” sophomore forward Aaron Henry said. “That’s what inspired me the most from him."

Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California shortly after 9 a.m. on Sunday. The NBA Champion’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna was also killed in the crash, among seven others. Bryant had three other daughters and a wife, Vanessa, who were not involved in the accident.

As a father himself, junior forward Xavier Tillman said the news struck closer to home for his wife Tamia because she saw a similarity between Tillman and Bryant and their value for family.

“When I got home, (Tamia) was talking about how he is such a family man and I am myself,” Tillman said.

Bryant, a Philadelphia native, was drafted straight out of high school and went on to spend 20 seasons as a shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a five-time NBA champion (2000-2002, 2009, 2010) and had 18 NBA All-Star appearances before retiring in 2016.

“It speaks so much about a man when you don’t know him … and yet the idolization, the respect, it was like, oh my God,” Izzo said in a press conference after MSU’s Jan. 26 win over Minnesota, according to the Detroit Free Press. “That win meant nothing three minutes into it. I was amazed just watching different players that I didn’t think would really look at things that way. It kind of tells you how fragile life is.”

As a decorated basketball icon, athletes around the country, including former and current Spartan players, found themselves at a loss for words in reaction to his death. When Izzo told senior guard Cassius Winston after the Minnesota game, Winston’s mouth fell, his face froze.

"Kobe?” Winston was caught by Fox cameras asking. After Izzo nodded, Winston clarified. “Bryant?" he asked, wide-eyed. Izzo nodded again. "Wow," Winston said.


“Just unreal,” Winston said, thinking back to the moment. “Some people, you never think that anything bad can happen to them and that’s one of those guys. He was a great guy, great for the basketball world ... so to hear that tragic news, it was really sad.”

Tillman, who admitted being a long-time LeBron James fan, acknowledged the growing appreciation he gained for Bryant’s game, specifically for his scoring abilities, as Tillman learned to be a better player himself.

“As I got older, and I wanted to learn the intricacies of being a scorer and really knowing the details of being a scorer, I really locked in on Kobe,” Tillman said. “I noticed that he was really one of the best scorers you’ve ever seen and a great champion and a great person.”

Winston said it was Bryant’s mentality, the one that carried him through life beyond the court, that inspired him the most.

“Just the fact that he was going to be the best ... no matter what it is, who was out there, what he was doing,” Winston said. “That’s a mentality that a lot of people can learn from.”

As the country mourns, whether it be with candlelit ceremonies or the painting of a rock, Henry left off with a reminder that Bryant’s death brought forward to the country — players are more than just the game.

“Just showing me what kind of a man he was before a basketball player,” Henry said of Bryant. “People lose sight of that, and it’s sad that death has to happen to draw people closer to that and realize what life really is about.

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