By Todd Brommelkamp/KGYM Radio
IOWA CITY – He was their generation’s Michael and he was gone.
As members of the Iowa men’s basketball team sat at a Coralville restaurant Sunday preparing to eat a team dinner the news slowly made its way around the table.
Kobe Bryant, basketball star and global icon, and eight others had perished in a California helicopter crash that morning.
“Is everyone seeing this, this can’t be true,” guard Connor McCaffery recalled Monday night following Iowa’s 68-62 win over Wisconsin. “Kobe? There’s no way.”
The desire to eat suddenly vanished.
“It kind of took the life out of everyone,” he said. “You lose every feeling that you have.”
Bryant jumped to the National Basketball Association straight from high school in 1996. Most of the players on the Iowa roster were born between 1997 and 2000. They came of age as Bryant was piling up NBA titles (5), All-Star appearances (18) and points (33,643).
“He was such an inspiration to a lot of us,” said guard Joe Wieskamp.
So, out of a shared grief an idea was hatched. The players, with Connor McCaffery leading the charge, agreed to wear Kobe Bryant-style Nike shoes Monday night against the Badgers. Even head coach Fran McCaffery joined in, and why not? After all, McCaffery had recruited Bryant while an assistant at Notre Dame, knew Bryant’s father and uncle, and even played for the same legendary Philadelphia AAU coach as Bryant.
“I watched Kobe grow up, I watched him in high school, I watched him when he was a kid,” Fran McCaffery said. “But (for the team) it really hit home for them and when they had the idea to where the Kobes I said, ‘I’m on board, I’m going to wear the Kobe’s as well.’”
Most of the Hawkeyes personalized their sneakers with hand-written phrases. Big man Luka Garza’s black shoes featured the numbers 24 and 8, both worn by Bryant during his Lakers tenure, as well as the phrase “Mamba Mentality.”
Garza wound up changing out of the shoes at halftime because they weren’t as comfortable as his traditional gamers. Wieskamp opted out as well, noting the Bryants were not a good fit for his feet. But it was the thought that counts.
“I definitely had to pay my respects,” Garza said, noting he was a huge fan of Lebron James and not necessarily a Bryant fan. “Over time you gain so much respect for what he was able to do. As a kind of basketball connoisseur, his work ethic was second to none.”
Bryant was not a perfect basketball player, nor was he a perfect human being. Few of us are. Just as he worked tirelessly at improving as an athlete – despite being elite from a very early age – he appeared to have put in an equal effort off the court. We’re free to judge him in death as we did in life, just as those who survive us one day will with our own complicated legacies.
When he died at the age of 41 Sunday he died not only as a basketball icon but as a father trying to take his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, to her basketball game.
Basketball was his life and basketball was ultimately his death.
“It was a tragic event,” Wieskamp said.
Kobe Bryant is gone.
A generation of basketball players lost an idol. A wife lost her husband and daughter. Three children lost their father and a sister.
Not much more needs to be said or written, be it on shoes or anywhere else.