In order to paint an accurate picture of the way the Kansas State women’s basketball team was affected by the death of Kobe Bryant, an NBA legend who was among the nine people killed in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles Sunday afternoon, we must start in Chicago.
In the year 2000, actually.
Chris Carr, a K-State assistant coach who played six NBA seasons with six different teams, was a Chicago Bull on the night of Feb. 15, 2000.
The Bulls were hosting the Lakers, and as usual, Carr arrived at the arena early. He was ready to get his 300-shot pregame workout in.
He thought he’d be one of the first ones there, if not the first.
He thought wrong.
“I come in, and I hear a ball bouncing,” Carr told The Mercury on Monday. “It’s Kobe, working out before the game.”
There was Bryant, Carr said, working on the same move: One dribble, fake, turnaround, fadeaway jumper.
One dribble, fake, turnaround, fadeaway jumper.
Again and again.
“That’s what he did the whole time I was out there,” Carr said.
So hours later, when Carr checked in for the first of the 18 minutes he would play that night, he struck up a conversation with Bryant.
“Hey,” Carr told Bryant, “I was watching you before the game. You were working on the same move.”
“I’ve got to perfect it,” Bryant responded. “I’ve got to work on it until I perfect it. I’ve got to master it. I’ve got to own it. I ain’t going to use it yet, because I’ve got to perfect it. Next time you see me, I might still be working on it, or I might have moved on.”
Carr was amazed.
“That was one of the things that stuck out to me,” Carr said. “This guy that seems to have the world by the shorts. He’s in his fourth season in the NBA, and he’s already getting ready to win an NBA championship and do the things that he’s done. And he’s working like that.”
That is the kind of story that helps us understand why the Wildcats were so stunned by the news of Bryant’s death, which began to surface early Sunday afternoon. Bryant was 41 years old.
One of Bryant’s daughters, 13-year-old Gianna, also died in the crash.
Carr’s own daughter, Chrissy, a sophomore guard at K-State, took the news hard.
She was in high school, she said, when it first began to hit her: My dad played in the NBA. He knew Kobe.
“Being able to have my dad share a memory with him is something awesome,” Chrissy Carr said, “and that’s something that I’ll hold close to my heart as well. It was shocking. At first, I couldn’t believe it.”
For the Carrs, the memories don’t stop there.
A Minnesota Timberwolf at the time, Chris finished second at the 1997 NBA Dunk Contest behind — you guessed it — Bryant.
So when the news broke on Sunday:
“Devastated. That would probably be the best way to put it,” Chris Carr said. “When you think about the things that he’s been through as a player, he’s always been able come back. You kind of look at him like he’s bulletproof, like a superhero. So the initial response was sheer devastation.”
What all the Wildcats interviewed Monday appreciated, though, was Bryant’s advocacy for the women’s game. Kobe coached Gianna, a promising prospect who dreamt of playing at powerhouse UConn. In fact, the two died while flying to the Mamba Sports Academy, a training facility in Thousand Oaks, California, for a youth basketball tournament.
Plus, Bryant’s support for women’s basketball extended to college ball. He became friends with Oregon superstar Sabrina Ionescu — who used a triple-double to help the Ducks beat the Wildcats back on Dec. 21 — taking Gianna to games and analyzing one of Ionescu’s games on his ESPN+ show, “Detail.”
For that reason, and several others, the news left the Wildcats reeling.
“It’s a huge loss for the basketball community,” K-State head coach Jeff Mittie said, “but Kobe crossed a lot of areas, as a lot of players do that get into business afterward and doing really good things — and particularly with women’s basketball. He became such an advocate of women’s basketball.”
The news rocked K-State forward Peyton Williams, and the reason speaks volumes about Bryant’s impact on basketball at large.
Williams didn’t watch much NBA growing up. She preferred the college game.
Still, she felt the impact of Bryant’s death.
“And I’m not in that background,” Williams said. “I kept seeing all these celebrities and all these people who I didn’t know had an interest in basketball posting about it. So it shows a lot about him as a person that he can have such an impact in all these different areas.”
Bryant’s death affected Chris for a bevy of reasons. But mostly, the news resonated because Chris Carr has a family of his own. In 2007, the family lost 4-year-old Nadja unexpectedly.
So on Sunday afternoon, when Chris learned of Bryant’s death, chatting with men’s basketball assistant Jermaine Henderson at the Ice Family Basketball Center, the implications washed over him.
“We’re all just one questionable decision away from that being our reality,” Carr said. “Yes, having the connection with my daughter here at Kansas State, but also understanding the grief and the loss — having lost a daughter, and trying to process how his wife would deal with it, knowing how my wife dealt with something like that — all the run of emotions just hit me all at once.
“It’s pretty saddening, but I refuse to remember this isolated tragedy as the definition of Kobe Bryant.”
Instead, he vows to remember Bryant for other reasons: His work ethic. His passion for life. His backing of the women’s game. His unrelenting desire to, Chris said, “always endure and overcome.”
“I want to live every day to the best and to the fullest,” Chris said. “I never want to lay my head down at night thinking about what I could have done differently or better. I want to do everything to the best of my ability, which is the way that he lived his life.”