Sunday afternoon’s game between the 23rd-ranked Lady Vols and LSU was the annual “We Back Pat” game. It was a game that was meant to honor a trailblazer and hero throughout the sports world, one who left this Earth far too soon at the age of 64 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Sunday’s game with LSU was part of a week-long initiative around women’s basketball to promote awareness for the Pat Summitt Foundation and its fight against Alzheimer’s. Money was raised, and Summitt was honored, but the storyline from yet another great “We Back Pat” game shifted to heart-breaking news.
The day went from the remembrance of one sports icon to another gone way too soon.
At 2:24 p.m. ET, near the end of the third quarter of Tennessee’s 63-58 win over LSU, TMZ reported that Kobe Bryant, 41, was one of five dead in a helicopter crash in Calabasas on Sunday morning. Bryant’s oldest daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, was also on board and one of the victims.
“We’re excited about the win,” Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper said following the win. “Any time you can get a conference win, it’s a big deal.
“But then you go in the locker room, and you get the news about Kobe Bryant and our team, our staff, we were just gut wrenched. It was really tough for me to even address our team. That’s a big figure, and same thing that Rennia (Davis) said just now, I told the team. You hope it doesn’t, but sometimes it takes a big event like that to really put things in perspective. We just played a game, and life is so much bigger than that, and hopefully we don’t take that for granted.”
Bryant played his entire 20-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers and is considered one of the greatest NBA players of all-time. He entered the NBA directly from high school and won five NBA championships. Bryant was an 18-time All-Star, 15-time member of the All-NBA Team, 12-time member of the All-Defensive team, and he was the NBA’s MVP in 2008.
“He was so skilled, athletic and just loved the game,” Harper said. “Growing up, my favorite player was Michael Jordan. Kobe was the closest thing to that that I ever saw. With how he played, how he loved the game, his competitive fire and his drive. That will always be remembered.”
Harper grew up watching and favoring Jordan. For the current Lady Vols, Bryant was their Jordan.
“(He was) my favorite player growing up,” junior forward Jaiden McCoy said. ” I wore No. 24 before I came here. It’s just hard to take about. It sucks.”
“I love him,” sophomore guard Jazmine Massengill said. “That’s definitely my favorite player. My teammates loved him. Everybody in basketball just loved him. You either hated him because he was good, or you loved him because of the kind of person that he was.”
Bryant loved women’s basketball. He served as an advocate for the sport in multiple ways. Bryant coached his oldest daughter, was a frequent fan at women’s basketball games, and he used his platform to bring eyes to the sport.
Gianna, his oldest daughter who also passed away in the crash, was an up-and-coming basketball player with dreams of playing in the WNBA. During multiple public appearances, Bryant was seen coaching her up, trying to help her reach those dreams.
“He’s one of the best players to ever play the game,” Lady Vols forward Rennia Davis said after scoring a game-high 30 points in UT’s win. “For him to kind of reach backwards and try to help women’s basketball, which is somewhat behind men’s basketball right now, as far as fans and everything… him using his platform to reach out to women’s basketball is huge. That was huge for me.”
Sunday’s stunning loss served as another unfortunate reminder of just how quickly life can be taken away. LSU head coach Nikki Fargas said following the game that the news of Bryant’s tragic passing made her want to hug her own daughter a little tight.
Harper, who is the mother of two kids, felt similarly.
“Also for me, you don’t just want to hug your family, you want to hug your staff and your players,” Harper explained. “He’s a hero to a lot of people, and a lot of those people are on our team. It’s just life, and we are so blessed, so, so blessed.”