The Nebraska men’s basketball team may be just two days removed from losing on a last-second shot at Rutgers and one day away from facing a vulnerable Michigan team, but had its collective minds on other news Monday morning.
Players and coaches alike were still visibly and emotionally shaken about the passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Sunday afternoon.
The youngest player on Nebraska’s roster is 17 and the oldest is 23. All of them grew up during the era of the NBA in which Bryant dominated the league with the Los Angeles Lakers. Head coach Fred Hoiberg grew up idolizing Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and empathizes with what his players are going through.
“It was extremely emotional,” Hoiberg said. “To compete against [Bryant], you could tell as a rookie coming into the second-biggest market in LA, from the get-go you knew he had it. The way he competed is what stood out the most.”
The news of Bryant’s helicopter crashing reached the team shortly after their Sunday practice, and most of the players gathered in the players lounge at Hendricks Training Facility looking for more updates on the developing story.
Senior guard Haanif Cheatham grew up idolizing Bryant, and was still grieving on Monday morning.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” he said. “It was devastating. As soon as I saw that, I called my mom and told her I love her. I told my whole family I love them, because you never know.”
“For someone like that who you think can’t go away like that, and for it to happen, it’s just something that makes you put life into perspective,” Cheatham continued
Prior to watching film on Monday, Hoiberg had a lengthy discussion about Bryant with the team.
“How you treat people is a big factor no matter what,” was Hoiberg’s message about him, according to Cheatham. “You have to be kind to everybody, and treat everybody with the same respect. With him passing, you see how he was off the court and I think that meant a lot more than the person he was on it.”
“It was pretty somber in that locker room,” Hoiberg said. “When I went in there, we talked about it and I felt like we had to. We talked about his greatness and his passion, and what you can learn from a guy like that that had such a love for the game.”
Hoiberg and Bryant’s NBA careers intertwined, but the two never played for the same team. They did face off in the 2004 NBA Western Conference Finals when Hoiberg was a reserve for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He averaged 6.4 points per game in the playoffs, but Bryant and the Lakers won the series 4-2.
Hoiberg and Bryant crossed paths again 12 years later in Kobe’s final season. Hoiberg was in his first season as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, and he went to the gym early to start preparing for the matchup against the Lakers that night.
“I’ll never forget this. Kobe was out there with a ball boy, in a lather, getting a workout in three hours before the game. You just don’t see that very much anymore with today’s players. For him to be out there and for me to share a moment with him is something I’ll never forget,” Hoiberg said.
Both Hoiberg and Cheatham appeared to still be in disbelief about the news, given Bryant’s resonating personality.
“There’s larger than life figures in this world, and in the basketball world he’s a larger than life figure,” Hoiberg said. “You just don’t ever think that something like this could happen.”
“All the memories, all the highlights, all the joy that he brought the people around him and all the joy that he brought the people who watched him on TV from afar, it’s just something that probably no one [else] in the game of sports can bring,” Cheatham said.
After the long conversation and subsequent film review, practice got off to a slow start. But Cheatham said the players were dialed in after a little while, using the time on the court as a distraction from grieving.
“You could feel the energy down in the room,” Cheatham said. “It’s a situation where you’re going to have to try your hardest to get over [it]. I don’t know how hard or easy it’s going to be, but you’re just going to have to focus on trying to do day by day.”
Much like 16 of the 30 NBA teams yesterday, the season will continue for Nebraska on Tuesday night. The Huskers return home after two road games to face Michigan. The Wolverines have lost four consecutive games, while the Huskers have lost five straight.
“We’ve got a job to do,” Hoiberg said. “To come out and prepare and do the best we can tomorrow. It’s not easy when every guy in that locker room looked up [to Kobe].”