‘Every kid wanted to be like him’

UB men’s basketball coaches, players react to Kobe Bryant’s death


On Sunday afternoon, former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant died after his helicopter crashed near Calabasas, CA, killing all nine people onboard, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.

Bryant was traveling from his home in Orange County, CA, to his youth basketball academy northwest of Los Angeles, where he coaches Gianna. The helicopter went down in foggy conditions, but authorities are still investigating the cause. Victims of the crash include John Altobelli, a college baseball coach, along with his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton; Christina Mauser, the assistant coach at Bryant’s basketball academy; and Ara Zobayan, the pilot.

The UB men’s basketball team was in a film session when members of the coaching staff were notified of his tragic passing. Everybody — players, coaches, support staff — was puzzled.

Once assistant coach Jamie Quarles had confirmed the news, he informed the team.

“My heart just dropped,” Quarles said. “That was the consensus in the room. It was just a tough day.”

In the days following his sudden death, Bryant, 41, has been remembered as a transcendent figure. Lakers star LeBron James said he was “heartbroken and devastated.” Former teammate Shaquille O’Neal memorialized him as “so much more than an athlete, he was a family man.” Figures from Michael Jordan to President Donald Trump paid their respects to the “Black Mamba.”

Bryant’s legend extended to UB, where student-athletes and coaches recall his impact on their careers.

Jim Whitesell, UB men’s basketball head coach:

When we got the news, we were in practice. He’s Antwain Johnson’s favorite player. When we recruited him, we asked him who his favorite pro is. It was really in my head that he was AJ’s favorite guy. So we got into a circle and AJ said a prayer.

It’s just incredibly difficult to see a guy you admire so much [pass away unexpectedly]. It also shows how precious life is and how we should appreciate every day. It’s just a really hard reminder.

For our players, he’s probably a great role model for how to play the game. Just the work ethic you hear about. You hear about how good a father he was to his kids. It’s tough. Just one of the all-time greats and a really tragic loss for the game and the city of Los Angeles.

Antwain Johnson, UB men’s basketball guard:

Growing up, my dad was a huge Kobe fan. He was a Laker fan, and that was around the time that Kobe and Pau Gasol were winning championships. Kobe’s always been an inspiration for me. I’ve always wanted to model my game just like him. 

I loved watching Kobe in the playoffs. [I love] how he competes. He’s just so clutch. Whatever you need done, he would get it done.

It’s tough, as it is for everybody. Kobe did so much for the basketball world. I just don’t take any games for granted. You never know when your last game is.

Ronaldo Segu, UB men’s basketball guard:

It was crazy, because I had my phone on during film [session]. My phone kept buzzing and buzzing. I thought it was an emergency back home. But I found out it was Kobe. I still don’t believe it.

It’s tough, because growing up, he really changed my mentality. He made it cool to not be friendly on the court, always going at it with players. I’ve been watching him since I was little — I just grew up on him. It’s really tough, because he inspired me a lot. He’s the reason I play fired up. How he worked out. How he went about the game. How he went through extra workouts. So that’s where I get all that stuff from.

Davonta Jordan, UB men’s basketball guard:

It seemed like it was fake. I couldn’t believe it. It’s something that’s going to stick with me forever.

Kobe was a man that every kid growing up wanted to be like. Personally, I thought Kobe was a person who went hard in the gym. He [inspired] me to work on my game and my craft and get better. There was just something about Kobe that a lot of people don’t have, and that’s that dog mentality, where you can go out and play and not care who you’re playing against.

Gabe Grant, UB men’s basketball forward:

We just got out of film [session]. It didn’t feel real. It was surreal at first. I thought it had to be a dream, or a nightmare. I just feel bad for the family. It’s tough to even talk about.

Kobe was a sports figure for everybody, even those who didn’t play sports. I feel for Vanessa Bryant and her family. You can’t grieve enough. You feel bad for them. I’m sending my prayers and my condolences. For them to wake up in the morning and not have their father, that’s a big loss.

Jamie Quarles, UB men’s basketball assistant coach:

Kobe meant the world to me. I’m 33, so I grew up right at the end of Michael Jordan’s [career] and Kobe was my guy. I followed his career. I have all his shoes. [I] stayed up late at night to watch the Lakers all these years. It was devastating.

Being a basketball guy, being a part of that fraternity, made it hit home a little more. It’s been a tough couple of days. I keep hoping it’s not real.

It puts some things into perspective. Cherish the days you have here. Call people and tell them you love them. Accolades mean nothing when it’s your time to go. We learned a lesson here, and we grieve for his family and for all the lives lost.

Justin Weiss is the senior sports editor and can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com. 


Justin Weiss is the senior features editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or doing both at the same time. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald.