The Nebraska basketball team was in the weight room when news of Kobe Bryant’s death began to leak out on Sunday afternoon. After the Huskers finished their lifting session, they emerged to learn that one of the giants of the game was gone along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.
“Obviously it was a very tough day yesterday,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Monday. “We kind of heard about it when the initial reports were starting to come out and a couple players after practice came into the lounge outside the locker room where we had food for the guys and just started talking about it. I don’t know if anybody truly believed it at that point … When the reports came out that it happened, it was extremely emotional.”
The news really hit home for senior Haanif Cheatham in particular, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“It still doesn’t feel real … As soon as I saw that I called my mom right away and told her I love her,” Cheatham said. “I told my whole family I love them just because you never know. Just for someone like that who you think can’t go away like that and for it to happen is just something that makes you think, puts life in a different perspective. It makes you just enjoy every moment that you’ve got. Like I said, as soon as I saw the news I called every single family member that I’ve got that I enjoy and cherish and I told them I love them. Me being away from them right now, it’s hard to show my love at a physical level, but just calling them and texting them — It broke my heart, especially for his family, his daughter being 13 years old.”
Cheatham is 23 years old. Bryant made his NBA debut with the Los Angeles Lakers — where he spent his entire 20-year-career — about a month after Cheatham was born. All of the Huskers —even those from around the world — grew up in a world where Bryant was synonymous with the NBA and the game of basketball as a whole.
Rest easy legend 🙏🏾😔 pic.twitter.com/IPv2EAYeie
— Yvan Ouedraogo (@Yvanouedball) January 26, 2020
“My generation, when we were in middle school … you get the paper ball, you throw it in the trash can and you say ‘Kobe.’ All the memories, all the highlights, all the joy that he brought the people around him and all the joy he brought the people who watched him on TV from afar is something that probably no one in the game of sports could bring,” Cheatham said. “I think him passing away yesterday is something that is eye-opening for everybody. It’s shocking and it’s devastating and it’s something that’s probably not going to feel right today, next week, a couple months.”
Hoiberg has a slightly different perspective of Bryant than his players as someone who competed against him as both a player and a coach, but he had his childhood heroes as well and understood what the team must have been going though.
“I grew up watching and idolizing Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and as I got a little older, Michael Jordan, and I know Kobe had the same effect on our guys as those guys did on me as a young player,” Hoiberg said “To compete against him, you could tell right away as he was a rookie coming in to the second-biggest market in LA and from the get-go you knew he had it. The way he competed was the thing that stood out the most. You hear all the stories about behind the scenes, his work ethic, being in the gym at 2 in the morning and taking a nap and getting back up the next morning and doing it all over again.
“There’s a reason he’ll go down as one of the all-time great players and a lot of it had to do with his work ethic and his passion and his killer mentality. He just had that ‘late in the game, give me the ball, I’m going to win the game for us.’ I think Jordan’s the greatest of all time, but the closest I saw to him just because of his mentality was Kobe.”
Hoiberg gathered the team together to discuss Bryant’s passing as a group, and Cheatham said the theme of the discussion was Bryant’s work ethic and the impact he had on those around him.
“It was pretty somber in that locker room when I went in there and we talked about it; I felt that we had to, just sit in there and talk about his greatness and talk about his passion, talk about what you can learn from a guy like that that had such a love for the game,” Hoiberg said. “The thing that’s just awful is as a parent, to have your daughter on board and the other family that was on board, it’s awful to think about.
“There are larger than life figures in this world and in the basketball world he’s certainly a larger than life figure. You just don’t ever think that something like this could happen.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.