Men's Basketball Sports

A year after Kobe Bryant’s death, UH men’s basketball remembers the legend

Kobe Bryant died a year ago Tuesday in a Los Angeles-area helicopter crash that killed the NBA legend, his daughter and seven others. Renee Josse de Lisle/The Cougar

Kobe Bryant died a year ago Tuesday in a Los Angeles-area helicopter crash that killed the NBA legend, his daughter and seven others. | Renee Josse de Lisle/The Cougar

One year ago today, the day Kobe Bryant died, the basketball world changed forever.

The Houston men’s basketball team was hosting South Florida inside of the Fertitta Center. More than 6,300 people were packed into the 7,100-seat venue.

At the 8:34 mark of the first half, UH guard Quentin Grimes hit a 3-pointer to put the Cougars up by one. A few seconds later, a media timeout paused the game. 

Whispers in the crowd grew as reports out of Southern California of a helicopter crashing into the side of a mountain in Calabasas began spreading.

Among the dead was Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, a former UH baseball player and six others.

Back on the UH campus, the Cougars and Bulls had reached halftime, but the atmosphere had changed. Nearly everyone in the building, keeping track of the constant updates from California, was glued to a screen.

When the players returned to the court, the sports world had shifted beneath everyone’s feet.

‘A surreal moment’

“Our guys just got quiet,” UH head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters during a Zoom call last week. “No emotion. I’m trying to coach the game, and these kids are trying to process Kobe dying. It doesn’t seem real. It really was a surreal moment.”

UH players DeJon Jarreau and Justin Gorham found out about the accident during the game.

At a timeout, forward Cedrick Alley Jr., who transferred to UTSA in the offseason, approached Jarreau and leaned into him.

Alley looked into Jarreau’s eyes and whispered the news.

“My body just went into shock,” Jarreau said. “This is not supposed to happen.”

Gorham, equally as shocked, was left frozen.

“I was like, ‘wow,’” he said.

The next possession, Gorham’s body was on the court, but his mind wasn’t. He was distraught. 

A USF player made a backdoor cut to get an easy basket, and all he could think about was what he had just been told. Gorham could not wrap his mind around the news.

“We were just stuck and shocked in that moment,” Jarreau said.

‘This generation’s guy’

Once the game ended, the UH head coach entered the room of reporters for his postgame news conference. Immediately, he began talking about the late legend.

“An icon to me is someone who influences a generation in their given sport or profession,” a somber Sampson told reporters after the game. “When I was growing up, the icons in basketball were Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Jerry West. They were bigger than life. For this generation, it was Kobe Bryant.”

Sampson had coached against Bryant several times during his stint in the NBA as an assistant coach for multiple teams, including the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks.

When his teams had to travel to Los Angeles to play against the Lakers, it was always different, he said. 

For Lakers fans, their loyalty to their team was second to none, and the king for them, was Bryant, Sampson said, which meant playing them was almost like facing off against an entire cult.

“I don’t ever remember him not trying to put a knife in your heart. He was a killer,” Sampson said. “Playing against him, and getting to know him, it probably hit me a little bit harder because the NBA is so small. It is a fraternity. It really is a fraternity.”

In that same helicopter crash, UH had a direct connection to the victims as well.

John Altobelli, who played for the UH baseball team in the 1980s, his wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa, were killed in the accident.

The University held several tributes for them in the days that followed.

‘It is still crazy to this day’

As time has passed, Sampson’s perspective on Bryant has not changed.

The impact that Bryant had on the current generation is still prominent, and reflecting on his death still stings.

“It is still crazy to this day,” Gorham said. “Kobe was a legend. He was probably a handful of guys on the team’s favorite player. It is crazy, but Kobe left a great mark on us young guys. His Mamba mentality. Work hard every day. And to put in the work to get the results that you want.”

Bryant was a warrior, Sampson said. He was a role model for many of his own student-athletes and countless more growing up.

The way he played, the impact he had, transcended beyond the NBA.

For weeks, people around the world painted murals, shared their favorite moments, jerseys and memorabilia. Many traveled to the Staples Center in Los Angeles to share all those memories.

Together, they grieved a lost icon.

“We all lose our heroes,” Sampson said. “We take it hard because they were our heroes. They remind us of our childhood. They remind us of our younger days when life had no stress. When life was different. 

“Kobe will always be Kobe Bean. He’ll always be 38, 40 years old. He’ll never grow old to people.”

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