Opinion: College basketball stars have felt impact of Kobe Bryant's death

Kevin McNamara
Providence (R.I.) Journal

One is a country boy from the middle of Kansas, the other a city kid from Boston but Mitch Ballock and A.J. Reeves share a bond they never knew existed.

Like so many other college basketball players, Reeves and Ballock played with heavy hearts over the last week. They are Kobe Bryant fans the same way the hoop generation before them loved all things Michael Jordan. They’ve worn the Kobe sneakers and studied his slick, patented moves. When the news broke last Sunday that Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers perished in a helicopter crash in the hills outside Los Angeles, they didn’t want to believe it.

“We were warming up and ready to play Xavier,” said Ballock, a junior guard at Creighton. “Marcus (Zegarowski) was real serious and said 'Kobe just died.' A couple of us laughed it off and were like 'shut up.'"

When his teammate didn’t crack, Ballock grabbed his phone, flipped through a few web sites and fell into a fog that’s still enveloping his heart.

“I was like 'dang, this is real,'’’ Ballock said. “As the news spread around the arena you could see the looks on everybody’s face. It was unbelievable.”

Creighton guard Mitch Ballock drives to the basket around Marquette forward Sam Hauser during the second half of their 2019 game at Fiserv Forum.

Across the country in Rhode Island, Reeves was watching the Providence women’s team play Xavier. A teammate broke the news and Reeves snapped “don’t even play like that. Get that away from me.” When the grim reality set in, Reeves was crushed.

“I didn’t want it to be real. It’s Kobe!” the sophomore guard at Providence said. “Everybody’s mood just changed. It was heart-breaking.”

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College players from coast to coast are struggling through a difficult grieving period as they process the shocking death of their basketball hero. Bryant was already an all-star when most of today’s college kids were born. He owned three NBA titles before they even began watching games on television. But when Kobe was at the height of his greatness, averaging 35 points per game in 2006 and winning Olympic gold in 2008, they were captivated.

“I fell in love with the way he played and I’ve been wearing `24’ since I was 9 years old,” said Ballock, who hails from tiny Eudora, Kansas, just outside Lawrence.

Why Bryant and not LeBron James or some other superstar like Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade?

“Growing up watching Kobe, I never saw anyone play the game like he did. He gave it his all, on both ends of the floor,” Ballock said. “It’s that Mamba mentality. He had so much joy and inspiration playing the game and he would do it with a tenacity that was unmatched.”

By the time Reeves began tuning into the NBA, his hometown Celtics were scrambling to find Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo a few running mates.  When Allen and Kevin Garnett arrived in 2008, the 9-year old Reeves was thrilled but his favorite player wore the purple and gold.

“I’m still a Boston fan but I liked Kobe,” Reeves, 20, said. “Growing up watching him battle against the Celtics and LeBron, Carmelo and all those great players, you kind of feel like he’s part of you.”

When Reeves fell for the game, he’d spend hours with his AAU and high school coach, Tom Nelson, watching Kobe videos. He’d focus on the foot work, the perfect release on his jump shot, everything. Then he’d hit the court and try to mimic his hero. On one trip East by the Lakers, Reeves found his way into TD Garden. “I saw him play once. I was younger, with my Pops. It was special,” he said.

Besides the loss of a hoop hero, maybe the most important lesson the college kids have realized over the last week is how precious life is. They’ve seen the pictures of Kobe and Gianna, but also those of the other daughters and their parents who passed away so tragically. If this awful story doesn’t open your eyes, nothing will.

“Just cherish life, talk to your loved ones. Don’t do it when you can’t anymore,” Reeves said. “I feel like when people leave the earth we always say the best things about them. We should be doing that when they are here. Just tell them we love them.”