On Monday, February 24, thousands filled the Staples Center for “A Celebration of Life,” a public memorial held for Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. Professional basketball players, music artists, movie stars, family, friends and fans attended. Millions from all over the world watched the celebration live, as Bryant’s wife Vanessa paid tribute to her daughter and husband by sharing personal memories and explaining how their legacies will live on. A number of NBA and other professional athletes also shared stories of the NBA legend during the two-hour memorial service. 

Bryant, 41, started his NBA career at 18 years old, when he was the 13th overall pick in 1996. At that time, I (Tasha) was in the sixth grade and I remember all the news about Kobe Bryant because he was the first to go straight from high school to the NBA and it was a big deal. As kids we were excited to know that young people who are talented enough can go straight to the big leagues. 

“[Kobe Bryant] was a big influence on my life because he was only 18 and went straight to the NBA. I felt like if he could do it, I could do it at that time in my life. That was the ultimate goal, to skip college and go straight to the pros. The news hit me more because of his daughter; he supported her. I have a bunch of nieces that play basketball and I am right there supporting them, guiding them and helping them, just like he did with his daughter.” —Concho Jim Jr.

As Bryant progressed and shined on the court, he was always compared to the great Michael Jordan. He became one of the greatest opponents of all the teams in the NBA. He and the Lakers were one of the greatest rivals of the Phoenix Suns. We loved to hate him, but although we didn’t like that he always beat our Phoenix Suns, he was overall a great basketball player, and his retirement gave us a chance to finally beat those Lakers. 

After his retirement I didn’t hear much about Bryant until last May, when he and his daughter Gianna came to Arizona to play in a basketball tournament, the 2019 NCAA Certified Desert Invitational. Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Nyese Jones and her team Natives with Talent (NWT), coached by her father JJ Jones, played against Bryant’s Mamba team (see sidebar for story). Since then I’ve seen news stories about Bryant and his daughter and the Mamba team. Gianna was a rising star at only 13 years old, and she was working to play in the WNBA with teachings from her father. 

On January 26, the breaking news started popping up that Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash, stunning the nation. I myself didn’t believe it; it took me a couple of hours to finally accept the news, and in that time it was reported that his daughter Gianna was with him in that crash, which made the news even more devastating. 

Bryant and his daughter were among nine people who lost their lives in the helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Fans have been remembering all those who lost their lives. The O’odham Action News staff asked a few SRPMIC members and employees to express their thoughts about Bryant and how he impacted their lives. 

“I’m a longtime Phoenix Suns fan and a longtime ‘Laker hater.’ [However], I like the individual players [within the Lakers team]. I thought Kobe was amazing on many different levels. He came into the men’s basketball league at a super young age. Arguably [he was] almost as good as Michael Jordan … I was amazed by [Kobe’s] basketball talents. It’s tragic how [his death] could have easily been prevented.” —SRPMIC employee Steve Haydukovich
“Even though I’m a Phoenix Suns fan, I was really saddened to hear of [Kobe Bryant’s] dying, so suddenly. He was a good opponent. If everyone who played basketball could play that hard, that aggressively, the games would be amazing. … I enjoyed watching him play.” —SRPMIC employee Carlos Valdez

Playing Against Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Team 

On May 18 and 19, 2019, the local girls’ basketball team Natives with Talent (NWT) went head-to-head with the late Kobe Bryant’s Mambas during the 2019 NCAA Certified Desert Invitational at the PHHacility in Phoenix. Included on the NWT team was Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Nyese Jones and her father JJ Jones (Hopi) as the team’s head coach. 

“I didn’t like Kobe when he played basketball, just because I was a Phoenix Suns fan, but then I liked what he did off the court, after his basketball career. Things he was doing with his daughters, grooming them to be just like him. We were at a basketball facility for (our daughter’s) tournament when we found out [about the crash]. Hearing later on that day that his daughter was in [the helicopter] with him, it was just sad. It hit close to home because I’ve got a daughter doing the same thing. It was a weird feeling; I haven’t felt like that since Eddie Guerrero died from the WWE. I respect the guy; he was good at what he did, even better with what he was doing after his career, and that’s why I started to follow him even more.” —SRPMIC member Julio Montoya

“I was excited and nervous at the same time going against an icon. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to coach against someone as big as Kobe,” said JJ Jones. “It was a huge step in my life to be able to coach against him, and the girls were pretty excited. I had no idea that we were going to play against them, and when we got to the tournament the director informed me that we were going to play against Kobe’s team. I didn’t want to tell [the girls]; I just looked at the Mambas as another team. I didn’t want my team to get nervous, because I was nervous myself.”

Jones explained that it was a great experience to play against them. For his daughter Nyese to play against Gianna Bryant was fun and exciting. 

“It was good playing against a legend, because his daughter was really tall and athletic so it was a good game between our teams,” said Nyese Jones. 

Coach JJ Jones explained that he remembered NWT were beating the Mambas and, in his head, he thought, ‘Well, I will back off and hold the ball.” 

“I told the girls to play five out or whatever, and Bryant yells out, ‘Play basketball!’ He got mad at me. I looked at my other coach and said, ‘Did he just yell at me?’ and we laughed. It was an experience and I will never forget it.”

On the day he heard the news about Bryant and his daughter, he said, “It was an eye-opener, with someone as big as him dying at the spur of the moment. You’re never promised tomorrow, and I tell these girls that all the time; no one is guaranteed tomorrow. 

“It’s sad. He was one of the best to play [the game]. I highly respect the guy, even though I hated him because he always beat my Spurs. He seemed like a great dad and he was a great, great basketball player. I will always cherish that experience of coaching against him.” 

“My kids were mostly affected by Kobe’s death. I noticed my two sons (ages 10 and 15) would say ‘Kobe!’ every time they would throw [basketball-like] shots. [Since his death], they don’t say it anymore.” —SRPMIC member Carmella Ramos