Those of us who love basketball were shocked on Sunday to hear of the death of NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gigi (Gianna), and seven other souls in a helicopter crash. But out of this sad event came a joining that really touched me, and I’d like to share that with you here.
A little background: I grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, home of the Oregon State Beavers. I’ve been a fan of the Beavs all my life. On Sunday, the Beaver women’s basketball team was slated to play the arch-rival Oregon Ducks in a battle that is called the “Civil War.” Both teams are top-10 teams, the arena was sold out, and it was nationally televised. Everyone was expecting the usual barn burner that happens every time these two juggernauts meet. I was looking forward to seeing the game.
But then, soon before the game was set to start, news of Kobe’s death reached the arena, and it hit hard. He’s a hero and role model to these young women, both because of his greatness as a player and because, having four daughters (and coaching Gigi, an excellent basketball player herself), he was a huge supporter of women’s basketball.
What’s more, he and Gigi had a special relationship with Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon star who is probably the best college women’s player in the nation. He attended one of her games, he became a mentor to her, and they became close friends, communicating several times a week. Sabrina developed a relationship with Gigi and the other daughters, who looked up to her just as she looked up to Kobe. In the course of these growing friendships, Kobe had gotten to know a number of the other Oregon players as well.
During warmups, both teams were shaken up about what had happened. But the Oregon team was hit harder, because of their special connection with the Bryants. And so, Oregon State players Maddy Washington and Aleah Goodman decided to walk over to the Oregon players and offer comfort and condolences. Washington said later, “I know we’re supposed to be rivals, but when you see someone in pain, you just want to put your arms around them.”
Moments later, all of the players set aside their basketballs, the arena turned off the music that usually accompanies the warmups, and the teams joined in a prayer circle. The arena was silent. According to Oregon State player Mikayla Pivec, Oregon State teammate Janessa Thropay prayed aloud for Kobe, his family, and all who knew him and Gigi. Oregon player Ruthy Hebard finished the prayer. The Oregon State players let the Oregon players know that they were there for them to help in any way they could. Sabrina Ionescu in particular, who was devastated and in tears having suddenly lost two close friends, was the recipient of many hugs from players on both teams.
“We are family.” These words are on a sign in the corner of the Oregon State arena, where this game was played. These words refer to the sense of family cultivated by the Oregon State program. And on this day, the family expanded to include the “rivals.” As Goodman said in the press conference following the game, “It’s way bigger than basketball.”
I am sorry for the loss of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and everyone else who died in that crash. My prayers go out to everyone involved. And at the same time, I am deeply moved that these young women’s mourning became a catalyst for a beautiful joining. Thank you to both the Oregon State and Oregon teams for your inspiring example of love.