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'Couldn't believe it': Spartans stunned by news of Kobe Bryant's death

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — The shock was easy to see on the face of Cassius Winston.

The Michigan State guard had just scored 18 points and handed out eight assists to lead the 11th-ranked Spartans to a 70-52 victory over Minnesota on Sunday and he was waiting to join coach Tom Izzo for an interview on the court after the game.

That’s when Izzo leaned in close to relay a message to Winston.

Winston pulled back and looked at Izzo with wide eyes.

“Kobe?” Winston said.

Another pause followed.

“Bryant?” Winston asked.

Izzo simply nodded his head.

With that, the Spartans found out about the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, a player nearly every one of them looked up to as they grew up and started to love basketball.

“You can't even put that into words,” Winston said later when asked about what Bryant meant to young kids and the game of basketball. “That’s a legend and he’ll go down in history. I remember when we would shoot stuff into the trash can and you’d say, ‘Kobe.’ When coach said, ‘Kobe,’ I couldn't believe it.”

Those feelings seemed to echo around the world early Sunday afternoon as news started to break that Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers legend, had died in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Authorities said nine people were on the helicopter and that all were presumed dead.

Izzo found out just before Michigan State took the court at Williams Arena. He opted to wait and tell his players until after the game, saying they were “devastated” to learn the news.

“It speaks so much about a man when you don't know him but still the idolization and the respect,” Izzo said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I mean, that win ... it sad for me because we need to feel good, but that win meant nothing three minutes after it. … It kind of tells you how fragile life is and for his daughter, man, it's just. It’s sad.”

Izzo said he’d gotten the chance to meet Bryant a few times through Magic Johnson. The former Spartan won five NBA titles with the Lakers, later served in the front office and had a close relationship with Bryant.

“I would just like to say that how sad I am for his family,” Izzo said. “He kind of stood for everything I believe in. He was, according to Earvin, the hardest working guy in America. … You appreciate and understand that life is sometimes too short and to live every day. It is sad.”

Xavier Tillman said his appreciation for Bryant started after the five-time NBA champion retired.

“For me it was kind of emotional,” Tillman said. “Growing up watching him play I was like, ‘You know, Kobe's a ball hog. He never passes. All he does is shoot.’ And I was a LeBron (James) fan because I saw LeBron move the ball, getting assists, throwing lobs and stuff. But then as I like got older and I wanted to learn about being a scorer, I watched what he sees and what kind of moves he makes.

“Kobe is the best player I've ever seen when it comes to scoring the basketball. That's somebody I watch even to this day. I go on YouTube and watch a full game and just watch his demeanor, how he handles himself. I love watching his interviews and stuff like that. So to hear he passed away and his daughter is pretty sad.”

Kobe Bryant walks off the court in May 2012.

Burton's day

Minnesota honored Detroit native Willie Burton on Sunday, retiring his No. 34 jersey and honoring him during a halftime ceremony.

Burton, who played at Minnesota from 1986-90 after winning two state championships at St. Martin de Porres in Detroit, is the third-leading scorer in Gophers history. He led Minnesota to the Sweet 16 as a junior and the Elite Eight his senior season when he averaged 19.3 points a game.

Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote recruited Burton hard and many thought he’d go to Michigan State only to see him head to Minneapolis and play for Gophers coach Clem Haskins.

“I was just a young GA when we started recruiting him,” Izzo said. “I enjoyed watching Willie play. I kept saying, ‘Man, that is a guy that shouldn’t have gotten away.’ I was barely an assistant then when he did his thing. So I watched his career and since then he’s done things with kids and he’s done things in schools. … He is a class guy, I love his enthusiasm, I love his versatility.

“He told me at the hotel that he was all but committed to here too, so I’m mad at Clem. He thought he was committed to Michigan State, but I wasn’t his recruiter so I didn’t know him as good then. I got to know him better later, but I’m proud of him. I’m proud of what he is doing for himself and what he is doing for other kids.”

Burton was drafted in the first round of the 1990 NBA Draft by the Miami Heat and played professionally for 15 years.

“I love Coach Izzo,” Burton said. “But the Twin Cities…if I didn’t make the NBA, guess what? Wherever I am I got to live. Why not be in the Twin Cities? That was my attitude and why I picked the University of Minnesota.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau