Michigan basketball comes to grips with tragic loss of 'hero and icon'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan senior center Jon Teske was among the countless kids across the world who grew up following and idolizing Kobe Bryant.

He would wad up pieces of paper and yell “Kobe!” as he launched them into the waste paper basket. He would emulate Bryant's shots and pretend to be him when he hooped in the backyard. He would pick the Los Angeles Lakers and play as Bryant on the NBA 2K video games.

And like the rest of the generation of basketball players who grew up watching Bryant, Teske was stunned when he found out that Bryant, his teenage daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Sunday.

“When you hear a situation like this that happened with Kobe, Gigi and others, I'm a father and I can only imagine what his family is going through," says Michigan coach Juwan Howard, who played against Kobe Bryant in the NBA.

"It was terrible news,” Teske said Monday. “We were still practicing, and we came back to our locker room and got that update and it was just awful. It shows it doesn't matter how much money you have or your status, you can be gone in a second.

“Just growing up watching him, watching LeBron (James) and him battle, it was a huge impact on basketball. It’s a very sad loss.”

Bryant’s death sent shock waves throughout the basketball community and especially hit home with coach Juwan Howard, a father of six whose 19 seasons in the NBA mostly overlapped with Bryant’s 20-year run in Los Angeles.

“The NBA is a family,” said Howard, who added it had been an emotional 24 hours for him and his family. "When you come through that world, Kobe becomes one of your brothers, so he's like a brother to me and many others.

“When you hear a situation like this that happened with Kobe, Gigi and others, I'm a father and I can only imagine what his family is going through. No one wants to experience anything like that.”

More:UM's Simpson suspended for Nebraska game for 'violation of team policies'

Bryant, 41, was revered for his fierce competitiveness, his intense focus and his relentless pursuit for excellence, which became known as the "Mamba Mentality."

After Howard had transitioned from an NBA player to an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, he recalled an instance where he crossed paths with Bryant outside the Lakers’ locker room at the Staples Center in 2013.

By this time, Bryant was in his 18th year in the league and already had five NBA titles under his belt.

“I said, 'Yo, how long are you going to end up playing for?'” Howard said. “He said to me, 'Until I win two more championships.'

“The guy didn't say, 'OK, I want to play until my 20th year.' He said until I win two more championships. That's how he was wired.”

While Bryant wouldn’t win another championship in his final few seasons, he finished his career as one of the most decorated NBA greats of all time. He was named to the All-Star team 18 times and All-NBA team 15 times. He won the league MVP in 2008, was a two-time scoring champ and is the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history.

“He was a hero and an icon to us all,” Howard said. “My kids looked up to him. One of my boys, that was his favorite player growing up and still is. Kobe was one of my favorite players growing up and I was older than Kobe, but I respected how he approached the game of basketball. His work ethic was like no other.”

Howard said Bryant reminded him of fellow NBA legend Michael Jordan in many ways and he respected Bryant’s toughness, citing the time he tore his Achilles, made two free throws and walked off the court without any assistance.

Howard also admired everything Bryant accomplished off the court, from winning an Oscar for best animated short film and writing children's books to his business venture with sports drink BodyArmor and his involvement with his daughter Gianna’s basketball team.

“It's been a very difficult time for all of us because Kobe meant a lot to not only the basketball world, but he was inspiring to many folks,” Howard said.

Howard added he had seen clips of Gianna’s basketball skills on social media and was impressed by what she was able to do at age 13. While she was being pursued by top programs like Connecticut and Oregon, Howard said he was going to make his case for her to play for women's coach Kim Barnes Arico at Michigan.

Unfortunately, it’s a pitch Howard won’t get the chance to make.

“It’s tough, it really is,” Howard said. “It's very challenging for the Bryant family and the other families that were lost during this tragic situation.” 

Livers' status

Teske said junior forward Isaiah Livers was in the good spirits after suffering another injury in his return from a six-game absence on Saturday.

However, Teske also hinted that Livers will be unavailable for Tuesday’s contest at Nebraska.

More:'Took the air out of us': UM's Isaiah Livers returns, only to suffer another injury

"He's been good. He's working hard to get back now,” Teske said when asked how Livers has handled the setback. “It's just unfortunate that he came back and something like that had to happen again. It's part of basketball, but it's next person up and Brandon (Johns Jr.) has done a tremendous job so far. He's going to keep doing a good job of filling that void of where Isaiah would be.

“(Livers) is still talking to us constantly and encouraging us. We have to encourage him too because he's at a low point right now and to not be able to play is very difficult for him. We've got to encourage him as well.”

According to Teske, the team practiced on Sunday, but the starters — including Livers — didn’t do much besides put up shots due to the two-day prep.

Howard said Livers is “day-to-day” and is “getting better.” But when asked if Livers is dealing with another groin injury, Howard didn’t provide any specifics.

“Well, it's a day-to-day injury, so we just pray that he gets healthy soon,” Howard said.

Michigan at Nebraska

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Nebraska

TV/radio: ESPNU/950

Records: Michigan 11-8, 2-6 Big Ten; Nebraska 7-13, 2-7

Outlook: Michigan is 0-5 in true road games this season. The Wolverines are 10-1 against Nebraska since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten…Nebraska has lost five straight and is 5-5 at home this season. The Cornhuskers are last in the conference in free-throw shooting (60.1 percent) and are led by sophomore guard Cam Mack (13.3 points, 6.7 assists).


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins