FRESNO, California (KGPE) — As news of Kobe Bryant’s death spread, it sent shockwaves throughout Fresno’s basketball community. The pain felt especially in players who were at the Mamba Sports Academy when the news broke, and in women’s basketball coaches.
Over his 20-year career, Bryant has picked up many lifelong fans. 11-year-old NyLeigh Love Gregory of Fresno is one of them. She said she’s been watching him play since she was a baby.
“I went to a Lakers parade when I was a baby. I have signs, posters, everything,” she said.
She plays on the Fresno Lady Heat 14-under and 12-under teams. The 14-under one was scheduled to go against Mamba — the team 13-year-old Gianna Bryant plays on — in the Mamba Cup at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Instead of her dream match, Gregory got her worst nightmare. Both Kobe and Gianna died after the helicopter they were on crashed after leaving John Wayne Airport in Orange County a little after 9 a.m.
Seven others were on the helicopter as well, no one survived.
Gregory said when news spread at the tournament, many of the staff, coaches and players gathered in prayer.
“My mom was yelling, ‘Let’s pray!’ and then everybody got on their knees,” she said. “Starting praying for him and all the people that were on the plane.”
The team is coached by former Fresno State basketball player Demetrius Porter. Another team he coaches, EBO, also was at the Mamba Cup tournament — they met Kobe on Saturday.
Many coaches in the Central Valley will miss Kobe’s advocacy for women in sports. As recent as this last week, Kobe said women deserve to play in the NBA right now.
Heather Long, head coach of girls’ basketball at Clovis North High School, said having an icon like Kobe say that has made a difference.
“Just a couple things he’s always said [that I admired]: you get the best by watching professionals and women deserve to watch professionals in what they’re doing, too.”
Those messages are not lost on Gregory. She said Kobe has reinforced her belief that boys and girls are equal on the court.
“Girls can work as hard as boys. Girls can do whatever boys can do,” she said.
Craig Campbell, the head girls’ varsity basketball coach at Clovis West High School, said other NBA players will need to step up to fill the gap Kobe now leaves behind. He adds advocacy at the high school and college levels will also need to happen.