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“I wanted to be Kobe”: Ole Miss, MSU women pay tribute to Kobe Bryant

Sitting to Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s right at the podium on Starkville on Sunday night was her young daughter. 

Moments like that press conference, after the Ole Miss women’s basketball team had just been routed 80-39 by Mississippi State, seemed at the time to be much, much more than just a basketball game. 

“Time is precious,” McPhee-McCuin said. “We sit around and take advantage of moments in which we could be around our family. That was a wake-up call for everybody. Hug your loved ones and keep things in perspective.” 

That perspective McPhee-McCuin was referencing, of course, was related to the Sunday passing of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant. At 41 years old, Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, died in a helicopter accident in Southern California on Saturday afternoon. They were headed to Gianna’s basketball game. 

Bryant’s accident came just hours before Ole Miss took the floor at Mississippi State for Sunday’s game. Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said he found out about Bryant’s passing as he left his house to head to Humphrey Coliseum for shoot around, giving him just minutes to formulate his message to the team. 

“Your first thing is, you’re just in shock,” Schaefer said. “Life is fleeting, y’all. You can’t take things for granted in today’s world. In life, we’re only guaranteed right now. Today. We’re not guaranteed tomorrow. It seems like there’s something like this that happens, and it really grabs you and grounds you and brings you back down to now and to what’s important and appreciating what you have, when you have it, right now.” 

For a generation of 18-to 22-year-old players, Bryant was just entering his prime when they were young. Winning five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, this generation remembers more the 2009 and 2010 titles than the prior three-peat earlier in the decade. 

But these coaches remember his career in its entirety. One of the first players to ever make the jump straight from high school to the NBA, Bryant became the first guard to ever play 20 years in the league. 

“I grew up in the Jordan era, and then Kobe came along. I wanted to be Kobe. Everybody wanted to be Kobe. It’s surreal,” McPhee-McCuin said. “That was tough. Really, I think if I were to elaborate more on his impact on the game, not just for the men’s side, but having a daughter. There were no words to expect the feelings that we all had.” 

Where Bryant’s lasting impact is first thought of on the court, most recently he’s been seen more as a father figure. Just weeks before his tragic passing, Bryant was spotted court-side at a game with his daughter, Gianna, explaining the game and coaching her. 

Bryant was one of the most polarizing figures in sports for decades. Regardless of love or vitriol, Bryant made everyone feel something. Known for his incessant drive to be the greatest and his often disdain for those who couldn’t measure up to that drive and work ethic, Bryant’s final moments were gentler. The final tweet the 41-year-old would ever send was to congratulate Lebron James for passing him on the all-time scoring list. The final three tweets he ever liked were in support of women’s basketball – a venue where were his legacy will always live on, and one that doesn’t go lost on the women’s coaches in the state of Mississippi. 

“You’re talking about one of the all-time great players. And he’s got a daughter and she’s playing. It’s such a tragedy and it hits on so many fronts. That’s a family that’s just, they’re not here anymore, just like that,” Schaefer said. “It’s a tragedy for someone who did so much for our game both as a player and an ambassador. He’s a great dad. I’ve seen him and his daughter together so many times at games. I don’t know the full story right now so I don’t know what they were doing, but they were together. That means something.”