Joe de Vera couldn’t help but notice the composure coming from Kobe Bryant’s bench.
On Court 4 inside the Mamba Sports Academy on Jan. 25, the Black Mamba himself was coaching his daughter Gianna’s eighth-grade club team.
A guest coach on the opposing team, de Vera had only heard stories of the man whose motivational tactics had become the stuff of myth, whose emotions were plastered on his sleeve for the better part of a 20-year career with the Lakers.
But what de Vera saw that day was something different: The five-time NBA champion wore a black tracksuit and earnest grin. Even as a close game came down to the wire, he hardly stood up and never came close to a shout. While the hundreds of spectators huddled around the hardwood got riled up, Bryant remained relaxed.
“He was calm,” de Vera said. “He was positive. He didn’t yell at the ref. He might have questioned one of the calls, but he did it in a respectful way. He was an example of how people should be at an event. It was astounding to me.”
Less than 24 hours later, Bryant and Gianna were among the nine people — including fellow coach Christine Mauser, two other teammates and their family members — killed when a helicopter that was bringing them back to the academy in Thousand Oaks crashed into a Calabasas hillside.
In the days since, the sports world has mourned. The NBA’s biggest stars have been crushed. The eight remaining players on Gianna’s team have been devastated. Even the visiting coach who had only known Bryant for one afternoon was in disbelief.
“I met him for 30 seconds, and I’m freaking crying right now,” De Vera said by phone the day after the crash, his voice cracking. “The metaphysical nature of just how life is, I’m a little bit shaken up.”
He had just seen Bryant after all, a superstar who was still immersed in the sport he loved, who in the last game of his life looked perfectly at peace.
In an interview with the Associated Press in October 2018, Bryant named author George R.R. Martin of all people when listing his various coaching inspirations. Bryant had wondered why so many of the protagonists’ parents perished in Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. When Bryant finally crossed paths with Martin in 2017, he asked.
The answer: “They either have to die or be a part of the problem.”
Bryant then expounded: “It’s a terrible analogy, but bear with me. As parents of young athletes and coaches, if we are constantly providing the answer for them, they will not be able to problem solve on their own. Give them the tools to go out and finish.”
With Team Mamba, Bryant did just that.
“For adults, it’s important for us to get out of the way,” he said. “Sometimes the most important thing to do is to just observe. You just watch and then you can guide.”
Alongside Mauser, Bryant helped build the club squad over the last several years, assembling a roster that included his daughter (nicknamed Gigi); the children of a former NBA player (Zach Randolph’s daughter MacKenly), a local college baseball coach (Orange Coast College coach John Altobelli’s youngest of three, Alyssa), a former Costa Mesa mayor (Jim Righeimer’s daughter Kat); and other promising middle-school players from around Orange County.
Even amid all his business ventures, Bryant’s dedication to the team ran deep.
“The girls practice 7 days a week,” Jim Righeimer wrote in a Facebook post in October 2019. “That’s Mamba Mentality. Three years ago they were a [National Junior Basketball] local team. Now they are one of the best 8th grade teams in the country. Thanks Kobe.”
As a coach, Bryant tested his players. Occasionally, he scheduled scrimmages against high school-age club teams. In games, he often declined to utilize press breaks against full-court pressure or call for double-teams to negate defensive mismatches. He wanted his group to grapple with such challenges on its own. He saw it as the best way for them to grow.
“He wanted his kids to be challenged,” said James Parker, a friend of Bryant who coaches the girls’ basketball team at Pacifica Christian High in Newport Beach and club squads for local Nike program Cal Swish. “He was more about promoting, encouraging, letting them make mistakes, letting them feel like it was OK to make mistakes, and letting them figure it out.”
Bryant often talked with Parker about his lofty goals for the team. He wanted them to compete on the national 16-and-under circuit, two years above their age group, and reach Nike’s national championship tournament.
But he also wanted to guide them there with care and comfort, to coach them with a calm head and cool demeanor. Those in the local girls’ basketball community who saw him noticed. He was no longer the fierce, unforgiving player. Kobe the coach led with compassion and composure.
“He cared about the kids,” said Todd Harrell, who coached three of Bryant’s players on Team Mamba, including Altobelli, on the Ensign Intermediate School team. “That’s what struck me the most. It wasn’t just his daughter on the team. He had 10 [other] daughters on that team, girls that he cared about.”
Like Parker, Mo Hines didn’t meet Bryant until the future Hall of Famer’s post-playing days. Hines coaches a middle-school club team in Seattle called Tree of Hope that squared off against Bryant’s team twice in 2018. Hines’ team won both times. An impressed Bryant befriended him in the process.
“Hearing that Kobe Bryant likes the way that you coach, or the way your team plays, you’re like, ‘What?’” said Hines, a former assistant on Washington State’s women’s basketball team and long-time youth coach in Washington.
Eager to test his roster again, Bryant urged Hines to travel to the Mamba Cup event in Thousand Oaks. Hines agreed and invited his friend De Vera, a girls’ club coach in Idaho who was already in Los Angeles on business, to help. Together, they patrolled the bench opposite Bryant’s for the rematch on Jan. 25.
This time, Team Mamba got its revenge.
Gigi scored five points. Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, the other two players who died in the crash, added eight and four, respectively. Randolph had a game-high 14. As his team held on for a 35-29 win, Bryant watched on with quiet admiration.
“He was so cool and calm, man,” Hines said. “He would hop up and call a timeout at times, but he was cool. He allowed his girls to just play, to have fun, to be very confident in themselves.”
It was who Bryant had become in retirement. He was still a motivator, but adopted more measured methods. In a recent interview with The Times’ Bill Plaschke, Bryant described himself as “Gandalf-ish,” likening his style to the sage character from “The Lord of the Rings.” Those who watched him coolly command a sideline concurred.
“Very calm demeanor, rarely raised his voice,” Parker said. “This was his philosophy, and he said this before: ‘If I’m having to get on my kids, yell at my kids during a game, I’m not doing my job during practice.’”
Said Hines: “He was always learning. He knew his kids were always learning after every game. I think that’s why they ended up getting better. When we played them that first time, we were way better than them. … Then we came back in October, they were significantly better. … [This weekend], they were one of the best.”
Before Bryant left the gym on Jan. 25, he ran into Parker, who had watched the game from a balcony. Parker congratulated Bryant and bumped his fist. Bryant said they’d catch up more the next day. Then, he walked away to celebrate with his team.
In the several years he had known Bryant, Parker had never seen him on such a high. Even in his more matured stage, Bryant still loved to win.
“He had an aura about him like he was walking on top of the world,” Parker said. “It felt like Mamba Sports Academy was his kingdom. And he was the king. He walked around up on that balcony, like this was a world he was building. Club basketball, girls basketball — he was going to take it to the next level. This was his baby.”
The first thing Parker did on Jan. 26 was send a text to Bryant.
After Bryant had returned to Orange County the previous afternoon, Parker stayed in Thousand Oaks and watched Team Mamba’s next opponent, which was coached by former NBA player Jason Terry.
Bryant wanted to know what to expect. Parker passed along a scouting report: They were big and physical, and would create tricky matchups on defense. Bryant, likely in a hurry, Parker guessed, responded with a quick, “K.”
That was a little after 8:30 a.m. Barely an hour later, Bryant’s helicopter crashed.
Before long, word started to filter through the gym.
You could hear people quietly crying. You could hear people saying, ‘No. No. No.’
The first signs of distress came around 11:30 a.m. Fans had already begun gathering around Court 4, where Team Mamba was scheduled to tip off at noon when an assistant coach in the preceding game was seen looking at his phone. He showed his head coach, who then called over an official.
“The referee immediately called the game,” said Eric Rosenthal, a local high school assistant coach who was at the tournament with his two younger brothers, one of whom was playing. “Then they called all the games. It was silence for a couple of seconds, everywhere.”
On the other side of the gym, Parker was watching Hines’ Tree of Hope team when the action came to a halt. At first, he refused to believe Bryant had actually died. Then, he learned how.
“I started walking over there, and that’s when I heard somebody say, ‘Kobe got in a helicopter crash,’” Parker said. “Knowing how Kobe gets back and forth, that’s when my heart sank.”
Within minutes, the shock receded. The pain set in.
“The gym just got quiet,” Parker said. “You could hear people quietly crying. You could hear people saying, ‘No. No. No.’ Finally, someone speaks up and says, ‘Will everybody kneel and bow your heads so we can pray.’”
Breathing heavy and on the verge of physically shaking, Parker ran back upstairs, where the day before he had seen Bryant at his best. Now, he walked past the conference room where Team Mamba’s players were trying to cope with the worst.
“My brothers said they could hear the screaming and crying coming out of the room,” Rosenthal said. “It was like nothing they’ve ever heard.”
What comes next for Team Mamba is unclear.
Parker had joined some of the families of Team Mamba players for dinner at a Thousand Oaks steakhouse the night before the crash (most of the team stayed in hotels near the gym, Parker said), where they quizzed the experienced club coach on what could lie ahead if they reached the national circuit.
They had asked about prominent programs they might face and which tournament sites had the best hotels. They were looking forward to a future together, united under Bryant’s leadership.
Now, Parker simply wants to make sure Bryant’s impact on the local basketball community will live on.
“He planted a seed, he showed us how it could be done, and we’ve got to carry it through,” Parker said. “We’ve got to pay it forward. Somehow, some way, we have got to continue to grow the game and we’ve got to continue to support this game and these young ladies. It’s our job to carry it through.”