UCLA forward Jalen Hill could see it in the body language on display outside Matthew Knight Arena. It was everywhere he looked, in the downed heads, slumped shoulders, grim faces.
It was one thing for players who modeled their games after Kobe Bryant to be shattered by news of the Lakers legend’s sudden death Sunday morning, but observing the devastation in fans outside the building made Hill realize just how deeply Bryant had impacted the basketball world.
“You could tell it was just a different aura, a different vibe around the whole stadium,” Hill said after the Bruins lost to No. 12 Oregon, 97-75. “That’s monumental, like Kobe Bryant had that affect on everybody; everybody looked up to him. It’s disbelief, really. It’s really sad.”
All Hill had to do to remind himself of Bryant’s impact on his life was to look down at his jersey. Hill picked No. 24 in honor of the player whose dogged approach he wanted to replicate.
“That’s why I wear 24 here, because of him,” Hill said after scoring 16 points on five-for-seven shooting to go with eight rebounds, two steals, two assists and one block. “Not because of him as a player but just his mentality and I try to carry that into my game.”
“It’s tough,” Hill said. “I mean, people deal with grief differently. I just wanted to go out and play as hard as I could. A lot of people looked up to him and it’s sad and the basketball world is going to feel that for a long time.”
UCLA coach Mick Cronin had a Bryant connection, having coached him in 1996 when Bryant was a prep phenom participating in Magic’s Roundball Classic, an all-star game involving some of the nation’s top players. It was the final appearance at the high school level for both the coach and player; Cronin would embark on his college career as a Cincinnati assistant and Bryant would soon be drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Lakers.
“Every day is not promised,” Cronin said. “Tomorrow is not promised. I think the whole basketball world is shook up right now and doesn’t know what to say.”
The news hit Cronin especially hard because like Bryant, he has a teenage daughter.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Cronin said.
Oregon paid homage to Bryant before the game with a scoreboard video tribute. One Ducks fan seated in the student section wore a No. 24 Bryant jersey.
Former UCLA point guard Earl Watson suggested on Twitter that the Bruins should hang both of Bryant’s jersey numbers, 8 and 24, in the rafters at Pauley Pavilion as thanks for his contributions to the program.
“Without Kobe’s presence on campus during the summers/off-seasons most of [UCLA’s] success & recruits would have been obsolete!” Watson wrote. “Yes coach [John] Wooden was impactful but we came to compete against Kobe in the summers! Pay homage.”
UCLA guard Jake Kyman said the Bruins had to push their sadness aside to play the Ducks, something Kyman largely succeeded at while making seven of 11 shots and finishing with 20 points.
“I’ve always been watching him and trying to model my game after him with midrange and just shooting and everything, so it really took a hard toll with me,” Kyman said. “He’s my favorite player; I think he’s the GOAT. So it was a struggle, but I had to get my mind in the right headspace for the game and then think about it later.”