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News of Kobe Bryant’s death turns a day of celebration into one of mourning at Williams Arena

MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers coach Richard Pitino and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo learned that former Lakers star Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash in California moments before their teams tipped off Sunday afternoon at Williams Arena.

Both coaches elected not share the tragic news until after the game. Following Michigan State’s 70-52 victory, Pitino and Izzo both acknowledged their players were extremely shaken after being told the basketball legend was dead at the age of 41. By that time, we also had learned that Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, also was aboard the helicopter, along with seven others.

“Our players are devastated,” Izzo said. “I got a chance to meet (Bryant) a couple of times because of Magic (Johnson, the former Lakers and Michigan State star) but my players didn’t know him. I would just like to say how sad I am for his family. He kind of stood for everything I believe in. He was, according to Ervin, the hardest working guy in America. He had all the talent, all the money. It makes you appreciate and understand that life is sometimes too short and (we should) live every day.”

Here’s video of Izzo informing guard Cassius Winston of Bryant’s death after the game.

Pitino said that when he did tells his players about the tragedy that it left them shook up and that Daniel Oturu — a humongous Bryant fan, according to Pitino — was “in tears and rocked by it.”

“(We) heard about it right after the game and, honestly, it’s devastating as well, it’s real sad,” Gophers guard Marcus Carr said. “He’s a person that we all looked up (to), that we grew up watching, that helped us love the game. Yeah, it’s devastating.”

Pitino agreed.

“I don’t normally get affected by people I don’t know … but that one … that’s a hard one and it keeps it in perspective for us all,” he said. “Obviously, his daughter, and I know there were others (on the helicopter) as well. … We played like crap (Sunday), but I’m going to go hug my kids and my wife. It’s devastating. For whatever reason it just feels like it hits home, maybe (because of) basketball. That’s a guy that I loved just the way that he was embracing his new life outside of basketball, educating. It seemed like he was really involved with his kids so really, really devastating.”

Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, had four daughters.

Sunday was supposed to be a day of celebration at Williams Arena as the Gophers retired the No. 34 once worn by Willie Burton. While the celebration went on, those who knew of Bryant’s death certainly took a moment to reflect. That included Burton, who thought of saying something about Bryant during the halftime ceremony to honor him, but decided that wasn’t the right place to do so.

Burton, who spoke to the media afterward, eventually talked about Bryant and said there was a time the two frequently worked together.

“I worked out with Kobe Bryant every day when I was with the Philadelphia 76ers,” said Burton, who played for the Sixers during the 1994-95 season. “He was in high school. Every day I worked out with him. He had the same aggression as a high schooler that he had in his 16th year. To hear and see something like that (tragedy) … there were a lot of thoughts going through my head on what to say and how to do it. It was more or less, just be appreciative of what’s happening around you. Just take this all in because tomorrow is really not promised.”

Asked what lessons can be learned from how Bryant approached his craft, Burton said:

“Have passion for what you do. He, like me, started creating programs for kids. Have passion for what you do, whatever it is you do and it will mean something to you to improve. If you’re just involved in something to be a part of it and it has no meaning to you than you may not get better at it. Something you’re passionate about, when you lose it will affect you. You tend to question yourself and question others around you. Take a look at yourself and say, ‘What can I do to improve?’ Or ask the question of whoever you’re working with. No matter what it is. Be passionate about it.”


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