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CU Buffs react to sudden passing of Kobe Bryant

McKinley Wright IV among several Buffs to cite former Lakers’ star as major influence

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It was the first workout after the team’s first Pac-12 Conference sweep of the season, on a day that witnessed a slight uptick in the national rankings.

Nevertheless, as it was for the entire basketball world, Monday was a somber day for the Colorado Buffaloes.

Colorado's McKinley Wright IV drives past ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV, right, had deep emotions Monday upon reflecting on the death of former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. CU travels to play the Los Angeles schools this week in Pac-12 Conference play, beginning Thursday night.

The sudden and tragic death of former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant on Sunday in a helicopter crash rocked the basketball world, and the Buffs were no different. A few CU players, like Lucas Siewert and Evan Battey, have backgrounds in Southern California, and several Buffs players posted messages on Twitter Sunday as news broke of the crash.

“My biggest role model,” point guard McKinley Wright IV said on Twitter, adding: “The reason I started playing.”

On Monday, CU head coach Tad Boyle and his players expounded on what Bryant meant to their sport, as well as the individual influence Bryant provided for Buffs players and so many countless others. Wright was particularly pensive, as his official CU Buffs biography page cites Bryant as one of his idols, and Wright expressed some emotion at knowing his bucket-list item of meeting Bryant and shaking his hand will never never get crossed off.

“It was a very devastating day. Kobe is the reason I picked up a basketball,” Wright said. “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t even know if I’d be here today. I don’t know if I’d be chasing my dreams still. He’s done so much for me. Just that Mamba mentality — never giving up no matter what the situation is. It sucks, because my bucket list was to just meet Kobe Bryant. Just to get a handshake or a picture. He’s gone and it’s hard. I just pray for his family, the rest of his kids and his parents. I can’t imagine what they’re going through.

“Guys like myself, Evan, Shane (Gatling), we had a very emotional day yesterday. Shed a lot of tears. So I can only imagine what (the family) is going through. My body is getting numb just talking about it.”

In an odd coincidence of timing, the Buffs are preparing for a basketball business trip in Los Angeles likely to be an emotional one at both venues, beginning with Thursday’s date at UCLA (9 p.m. MT, ESPN2). On Monday, the Buffs moved up three spots to No. 20 in the AP Top 25, matching their highest ranking of the season, and CU also began the week at No. 17 in the NET rankings and No. 19 at KenPom.com.

After Monday’s practice, Boyle spoke of trying to get his team to channel their emotions as fuel. Bryant was one of the players Siewert admired from afar during his childhood in Brazil. Bryant is the reason sophomore guard Eli Parquet wears No. 24. And Wright recalled how last year he kept thinking of how Bryant once shot two free throws after tearing his Achilles tendon to find inspiration as he played through a shoulder injury last year that required offseason surgery.

Boyle explained that Bryant still can be an inspiration as the Buffs seek a pair of strong showings in the former Lakers star’s adopted home town.

“We talked about it before practice today, for sure,” Boyle said. “Our thought for today was ‘Be thankful for every day.’ There’s no doubt that was appropriate with what went down yesterday with Kobe and his daughter. It just took the whole world obviously by surprise. Unexplainable. To have your players, they’re definitely affected by it. They looked up to that guy. Had posters of them and he’s a guy they idolized. It was a tough day for them.

“I told our players the two things about Kobe Bryant that are unquestioned were his love of the game and his competitiveness. If we want to honor him, that’s how we’ve got to play. Play like we love the game and be thankful we have a chance to play the game that we love. And do it at a high, high level in terms of our competitiveness.”