Natives of West Virginia are well aware “Mountain State connections” always seem to be present in national sports stories. It’s true so often, in fact, many joke about the phenomenon.
But on this day no one is joking about those connections. No one is smiling.
In fact, Jerry West, our favorite sports son, has been weeping.
His pain was on full display.
The reason: His protégé, Kobe Bryant, was one of nine that tragically died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. It was West who deftly managed to trade for Bryant in 1996 after the Charlotte Hornets selected him 13thoverall. It was West who gave up center Vlade Divac, signed Shaquille O’Neal and created an NBA superpower. It was West who mentored Bryant.
But West was not the only West Virginian influential in Bryant’s much-too-short life. See, the former superstar grew up in Italy before moving to Philadelphia. He followed state native Mike D’Antoni, a former hoops star in Milan and current Houston Rockets coach, so intently many believed Bryant wore No. 8 because of the Mullens native. In 2008, he debunked the rumor, but said, “I love Mike. Mike’s my man.” When D’Antoni took over the Lakers in 2012, Bryant called the coach “an offensive genius.” Both D’Antoni and his brother Dan, now the head coach at Marshall, coached the star and Lakers. That didn’t work out, but Mike D’Antoni was certainly an influence early in Bryant’s life.
Yet back to West — and the pain that was written all over his face during an interview with Michael Strahan, Robin Roberts and Tom Rinaldi on an ABC/ESPN special.
West told them at first he hoped the news of Bryant’s death was untrue.
“After that, it was really a retreat into the background – my association with him, helping him arrive here in Los Angeles, watching him grow as a player and being like a surrogate father for him,” West said. “When he was 17-years old, he couldn’t drive. My son Ryan used to drive him to practices. He’d never been on the 405 freeway. He’d never had that horrible experience.
“And then to start thinking of some of the intimate things I’d done to help him through the hurdles as a 17-year old kid trying to become an NBA player. To take that enormous talent he had and put it within a framework of helping the Lakers be successful for so many years…”
West paused, almost breaking down.
“One of the worst days of my life,” he continued. “The only thing I can compare it to is I had a brother killed in Korea. Devastated by this news.”
Again, you could see the pain. You could feel the pain. The face was red from crying. The tears were still in place, ready to fall.
West mentioned how Bryant had reinvented himself in the media. Then he went on.
“To see him with his young kids, his young daughters, the joy that was in their eyes looking at their father, who, obviously they loved, to the attention he paid to them, to getting involved promoting women’s basketball – this was a man for all seasons,” West said. “He was more than an iconic basketball player. He was someone who inspired millions of fans. Not here in this state [of California] or the United States, but all around the world – particularly in Asia. He was beloved.”
“He was like a pied piper. People would follow him everywhere just to look at him, to touch him, for him to say hello. For me, this is a God-awful day.”
Some will point to Bryant’s sexual assault case that was settled out of civil court. West, though, stuck with the star through all. He stuck with the talent and the person.
“I think you can see special talent in people. A lot of people have special talent – but they waste it or never use it… He didn’t ruin his opportunity. He was never going to give up.”
West said he saw the talent, the ability, way back before that first season. It was evident in a pro summer league game.
“My son just relayed a story to me today because he was there,” West said. “I think [Bryant] scored 29 points as a 17-year old kid. And after the game he said to my son, ‘Boy, that was really easy.’”
As for D’Antoni, he was asked in a press conference last night about the news.
“It was pretty somber before the game,” D’Antoni said of the Rockets’ locker room. “Devastating news. It shook guys a lot…. Just an unbelievable tragedy.”
He moved to personal feelings.
“He was one of the greatest players ever,” D’Antoni said. “An unbelievable competitor. Every accolade he got he earned. He just kept coming at you. There won’t be many like him that’s for sure.”
Especially in the tearful eyes of West. In the aforementioned interview, he started this sentence:
“He brought joy to so many young kids…”
Emotion then overtook him.
Indeed, on this day, no one is smiling because of this Mountain State connection.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.