At U.C. Irvine, to Honor Kobe Bryant Is to Win

At U.C. Irvine, to Honor Kobe Bryant Is to Win


LOS ANGELES — In the weeks since Kobe Bryant’s death, the sprawl of Los Angeles has been covered in murals of the longtime Laker. It would be hard to find a local basketball court without a player wearing a Kobe jersey. Flowers, candles and other tributes have piled up outside Staples Center.

As the city prepared for a memorial service on Monday to celebrate the lives of Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who were among nine people killed last month when their helicopter crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, Calif., many were finding the most meaningful tributes to be the ones on the court.

That is especially true for a team that was close to him: the Anteaters from the University of California, Irvine.

The university’s Bren Events Center, a 10-minute drive from Bryant’s home, became an unexpected training ground for the player in 2007, thanks to the coordination of Ryan Badrtalei, who was then the director of basketball operations.

During the Lakers’ off-season, Bryant would train with Badrtalei, who became a member of his inner circle. “If you worked with him, he would wear you out,” Badrtalei said. “I took pride in that, bouncing back every day and being back every day. There’s a lot of people that came and went.”

A number of venues in Orange County, where Bryant lived and was frequently spotted at restaurants, stores and movie theaters, have organized gatherings so Bryant’s community members can watch the memorial service together. The city of Santa Ana is hosting one at city hall. The city of Irvine plans to show the service at a soccer stadium that seats 2,500.

It wasn’t unusual to see Bryant, an icon for players in college basketball, training alongside players from the N.C.A.A. Division I team.

The team took it in stride. “Kobe is a hero to everybody for the way he’s elevated the Lakers, and everybody here respects that,” the team’s coach, Russell Turner, said. “We showed that respect in large part by letting him do his own thing. He was comfortable here around us, and I feel good that we provided that environment for him.”

From 2007 to 2013, the Bren Center was Bryant’s off-season home. He was relentless, Badrtalei said, to the point that off-season almost sounded like an oxymoron. “I can honestly say there wasn’t a day where he gave a half effort,” Badrtalei said. “That was his approach every single day of every off-season: ‘What can I do to get better? How can I do more to continue to evolve?’”

Badrtalei, too, was relentless. He became the assistant coach of the Anteaters in 2009 as his relationship with Bryant deepened. “Being around him, not wanting to let him down, kept that drive going,” he said.

One of the last texts Badrtalei sent to Bryant was about that persistent mentality. While listening to an interview with Bryant, Badrtalei realized he could predict every answer. “I said: ‘Man, I can’t believe how much you have impacted my thought process. Every question they asked, I kind of knew the answer.’ I know how he thinks and how it’s shaped the way I think in terms of my approach to training and competition.”

“And that’s unfortunate for everybody I’ll be coaching — they’ll feel that,” he added, laughing.

It was evident on the court Saturday night when Turner and Badrtalei led the Anteaters against California State University, Northridge. The Anteaters are in their championship push with hopes of an N.C.A.A. berth, and it shows.

At one point in the game, the Anteaters were leading by 32 points. But they were playing with an intensity as if the score were reversed, their coaches shouting as if the N.C.A.A. championship were on the line.

Most of this year’s squad did not interact with Bryant as much as some previous teams. In 2013, after Bryant ruptured his Achilles’ tendon, his off-season became dedicated to rehabilitation. His time at the Bren Center became sporadic, and he retired three years later.

But his relationship with U.C. Irvine remained strong, and the Anteaters intend to honor him the best way they know how: on the court. The Anteaters won their game on Saturday, 87-64, to improve to 19-10. They are 11-2 in the Big West Conference.

“I don’t think there’s anything better we can do to honor the legacy of Kobe than trying to compete at our highest level,” Turner said. “Our players see that as the responsibility that comes with feeling connected with Kobe, with the Mamba mentality.”



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