Hopi basketball coach JJ Jones and his Natives With Talent club basketball players are probably the only ones in Indian Country to have bragging rights against NBA Legend Kobe Bean Bryant on the basketball court.
Bryant, a long-time player for the Los Angeles Lakers, died suddenly on Jan. 26 as a result of a helicopter crash in Southern California. He was 41. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna also died in the crash, along with seven others; Ara Zobayan, Christina Mauser, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester and Payton Chester. Federal authorities continue to investigate the Sikorsky S-76 chopper crash. The crash happened shortly after 9 a.m. PST when it slammed into the side of a hill in Calabasas, California, according to multiple reports. Thick fog was reported in the area.
[Related: Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash]
Gianna had already made a name for herself in youth basketball circles for her talent and had been attending NBA games with her dad. The chopper was reportedly headed to a youth basketball event.
The tragic crash sheds light on one of Kobe’s priorities in his post-NBA days. He often traveled across the country, coaching Gianna and her team in club basketball tournaments.
Kobe and Gianna got a taste of rez ball in one of their 2019 travels.
Back on May 18, 2019 at the PHHacility basketball venue in downtown Phoenix, Jones and his 15-U squad, an intertribal team based in the Phoenix area known simply as NWT, took the court in a tournament against Gianna’s team and beat them by six points. Gianna was the team’s point guard.
With Kobe barking out plays to his team, Jones was down the sideline coaching, delivering basketball plays to his team, including his daughter Nyese, one of the team captains.
“It was awesome for the girls,” Jones recalled. “Everyone knows Kobe. It was an amazing feeling to coach against him.”
A chance to play against Kobe’s team wasn’t a given in the tournament and when Jones found out he got the match-up all teams wanted, he told his team and everyone was excited. The team is 95 percent Native, Jones said, and includes Navajo, Hopi, O’odham from Salt River and Gila River and Apache players.
Jones said Kobe didn’t say much before, during or after the game beyond his coaching to his team. After the win, NWT shook hands with Kobe and his team and with the small gym being packed and smartphone cameras everywhere, Kobe politely declined a photo request from the team.
“The girls were excited to shake his hand,” Jones said.
However, one of the NWT players got Kobe to speak before the game, though just briefly. The team was warming up in front of Kobe’s team bench. Jones said one of the girls was wearing Kobe’s signature Nike shoes and asked if he liked them and Kobe said, “Yes, I do.”
NWT finished 4-0 in the tournament and first in its division. Jones said his club team is often recognized as one of the top clubs in Arizona. The club’s season is from March to October. Jones said all his players from last year made the varsity team this winter at their respective high school.
“Coaching against Kobe, it’s an experience I’ll never forget,” Jones said.
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On social media, many in Indian Country shared their memories of Kobe.
L.a. Williams, Navajo, shared an old photo of her and Kobe on Facebook not long after learning about his death. In less than 24 hours, the public post had 1,200 Likes, 34 comments and more than 300 shares. In the post, she thanked Bryant for the memories.
Williams’ photo was taken after the Phoenix Suns hosted the Lakers in Bryant’s second NBA season. Bryant was drafted straight out of high school into the NBA in 1996. Williams was broadcasting the game for KTNN, a Navajo language radio station on the Navajo Nation. Williams interviewed Bryant for about 10 minutes. Bryant, who has roots in Italy and spoke Italian and other languages, talked about language with Williams and said the Navajo language was “really unique,” Williams said.
After the interview, Williams said she asked Bryant to do a radio promo she could use for KTNN. Bryant said he couldn’t and said to take a photo instead. Williams said she still had the recording tucked away on cassette and wanted to sit down one day and find it in her archives. “Everybody sought him out, the whole NBA broadcasters, they wanted to get an interview with him to see what he’s all about,” Williams recalled.
On Instagram, the Native American Basketball Invitational Foundation, one of Indian Country’s premier basketball tournaments, posted an image of Bryant with the words, “Legends Never Die.”
“The #basketball world lost one of the greatest players to ever play the game. @KobeBryant was an inspiration to millions around the world,” the Instagram post read. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Bryant family and to all of the families who lost loved ones in this tragedy.”
On her public Instagram page, Nike N7 Ambassador and runner Alvina Begay posted two photos of Bryant visiting the Nike campus in Oregon a few years ago. She said she was shocked to learn of Bryant’s death.
In a tweet on Jan. 26, the Pechanga Resort Casino in California posted an undated photo of Bryant in a Lakers practice jersey at the Pechanga Recreation Center in Temecula, California.
“The Pechanga family mourns the loss of Lakers Legend, Kobe Bryant and his daughter. Kobe visited Pechanga several times with the Lakers to raise funds for the Lakers Youth Foundation and practiced as a team at the Pechanga recreation center, inspiring our youth as he did for fans globally,” according to the tweet. The casino shared a similar message on its Facebook page.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. He had many Navajo fans who cheered him on throughout his career. Thank you for the many great memories. Ahe’hee,” tweeted Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
“Basketball is deeply embedded in Indian Country,” tweeted Dr. Twyla Baker. “I come from a basketball family, and so many of my memories are tied to it. If you’re feeling this loss, you’re not alone, family. #RIPKobeBryant.”
Others on Facebook shared their Bryant memories.
“I know people might think it’s silly to mourn a celebrity but man, this one really hurts!” Amanda Eve said. “Basketball was my solace like so many other kids who grew up on the rez, and so much of my life consisted of arguments about Kobe, admiring his game, playing basketball outside with the neighborhood kids (always the Kobe fans versus everyone else) until the sun went down and then, as I got older, watching my little brothers emulate his game and aspire to his greatness in every level of their lives. More recently, it was his support of the women’s game and his relationships with his daughters that really made me love him. I had a whole day planned out but now all I want to do is cry and watch basketball.”
“As a man that was a presence throughout my entire life, his death is a reminder of my own mortality,” Sasha Strong said. “I can’t condone his past, but I can be reminded of just how human I am.”
“I was such a huge Michael Jordan fan growing up. He was my hero,” Joseph Nayquonabe said. “I saw Kobe’s ascension into MJ’s shoes as an attack on the greatest of all-time and I couldn’t bring myself to be a fan of that. He was the anti-hero. The Dark Knight. He was doing great things for basketball but I just couldn’t cheer for him because he was attempting to replace my idol. Like a step-dad moving in, I just couldn’t accept him. As his career built I looked back and said, ‘Dammit, I wish I would’ve appreciated what he meant to the game more than I had.’ I think that even more today. Part of me embracing LeBron James has to do with that. I didn’t want to miss out on greatness once again.”
“Kobe and Allen Iverson (AI) were drafted to the NBA the same year (1996) and AI was to influence the next generation after Michael Jordan,” David Northbird said. “AI had a good career, but Kobe outlasted him and had the biggest influence during their era. He was dedicated to winning and out worked everyone by being mentally and physically fit. Kobe studied his opponents, practiced hard and I hope we all can remember him saying, ‘shoot 1,000 shots a day.’ I also hope the future generations take note. I’ve been a LA Lakers fan since 1983, and we all know him to be ‘The Greatest Lakers of all Time.’”