Seemingly, everyone in the basketball community formed a connection with Kobe Bryant, and Mike Hopkins is no different.
The Washington Huskies coach still gets emotional retelling stories of the Los Angeles Lakers great in the wake of Sunday’s helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. that claimed the life of the 41-year-old Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people.
Add Hopkins to a countless collection of those who were impacted and influenced by the NBA legend.
Tales of Bryant’s work ethic and his unrelenting drive to improve himself have become folklore, but Hopkins got a chance to witness it firsthand on a day “that was the greatest moment in my life in basketball.”
It was 2012 and Hopkins, then a Syracuse assistant, was named co-coach of the USA Basketball Select team that helped Team USA prepare for the London Olympics.
During a practice in Washington D.C., Hopkins ran Kevin Durant through a shooting drill while several players worked out at the other end of the court.
“I’m done, practice is over (and) I get a tap on the back of my shoulder and I look and it’s Kobe Bryant,” Hopkins said. “He says, do you want to do some of that mid-post stuff that you were doing over there with those guys? I felt like I had just met Eddie Vedder, kind of speechless. I go alright.
“So he goes to the elbow and I pass him the ball and he does his patented jab series, shot. I don’t know him, so I don’t know … you don’t work them out. You take them through their workout. So I take the ball and I throw it in and he goes and shoots again. With a serious look he goes, are you going to play any defense? I said do you want me to play defense? He goes, I want you to play defense.”
And that’s when Hopkins’ has his Kobe moment, when the legendary Los Angeles Lakers guard flashes his infamous steely-eyed gaze and morphs into Black Mamba mode.
It’s Kobe, one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, doing Kobe things. He’s drilling fade-away shots, banking mid-range jumpers and trash talking the whole time.
But Hopkins, who once broke his nose and suffered two black eyes during a similar drill with the Huskies, doesn’t back down.
“I get him the ball and now I’m in him,” he said. “He’s going like this and I’m hitting him on the arm and Russell (Westbrook) is over there on the side going, ‘Get in him Hop!’
“(Bryant) starts talking like ‘Don’t you watch YouTube?’ We’re going back and forth. He said something and I was like don’t you know I was the best caucasian defender in the history of the Big East?”
This goes on for over an hour. Hopkins and Kobe, both drenched in sweat, are locked into a 1-on-1 battle between two tireless gym rats who love basketball and the pursuit it takes to be great.
“It was like this game of having fun, like you’re on the playground,” Hopkins said. “He’s doing it and I’m watching this guy, his focus on his footwork and working on something and his competitive nature.
“Then he got to the mid and he started doing the patented two-dribble baseline fadeaway. So I’m watching his footwork and how he’s working. It’s precise. He had media waiting and he wouldn’t stop. They were like Kobe you’ve got to go and he’s like no. And we’re going and it’s full sweat. He wouldn’t leave. We were there for an hour and a half. People were filming it.”
After their workout, Hopkins asked Bryant if he would meet his young son Griff and the Lakers star posed for a picture that Hopkins calls “a treasure.”
“We just pulled out the picture because it’s kind of emotional when you see it,” Hopkins said.
For a hoops connoisseur like Hopkins, that day eight years ago in Washington D.C., is one that he’ll never forget.
“Because you’re with a legend and you’re working with somebody and you’re getting to see him and his art,” he said. “I got to see Picasso do what for an hour and a half? So that was pretty special.
“Seeing the type of person he was and the impact he made was pretty special.”
Note: Before Thursday’s game between Washington and Arizona, there will have a nine-second moment of silence at Alaska Airlines Arena to pay homage to the nine victims who died Sunday in the helicopter crash near Los Angeles.