Aaron McKie knew Kobe Bryant as a teammate. Tai Strickland knew him as someone his father played against.
On Tuesday, the head men’s basketball coach and the sophomore guard reflected on Bryant’s sudden death in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
Strickland’s father, Rod Strickland, played against Bryant during the final 13 years of his NBA career. Tai Strickland met Bryant “once or twice” when he was in middle school, he said.
Sunday night, he posted a photo from one of those meetings on his Instagram story.
“That was probably one of the best days of my life, I’m not gonna lie,” Tai Strickland said. Seeing his father interact with Bryant stuck with him, he added.
Rod Strickland would tell his son about playing against Bryant, Tai Strickland said.
“He always told me, ‘You need to watch him,’” Tai Strickland said. “‘You need to follow what he does. He’s special.’”
Tai Strickland said his father doesn’t look up to many people, but he looked up to Bryant.
When he read the news of Bryant’s death, Tai Strickland cried. Then he went to the gym.
“I kinda sat there for like 30 minutes with the ball and I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Somebody I’ve looked up to my whole life is gone. And it’s like, this is what I wanted to do, this is what he did. And this is probably what, if I really had known him, this is what he’d want me to do.”
McKie played alongside Bryant for two seasons. Before their NBA careers, the two would play against each other in junior high school, McKie said.
“In Philadelphia, we all grew up playing in the Sonny Hill League, so you pretty much knew about everybody that came through the city and was a pretty good basketball player,” McKie said. “He would come up and play basketball with us, and we saw right away he was gonna be a pretty good basketball player.”
McKie said he matched up against Bryant “a lot” when they played against each other. He was Bryant’s teammate for the final two years of McKie’s NBA playing career.
“I just got to see the inside of him,” McKie said. “You heard about the legendary workouts, and how he took care of his mind and how he took care of his body. And I got a chance to see it from the inside, and everything about it was true.”
The basketball team practiced Monday, the day after Bryant’s death.
McKie said he talked with his team about their idols and what Bryant meant to them.
“For us, being in the sports world, or being fans, when you love the game, when you really like somebody as a player and you like their work, you selfishly say you want them to be around forever,” McKie said. “Unfortunately that’s not going to happen in his case.”
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