Missouri men's basketball forward Kobe Brown was in his apartment on a group video chat with friends when the news broke.
Aijha Blackwell was preparing for the MU women’s basketball game at Texas A&M when she first heard.
Both Tiger freshmen have long admired Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who died at 41 in a helicopter crash Sunday morning in California alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, an accomplished basketball player in her own right, and seven others.
Blackwell and Brown’s reverence for the soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee is clear. Brown was named after Bryant and wears No. 24 as a tribute. Blackwell has the Mamba logo, Bryant’s trademark, tattooed on her right forearm.
Blackwell wears No. 33, which she dons in honor of her late father and Missouri football alumnus Ernest Blackwell. Coincidentally, No. 33 was Bryant’s number at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
Blackwell first thought the reports of the crash were a joke, but as more news outlets confirmed the worst, reality set in.
“Right before the game, I just shed tears,” Blackwell said. “This is somebody I’ve been watching since I was little.
“... It was surreal, just hearing the news. It was crazy. As a kid just watching him, watching the way he moved, the way he played, the passion he played with, it was unmatched and like no other.”
As Blackwell drew back on her memories of watching Bryant, she admitted it was hard for her to speak about it.
“I just felt like he was a real advocate for women's hoops, and just the support he shows our organizations really just felt like he was for us. ... He was inspiring,” Blackwell said.
After returning to Columbia, Blackwell sent a text to her teammates saying despite the team’s struggles this season (the Tigers are 5-15 and 2-5 in the Southeastern Conference), it’s a blessing to play Division I basketball and to cherish every moment.
Neither Brown nor Blackwell ever met Bryant. Brown said his favorite moment of Bryant’s was his last game before retiring in 2016, when Bryant scored 60 points against the Utah Jazz.
Brown tuned in as ESPN replayed that game in full Monday night. Brown said he was 3 years old when he first understood who he was named after.
“When I was old enough to have regular conversations, my dad kind of told the story,” Brown said. “So I knew early on where I got my name from. ... (Bryant) was a big role model of mine.”
Throughout her Missouri coaching tenure, head women’s basketball coach Robin Pingeton has made a habit of talking with her team about much more than X’s and O’s.
Over the past few days, conversations about Bryant’s passing have happened as the Tigers prepare for their next game against No. 12 Kentucky on Thursday night.
“It's incredible the impact around the world that (Bryant) and his daughter and everybody in that (helicopter) has had,” Pingeton said. “... Probably how (Bryant’s) life has evolved and his interest because of his daughters, I think it was just the beginning of what he was going to do for the women's side. It's really cool that he was becoming so invested and such an advocate for women's basketball.”