Nine people perished in a helicopter crash in California on Sunday, but one of those sparked fond memories for DeKalb County’s Columbia High School’s basketball program.
The Eagles were rolling on the way to a 31-2 record and Class 4A state title runner-up finish as the 2007 regular season was winding down in early February when they learned a special visitor was coming to the school to speak with the team and other students.
The visitor that was coming on that memorable Monday (February 5) was NBA star Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers who was in town for his team to face off with the Atlanta Hawks.
Bryant along with his 13-year old daughter Gianna were two of the nine involved in the helicopter crash along with John (baseball coach at Orange County College for 28 years), Keri and Alyssa Altobelli (Mamba’s basketball teammate of Gianna); Sarah and Payton Chester (teammate of Gianna and Alyssa); Christina Mauser (Mamba’s coach); and Bryant’s longtime helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan.
The two-time NBA MVP was just 29 years old when through his agent at the time, Rob Pelinka (now GM of the Lakers), and Nike which Columbia is a part of with longtime Hall of Fame coach Dr. Phil McCrary (over 600 wins) it was arranged for the basketball star to make the stop to interact with the players and students at Columbia.
Probably one of the NBA’s biggest names at the time Bryant set down on the stage in the Columbia High Auditorium alongside McCrary for a question and answer session with so many kids who looked up to him.
“It was admirable of him to come by the school to talk with the players and students,” said McCrary. “He talked with them about how it took hard work and dedication to excel both on the court and in the classroom.”
Jordan Lemons was a senior on that 2007 Eagle’s club and its fourth leading scorer and currently works at Columbia and says that memory is one near and dear to the hearts of many at Columbia then and even now.
“For him to take the time out his schedule to sit down and talk with us meant a lot to us as individuals and a team,” said Lemons. “so many of us were fans of Kobe. He really inspired a lot of youth to work hard at anything they try do.”
Before he left that day after taking numerous photos and signing autographs, some of the students told him he should come to the team’s game the next night. He made the promise and then went out to hit for 27 points, grab 6 rebounds, along with 4 assists and three steals in the Lakers’ 90-83 win over the Hawks that night.
The next night the Eagles were facing St. Pius at Columbia when everyone noticed a contingent of people entering the gym. Bryant along with his agent (Pelinka) and several others sat down right behind the Columbia bench to watch the game.
“That night was unbelievable,” said McCrary. “We had planned for him to sit behind the bench and the game was already underway when he got in and got his seat.”
Columbia would roll past St. Pius 63-18 that night and the team’s play impressed Bryant who would commend the team for their hustle and defense.
“We got to play a game in front of one of the all-time great NBA players that night,” said Lemons. “That is a memory no one can take away from us. It is still something the people at Columbia take pride in to this day. I’m thankful to him and the people at Nike for making it happen.”
About two weeks later McCrary received an autographed basketball from Bryant that adds to his memories of the late NBA star and man.
“It was tragedy for all involved,” said McCrary. “Life is short and you have to live it to the fullest.”
Source: DCSD Athletics