Like most people who first saw the news that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash Jan. 26, Christopher Speller didn’t immediately believe it.
The Rangeview senior basketball star desperately hoped it wasn’t true, but eventually the reality that the former NBA great passed away at 41 — along with eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna — sank in.
So when Rangeview decided on a tribute at its Jan. 28 game by asking everybody to wear the purple and gold of Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, Speller pulled his out favorite t-shirt — which features Bryant backing down former Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan from a game in 1998 — and proudly put it on display.
“At first I didn’t know it was real, but when I found out it was, it really hit me,” Speller said. “He’s from our generation, like a legend you watch on TV growing up. For my dad, it was Michael Jordan, but for me it was Kobe. LeBron (James) is still my favorite player, but I grew up watching Kobe.
“He was a legend and to know he went so early and so tragically, it was pretty hard.”
The news was even harder for Speller’s father, Kyle, the longtime public address announcer for the Denver Nuggets who estimates he introduced Bryant with the visiting Lakers 30 or more times.
The Nuggets played the first NBA game, which was scheduled for about an hour after word came out of Calabasas, California, that a helicopter carrying Bryant and others to a basketball tournament had crashed in heavy fog and all aboard were killed.
It was a lot for Speller to process internally, but he got on the mic at Pepsi Center and was the first for the NBA to commemorate Bryant, one of the all-time greats of the sport.
“For me personally, the sentiment was the same as everybody else’s; they didn’t really want to play and I didn’t really want to announce,” Kyle Speller said. “But then I started thinking to myself, what would Kobe tell me? His mentality would say just get the job done, be a pro and go win, so that’s what I did.
“We were the first game of the day, so I don’t know if we set the tone, but all I know is everybody just came together in the midst of that. It was a powerful time and it’s a reminder that tomorrow is not promised to any of us.”
The other aspect of the tragedy that hit Speller hard was as a parent.
Besides his sons, Christian and Christopher — who helped Rangeview win last season’s Class 5A state championship — he has a daughter, Tyler, and imagined what he would do in Bryant’s place in his final moments with this daughter.
“I’m a visual person and so I kindof put myself in that helicopter and looking at Gianna and wondering if she was scared or did they know it was coming,” Speller said. “This was one thing her Daddy couldn’t help her with or save her from.”
Rangeview coach Shawn Palmer was in the gym with his son Cade finishing up a workout when the news broke and also didn’t believe it at first.
Palmer is the same age as Bryant, so had watched him for his entire career and knew how important he was to the current generation of players. He and his staff felt giving the players and their classmates a chance to honor Bryant in their own was was important.
Many did, with messages written on their shoes or in other ways like by wearing wristbands provided by Kyle Speller.
“That’s not an easy thing for 17-year-old kids to do is talk about their feelings and emotions, so it’s important to squeeze that out of them sometimes,” Palmer said. “We had some really good conversations about how the game of basketball is many things and it can be used to honor people.
“Kobe runs pretty deep with these guys and asking our fans to wear purple and gold wasn’t a big ask, they already had plenty of it.”
Like many players around the country of all ages, Christian Speller will try carry forward Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” going forward in the way he plays the game.
“There’s not going to be another Kobe, but you can carry on his mentality and how he played the game,” Speller said. “His Mamba Mentality was giving everything he can for him and his team to win. I feel like we as a team or anyone really who plays the game of basketball can have that mentality.
“(Mamba Mentality) means different things, but to me it means doing whatever I can for my team. It doesn’t mean just scoring, it could be making a hustle play or getting a clutch rebound or a clutch steal. Doing everything in my power to make sure we win.”
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports