‘He was always kind of superhuman’: Occidental athletes react to Kobe Bryant’s death

Kyle Dosa reflects on the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, outside the Tiger Cooler at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2020. Grace Garrett/The Occidental

Over quiet Marketplace breakfasts and late-morning practices on the field, iPhone news alerts and Twitter notifications lit up the screens of Occidental students across campus: Los Angeles legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, had been killed in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of seven others. For the student athletes who looked to his drive to push a little harder, and for the Southern California natives who grew up cheering in front of the TV for his familiar fadeaway, Kobe’s death felt painfully personal. Occidental Tigers who call California home share some of the ways Kobe’s legacy impacted their lives.

Kyle Dosa (sophomore)
Hometown: Chatsworth, CA

Kyle Dosa (sophomore), a guard on the Occidental men’s basketball team, first learned about Kobe’s death the morning of Jan. 26 as he was eating breakfast with his teammates. Because TMZ was the first outlet to break the news, Dosa said he held out hope that the tabloid’s reporting was unreliable. He and his teammates stayed glued to their phones, refreshing feeds and checking for updates.

“But then once I saw ABC, ESPN, I just felt my heart sink — got a pit in my stomach. And I was still denying it, like, ‘Okay, I still really don’t believe this,’” Dosa said. “So then I went back to my room, was reading more stuff, and then tears came.”

For Dosa, it was Kobe and the Lakers who inspired his passion for basketball.

“I remember playing in the rec league. My team was the Lakers when I was really young,” Dosa said. “I really looked up to him, and I saw him as an idol or something like that. Every time, I was like, ‘Oh, I want to be like Kobe.’ And at a young age, obviously you want to be like these people you idolize, and you don’t think about how hard it’s going to be to get there.”

As Dosa grew out of his childhood rec league team, playing basketball throughout middle and high school, he sometimes questioned whether he should continue. Kobe’s work ethic, he said, reminded him why he loved the sport.

“When I was in middle school, I was like, ‘Okay, do I want to keep playing basketball in high school?’ And even in high school, ‘Do I want to pursue this at a college?’” Dosa said. “And then I just remember, I’ve played this game my whole life, growing up watching this certain person, and that really refreshed my love for the game.”

According to Dosa, watching Kobe’s mental and physical toughness as he played through injuries inspired him to tackle his own difficulties, whether it was in basketball or life.

“He wasn’t one to let a silly finger, ankle sprain stop him from playing the game he loved,” Dosa said. “And that really inspired me, because I had a couple injuries in high school, and even in middle school playing basketball, and that helped me push through that and keep playing instead of sitting out.”

Michael Steinke (senior)
Hometown: Redlands, CA
Ultimate Frisbee

Michael Steinke (senior), a cutter on Occidental’s ultimate frisbee team Detox, grew up alongside Kobe’s 20-year career from 1996–2016. When his family watched basketball, it was always the Lakers. As an LA native, Kobe’s role as a Southern California icon is undeniable and inescapable, according to Steinke.

“It was really hard pressed to find someone who didn’t want to have any Lakers or Kobe memorabilia,” Steinke said. “He was worshipped, also because he spent his entire career just with the Lakers. And he never wavered. Even though he had multiple chances to leave in free agency, he wanted to stay in LA.”

News of Kobe’s death hit Steinke and his ultimate frisbee teammates during one of their practices. Later that day, Steinke broke the news to his parents over dinner.

“My family’s Chinese, and so we have family in China,” Steinke said. “And my mom just got a lot of incoming messages from her relatives in China talking about Kobe’s death, because Kobe had always gone out to China to try and help with basketball programs there.”

Steinke likened Kobe’s fearless, focused play to the drive and determination of his family members in day-to-day life.

“The biggest thing with Kobe was the ‘Mamba mentality’: in order to succeed, you got to put your entire effort into what you want to do and what you want to love,” Steinke said. “And that not only can apply at the sports level, but it can also apply in education and arts, whatever you want to do. If you want to do something, you’ve got to put more than 100 percent of your effort into it. That was another big thing, at least with my family. I guess Kobe’s ideals would also overlap with my family’s ideals in terms of, ‘If you want to do something, you got to go out and strive for it.’”

Kulaea Tulua (sophomore)
Hometown: Seaside, CA

Kulaea Tulua (sophomore) remembers Kobe as a giant who stood for causes greater than himself.

“There hasn’t been a night where I don’t cry before bed,” Tulua said via email. “I think the impact of Kobe’s death will be one that is felt forever. His work ethic is something that pushed a lot of athletes around the world to be better and #MambaMentality is a legacy I, as well as millions of other people, will forever hold near to our hearts.”

Tulua said she admired Kobe’s advocacy for women’s basketball, as well as his mentorship of young high school and collegiate players.

“In fact, my basketball team and I just saw him at the Oregon U vs. CSULB women’s game,” Tulua said. “We were so excited when we spotted him across the gym as Gigi (his daughter) sat next to him. He was there supporting Sabrina Ionescu — one of Oregon’s star players — and afterwards you could really see how close she was to him as they talked and hugged.”

When Kobe passed away, Tulua said, it was as though a force was ripped from the world.

“His daughter Gigi was going to be so great and that loss hits a little harder. You don’t even have to be a basketball fan to know that this loss hits differently,” Tulua said. “Last Sunday, it felt as if the heart of LA stopped beating for a moment. I dedicate the rest of my seasons to Kobe, to the man that inspired so many of us to pick up a basketball.”

Ryan Kaneshiro (senior)
Hometown: Santa Clarita, CA

For Ryan Kaneshiro (senior), stories of Kobe’s unbelievable competitiveness — waking up at 4 a.m. to practice, demanding more from teammates — permeated his childhood as a young basketball player in Southern California.

“The competitive attitude and the work ethic was really what I think he left behind for a lot of future basketball players at every level,” Kaneshiro said.

News of Kobe’s death initially felt like a bad joke to Kaneshiro, who reacted alongside his teammates with disbelief.

“I feel like that was the first time, for me at least, where it’s the death of someone who you don’t know or have a relationship with, but it has such a big impact,” Kaneshiro said. “Because I feel like your reaction is just shock, for sure. Obviously, sadness. I don’t know, disbelief, probably? It’s hard to describe, that whole day just felt kind of off. It’s a super scary moment where you never think in a million years that that would happen.”

One of Kaneshiro’s favorite Kobe memories was his last game in 2016 against the Utah Jazz. Kaneshiro, still in high school, recalled Kobe’s injuries and a struggling Lakers bench in the weeks leading up to the final game.

“I was pretty nervous, because you never want him to go out poorly because he’s such an unbelievable player and he meant so much to everyone in LA,” Kaneshiro said. “And I remember he had, like, 60 points that night, and it was a crazy night. It was honestly like a championship atmosphere for a regular season game with two pretty average teams.”

To Kaneshiro, losing a player as otherworldly as Kobe puts life in perspective. If it can happen to Kobe, Kaneshiro said, it is a scary world.

“I feel like to people who loved him and watched him, no one ever viewed him as normal,” Kaneshiro said. “He was always kind of superhuman.”