Waynesburg basketball players remember Kobe Bryant

“I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.” 

– Kobe Bryant

Growing up, Cam Auld didn’t like Kobe Bryant.

The current Waynesburg University senior basketball player knew that Bryant was one of the best basketball players in the world, as anybody with working eyes did. But Auld, whose favorite player has always been LeBron James, figured Bryant was the villain in the “Kobe vs. Lebron” debate, and never wanted to acknowledge “The Black Mamba’s” greatness.

It wasn’t until Bryant’s last season, Auld’s senior year at Norwin High School, that his perspective changed. Oddly enough, the shift didn’t happen because of anything Kobe did on the court— not the farewell tributes done at every arena the Lakers played in, or the 60-point career finale at the Staples Center— but rather, it was his poetry that made Auld appreciate Bryant.

Five months before Bryant played his last game, he published a poem entitled “Dear Basketball.”

As Auld read the lines, he realized that, with his own high school basketball career winding down, although their journeys were vastly different, they both fell in love with the same thing at an early age.

As a six-year-old boy

Deeply in love with you

I never saw the end of the tunnel.

I only saw myself

Running out of one.

“This dude was so good, and he was doing it for all the right reasons,” Auld said. “Everything he’s saying you could feel yourself. You felt that he was just like you in that sort of way.”

Auld began to appreciate Bryant just as his second life was starting.

His on-court legacy complete, Bryant had time to focus on making an impact in ways that didn’t involve 81-point games, championships or ferocious defense.

Auld envisioned an older Bryant sitting in the front row of Staples Center. At this time, Auld would watch the game on TV with his kids, and when they asked their dad who that man was, he would tell them what Bryant meant.

That vision of elderly Kobe will never materialize – his post-basketball life ended far too soon. Bryant, just 41, died in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, on Jan. 26.

“They’re not going to see that,” Auld said. “That’s just not right.”

The Waynesburg University men’s and women’s basketball teams have been mourning Bryant’s untimely death for almost two weeks. More so than Bryant’s stats, there’s one characteristic of the man that’s come to light in wake of his passing.

“A lot of people joke about the ‘Mamba Mentality,’” assistant women’s basketball coach Jess Vormelker said, “but that was really how he lived his life. It’s super inspiring to try to copy that.”

As dramatic as the ‘Mamba Mentality’ sounds, the concept is simple.

Those who adopt this mindset get out of bed every morning with the goal of making the day ahead better than the last. Vormelker took this mentality with her on the basketball court.

By the time she was done with her college career at Thiel, Vormelker was arguably the Kobe Bryant of PAC women’s basketball, earning Player of the Year honors and leading the conference in scoring as a senior.

Another player that’s tried to copy that mentality is current Jackets guard Matt Popeck, who grew up admiring Bryant. In the “Kobe or LeBron” debate, Popeck would always state his case as to why the former was the best. Popeck had many reasons for his admiration, but the ‘Mamba Mentality’ stuck out.

“That was something I always looked up to,” Popeck said. “I wanted to develop that mentality.”

Kobe’s mentality was most evident on the court, but this season Popeck hasn’t had a chance to express it with his play as he suffered a serious knee injury which ended his season after just two games. But not playing basketball hasn’t deterred Popeck from trying to emulate Bryant’s outlook in his everyday life.

“I can still have that mentality when I’m in the gym lifting,” Popeck said. “With how I carry myself outside of basketball and all that stuff. Being the best teammate I can be. Doing all those things. It’s not just a mentality on the court.”

When Popeck is done playing at Waynesburg, his basketball career, as with most D-III athletes, will more than likely come to an end. But, Popeck still plans on making the game both he and Kobe love a part of him, along with the mindset that Bryant made famous.

“Basketball, even after it’s over, is still going to be a huge part of my life,” he said. “Whether I go on to coach or try to play at a higher level, or even in adult leagues when I’m in my mid-20s. Just going out and playing hard, like he was doing, no matter what the circumstance.”

Bryant’s impact on men’s basketball is well known, but a less heralded aspect of his legacy is his support for the women’s game. In a world that often sees women’s sports as a small pond compared to the oceans that are Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

Bryant, who raised four daughters and coached Gianna’s AAU team, always worked to grow women’s sports.

“It seems so much in social media and media that women’s sports don’t get as much light as men’s sports do,” Vormelker said. “Just the fact that Kobe was out there supporting the WNBA and college teams. He was taking Gigi to games so that she could go and watch those girls. It just shows what he thought of women’s sports and how important they are.

“He always gave shout outs to girls basketball,” freshman Leighton Croft, who writes ‘mamba mentality’ on her arm before every game, said. “He always respected girls basketball players, and he always kind of defended the [WNBA] and all those other people that I guess didn’t respect it as much. So, it was even worse that, one, someone’s idol died, and, two, that he was someone who was always patting the girls’ teams’ backs, you know.”

When thinking of one word to describe Kobe Bryant, most Waynesburg players were able to come up with something instantly.

“Champion,” Croft said.

“Greatness,” senior Frank Bozicevic stated.

Auld struggled to come up with something, and ultimately, the word he came up with was,“Immortal.”

“I don’t feel he’s dead,” Auld said. “That’s the word. He’s immortal. He never died.”