As soon as head coach Mark Turgeon stepped into the visiting team’s locker room at Assembly Hall Sunday, he was doused with spraying water bottles and met with shouts of glee.
Maryland men’s basketball had just taken down Indiana, 77-76, after a rollercoaster of a second half — doing so on the road for the first time since joining the Big Ten — and everyone was feeling it.
But after a few moments of joyous cheers, hugs and jumping, the head coach — shirt still soaked with water — had to break some tragic news to his team. Unbeknownst to the Terps, the world had been rocked over the course of their contest with the Hoosiers. NBA legend Kobe Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people, had perished in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, that morning.
“We’re jumping up and down and then...you go from complete jubilation to tears,” Turgeon said Wednesday.
Sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins said the room went quiet as players hung their heads and cried, somehow trying to comprehend the death of the superstar they all looked up to. The passing of the competitor that made many of them fall in love with the sport of basketball. The loss of the man that they all wanted to be like as little kids learning to shoot and dribble.
“It’s unexplainable,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said. “Just to get such a great win on the road after going through so much adversity...and celebrating in the locker room, and then 20 seconds later finding out that personally my superhero had passed away was heartbreaking. ...it was crazy, it’s something that I’ll never forget.”
This generation will always know where they were the moment they found out that Bryant died, just as the one before remembers Princess Diana, and the one before that John F. Kennedy.
For days now, the internet has shared ‘Kobe moments’, whether it be from people who knew him personally or those who were impacted by his reach. The world has mourned with beautiful murals, chantings of his name and salutes to the numbers eight and 24. Because he was not just the kind of player, but the kind of person, that inspired millions.
Morsell admired his mindset and the way he carried himself on and off the court.
“I’m an individual who’s big with confidence. So just the confidence he always had. He felt like nobody could stop him, he felt like he could guard anybody,” Morsell said. “Just the confidence he displayed and just the type of man he was off the court — the relationship he had with his children and the impact he made in communities was phenomenal.”
And as the Terps grieved in that moment Sunday, a tough realization came their way — getting back to College Park meant going on an airplane. Maryland takes a chartered flight to most away games, it isn’t anything out of the norm. But after hearing that their hero, a man that seemed larger than life and incapable of defeat, had crashed down through the sky, the prospect of flying became terrifying for some players.
“There was a lot of counseling from that point on in the locker room,” Turgeon said. “You had to hold their hand basically.”
The team came together as a group and prayed before getting on the plane. As Wiggins looked around at his teammates — the guys he shares such a close bond with — he pondered the little things in life and remembered to be grateful for every moment.
“As a team, we all told each other, ‘I’m here for you. I love you and regardless of anything that happens, I got your back at all times,’” Wiggins said. “So we were just there to comfort one another, just make sure that everybody was okay.”
As soon as Kobe’s death was mentioned Wednesday, Wiggins’ mood shifted to serious and solemn. The pain was so clearly still there, lingering.
The team has done its best to collect itself and focus on the task ahead: a rematch with No. 18 Iowa Thursday night. And now they’re turning that hurt into embodying the spirit and mentality of Black Mamba, trying to honor his legacy.
“You’re thinking about the way you’re approaching the game, the way you’re going hard in practice, the way you’re playing in a game, all those little things,” Wiggins said. “You just think about it, it’s on your mind at all times now because of how big of a tragedy it is.”