PULLMAN – Young, bold and ambitious, DJ Rodman wasn’t afraid to make an introduction the first time he spotted Kobe Bryant milling the sideline of his sister’s youth soccer game in Southern California.
Rodman isn’t sure how old he was, but the Washington State freshman recalls racing over to greet the acclaimed Los Angeles Laker, whose oldest daughter, Natalia, played on the same team as Rodman’s younger sister, Trinity.
“I went up to him and I was like, ‘Hey Kobe, hey Kobe, you played with my dad,’” said Rodman, whose own NBA father, Dennis, played against Bryant for three years as a member of the Chicago Bulls before briefly teaming up with the young, emerging NBA star in Los Angeles for 23 games in 1999. “I was so young I was like, he’s not going to mind if I come up to him. I’ll just act first instead of think first.”
That allowed DJ Rodman to forge a relationship with one of the game’s greatest stars, who would engage in conversations and share wisdom with the young boy whenever they were at soccer games together.
“Weeks after weeks he’d come to the games, I’d just talk with him, I’d just sit down with him,” Rodman said. “We’d just talk, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was that young, I didn’t know if I wanted to play basketball. But he always told me to just work hard and always compete and be the person everyone loves. And always live life to the fullest, which I try to do every day.”
Rodman and his WSU teammates were in the air Sunday, traveling home to Pullman from Salt Lake City, when it was reported that Bryant and daughter Gianna were two of the nine people killed in a helicopter accident in Calabasas, California. As WSU players began to receive word about Bryant’s death, they woke up other teammates to share the news.
“That just dropped my stomach and I didn’t know what to say,” Rodman said. “I didn’t know if it was real, I didn’t know if it was fake. It was such a unique and catastrophic way to go. It was really sad, it was really sad. It was just catastrophic. That’s the word I best describe it as.”
Though Bryant didn’t maintain a close relationship with Dennis Rodman, the five-time NBA champion was always gracious to the Rodman family – from entertaining a young, awestricken DJ at soccer games to frequenting the Newport coffee shop where DJ’s older sister, Teyana, worked.
“He would come down once a week, every week and just say what’s up to here, say hi, get some coffee, bring her flowers,” DJ said. “It was just awesome. He was awesome.”
Bryant’s basketball footprint covered the globe, and many of the players on this WSU team were able to watch and follow his peak years with the Lakers – the organization that employed him for each of his 20 NBA seasons.
“I’m getting old, but I think they caught him right in his prime,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “And probably the prime without Shaq, when these guys certainly inspired a lot of our guys that follow basketball. … Coaches have been complaining about this for probably 10 years where these guys will get in the gym with these private trainers and I think that’s directly influenced by Kobe. Because his Mamba mentality, working out til you blackout and you’d have to have guys shoo him out of the gym times. I think a lot of that was Kobe influenced.”
Smith likened Sunday’s tragedy to the news of Magic Johnson being diagnosed with HIV – another startling sports story that rocked the nation 28 years ago.
“And back then, we just thought we were going to have to watch one of our idols die in front of us,” Smith said. “AIDS was such an epidemic. It’s different, but our guys are probably more connected to these guys via social media.”
Cougars freshman Noah Williams considers Bryant an idol and had a chance to shake the 18-time NBA All-Star’s hand one summer at a Seattle Pro Am basketball tournament.
“Kobe touched a lot of people,” Williams said. “He was a mentor to me, he was a mentor to a lot of basketball players, a lot of young kids. He just taught us to have that fight in us. Never give up, never be satisfied. Always want more.”
Williams habitually watched Bryant’s highlight tapes on YouTube during class at Seattle’s O’Dea High School, and both he and Rodman claimed they added the fadeaway jumper to their arsenal after watching the ex-Laker make the shot thousands of times throughout his career.
“I really tried to implement the post fadeaway into my game coming into high school,” Williams said.
Rodman admits he usually found himself rooting against Bryant, “because he beat all the players I loved,” but eventually grew to admire and respect someone who “had that killer instinct.”
“I just want to get to the point where I have the mental toughness and the physical toughness to just keep going and never say I can’t do something,” Rodman said. “That’s the biggest thing I think every player should have. That’s what I need to work on myself.”
Smith said his Cougars, who sit at 12-9 overall and 3-5 in Pac-12 play heading into a homestand against the Arizona schools, can draw from Bryant’s attitude toward improving.
“What made that guy special is how he prepared, how he worked and it’s inch by inch,” the coach said. “You read anything he says. And really with our hustle stats and everything, I always say it’s basketball by numbers. If you can really dive into that. It’s hard to see the improvement every day but over time you’ll measure it.”