Terry Porter was on a plane when it happened. The Portland Pilots’ head men’s basketball coach was heading back to Portland after the team had lost to Pepperdine 80-69 just the night before. He opened his phone to a bevy of texts asking what had happened and if it was true. He didn’t know what they were talking about.
“I was on the plane,” Porter said. “I didn’t know anything about what everybody was texting me about, and so, obviously, when I got an opportunity to start reading and getting on the internet, I tried to figure out what happened.”
Then he got on the internet and saw what everyone was talking about. NBA legend Kobe Bryant and eight other passengers, including his daughter Gianna, had died in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California. He was 41. Gianna was 13.
“It’s a shock,” Porter said about his first reaction. “It just happened so fast. You saw him the night before in Philly with LeBron (James) passing him on the all-time scoring list … within 24 hours you just don’t think something like that can happen.”
Bryant’s death on Sunday seemingly made the whole world stop. People demanded for NBA games to be canceled. Players were visibly shaken both on and off the court, either fighting back tears in pre and post-game interviews or letting their emotions show on the court during tributes.
His impact was something felt both on and off the court, and from battles in the playoffs against those legendary Los Angeles Lakers squads to coaching him at the All-Star Game, Porter witnessed firsthand the sudden rise and tragic fall of an NBA legend, and in his life sees some poignant lessons.
Porter played 16 years in the NBA with four different teams. Though he never got the chance to play with Bryant, the end of his career coincided with the beginning of Bryant’s. Porter said even in those early years, players and coaches talked about the legendary work ethic of Bryant.
“Everybody talked about what made him great,” Porter said. “His passion and great work ethic, the whole ‘Mamba’ type of mentality of wanting to always be in attack mode, always be aggressive and lead guys to a championship pedigree.”
Porter remembers battling with the Lakers legend plenty of times, pointing specifically to their battles in the playoffs when Porter was with the San Antonio Spurs. The two teams battled each other for Western Conference supremacy, with the Lakers beating the Spurs two of the three times they met in the playoffs when Porter played in San Antonio.
“When we talked about trying to prepare for those types of finals, it was always about ‘We had to limit what Kobe’s effectiveness would be,’” Porter said. “Try to make him work for everything he got.”
Bryant marked the shift to a new era of basketball and the end of one generation of players. The NBA shifted from the players of Porter’s era — such as Michael Jordan, the often-crowned best basketball player of all time, a player that only Bryant has come close to — to players like himself, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, and soon, others like LeBron James.
The conversations that Bryant’s talents raised were generational ones. Debates have raged on for years in the sports world about where he ranks among the basketball greats. Everyone recognizes him as a legend, but everyone also loves a little friendly debate on where he exactly he stands on the ladder. Porter and his family are not immune to that, saying he and his sons got in plenty arguments about where Bryant ranks among the upper echelon of NBA gods.
“I get in this conversation about who was the greatest player, you know, Kobe or Michael, Kobe or LeBron,” Porter said. “It’s such a generational thing.”
Porter never got the chance to play or work out with Bryant, but he did have the chance to coach him at the 2003 All-Star Game in Atlanta. A picture of Porter standing right next to Bryant sits on a table right under the TV in Porter’s office.
He recalled being at the game that year when Bryant walked on the elevator with Porter and his family. His kids were still young but just old enough to know who Bryant was. They exchanged pleasantries, with Bryant telling the Porters they were a lovely family and making sure Terry’s kids knew that their father was a legend.
“He was just a gentleman,” Porter said. “I don’t think anybody can say they had an interaction with him that was not … uplifting because of something he said or a comment he made.”
As gentlemanly as he was in that elevator, it was a completely different story on the court.
“I don’t think he had much humor on the basketball court,” Porter said with a laugh. “He had a determination and a laser focus that I think not many people had.”
It was that ‘Mamba’ mentality, that dedication to honing his craft unlike any player since Jordan, that separated Bryant from everyone else. For Porter, the fact that Bryant spent 20 years dedicating his life to basketball only to have his post-basketball life with his family cut short is one of the most tragic parts of Bryant’s death.
“For him to be able to get to the point where he’s exhausted all his energy and effort into his craft, his career and then say ‘Okay, I’m going to step back now, close that chapter of my life, and really focus on my family and be a great father and a great husband,’ and then have that part cut short … you feel bad,” Porter said. “You feel bad for Vanessa and feel bad for his kids who are now going to lose the opportunity to, you know, be around him for the next 20 years.”
Porter’s a father of three who knows the time commitment it takes to be a professional athlete. He feels for Bryant’s family as they cope with losing a father who won’t be at graduations or see their grandkids, especially at a time in his life when he should have been able to do so. Twenty years of Bryant’s time was taken up by being a professional athlete. The next chapter of his life ended before it could really start.
“With being a professional athlete, so much of your time is taken away from you,” Porter said. “You have no control over it. It’s not something where you can be able to manage your time. It’s always managed by something else, and for him to have this time now and try to turn his life into playing a normal — if you can ever be a normal father as someone of Kobe’s stature — but to try to be around for his wife and for his kids and it’s just, it’s gotten cut short. That’s the tragic thing about it.”
When asked about what his legacy will be, Porter had to take a deep breath and think about it. There’s no shortage of titles attached to Bryant’s name. Athlete. Mentor. Philanthropist. Oscar winner. Champion. All of these things apply to Bryant.
“Those are the things that I think people who are blessed to have any type of interaction with him will remember the most,” Porter said. “It’s heartbreaking I think for anyone in regards to life because he had so much to live for and so much more to give.”
Kyle Garcia is the Sports editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.