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But Newfoundland basketball star is mostly thinking about former Laker icon as a family man lost in a tragic accident that also claimed his 13-year-old daughter
For Carl English, the death of Kobe Bryant Sunday “hit home,” but it went far beyond the fact the two were basketball players who had come up against each other on the court.
Bryant, the 41-year-old who won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and two Olympic gold medals with teams representing the United States, was one of nine people killed in a helicopter crash west of L.A. Sunday morning. Among the others who died were his 13-year-old daughter Gianna (Gigi).
Reports say they were travelling to Thousand Oaks, Calif., for a practice for the younger Bryant’s youth basketball team. Other reports say two of the other victims of the crash were another player and both her parents.
“As a father, it really hits you when think about all the travelling you do with your own children to practices,” said English.
“Accidents can happen so easily, whether it’s cars or helicopters.”
“It’s a huge loss for basketball because Kobe Bryant is a legend in the game, but then you start thinking about the loss his family is experiencing … the loss of a father and a husband and a son, and the loss of a daughter and a sister and a granddaughter.
“It’s just heartbreaking.”
English knows well about personal loss; he was five when both his parents died as a result of a house fire.
Growing up in Patrick’s Cove, Michael Jordan was English’s favourite player throughout much of his professional career, English wore jersey number 23 like Jordan. But while the former Chicago Bull star’s career was winding down as English rose to prominence in basketball, he was very much a contemporary of Bryant, who was born two-and-a-half years before the Newfoundlander.
“Michael Jordan was my guy, but Kobe played in my time,” said English. “I wore his sneakers. I followed his game and tried to match it.”
And he was also English’s opponent.
In 2007 and 2008, English was with the Canadian national men’s team that took on Team USA in FIBA Americas Championship and Olympic tune-up games, and since both he and Bryant were shooting guards, they went head-to-head on the court in the exhibition contests.
“I’m sure anyone who has played against him has their Kobe stories, because you never could forget the experience,” said English, who learned first-hand about some of Bryant’s unique defensive strategies, including making train noises in the Newfoundlander’s ear and engaging in face-guarding, using an open hand to disrupt English’s vision.
“Yeah, the choo-choo train noises,” recalled English with a little chuckle, “ and I was constantly trying to knock away his arm.
“But mostly what I recall is the way he carried himself and the confidence he played with.”
English admits he was “star-struck” in 2007, the first time he came up against Bryant, but that it “was a real pleasure” to come up against him again the following year in a game in Las Vegas, where both scored in double figures and engaged in a lot of verbal jousting in what turned out to be an American win.
“It’s a huge loss for basketball because Kobe Bryant is a legend in the game, but then you start thinking about the loss his family is experiencing … the loss of a father and a husband and a son, and the loss of a daughter and a sister and a granddaughter. It’s just heartbreaking.”
“I won’t lie, I was nervous the first time we played,” said English. “I was trying to get into the NBA at the time and it was a big showcase for me and here I was going face-to-face with Kobe Bryant.
“But the next year, I was lot more sure of myself and much more confident in my game, so there was a lot of back-and-forth between me and Kobe. The announcers saw us jawing at each other and they made note when they were calling the game. And it was a hell of game.”
English says Bryant was easily the best player he ever came up against, and considers him the second-best player of all time, behind only Jordan.
“Kobe had unbelievable skills, but he also was an innovator and a fierce, fierce competitor,” said English. “It’s a big blow for the game.
“But while I’m thinking about it in basketball terms, I mostly think about what happened as a family man, and when you think it about it in that way, it’s what really makes this so very, very sad.”
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