Column: Why Kentucky versus Vanderbilt was so memorable


Kentucky players wear shoes honoring Kobe Bryant during the game against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 71-62. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Tonight, Jan. 29, 2020, was my first time covering a basketball game since Kobe Bryant died. 

Three days later it’s still beyond weird, and hard, to say or think the words “Kobe died,” as I know it is for the rest of the world, too.

And it felt just as weird being at a basketball game, the sport he changed forever, the sport he left an unforgettable impact on, knowing he’s not somewhere on Earth probably watching it.

When I got to my press seat in Rupp Arena for No. 13 Kentucky versus Vanderbilt, the first thing I did was look around. And the first thing I saw was a young boy with his Laker jersey on. 

He was holding a sign that said, “Gr8ness.” 

The thing about this, is that young boy probably doesn’t even remember a third of Kobe’s career. But that’s the impact he had—whether you’re 60 years old and got to watch his entire career unfold, or you’re 10 years old and got to see the tail end of his incredible run, you still have the same amount of respect and admiration for him. 

Then the student section started filing in, and I saw more Laker shirts and jerseys, even a cutout of Kobe’s face. The men’s basketball team had matching Kentucky blue warm up shirts with the Kobe logo on the front and his numbers, 24 and 8, printed simply on the back. Several of the UK players wore custom Kobe’s, some with his numbers, others that said ‘Mamba Mentality’ written on the side. 

After Kentucky barely made it by in its 71-62 win, freshman Wildcat Tyrese Maxey was asked what Kobe meant to him. 

“Kobe was just… He’s a basketball god. I mean, when he has five championships… It’s a tough subject to talk about,” Maxey said. “Just growing up watching him, every time I was shooting shots in the backyard saying, ‘Kobe!’ when a lot of people were on me. It’s just tough. I’m just glad we got to honor him today, I had some Kobe’s on that said RIP Mamba on them, it’s tough. My condolences go out to his family.“

Well said.

Then I walked over to Nick Richards, who was swarmed with reporters after he scored all of his 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the second half alone, and let it die down for a bit before I asked him what it meant to be able to honor Kobe during the game. 

His response really resonated with me, and will probably resonate with a lot of people reading this, too. 

“You know, Kobe’s a guy that, whether you played basketball or not, you knew about him,” Richards replied. Although I grew up watching it, basketball was one of the only sports I didn’t try. And like Richards said, not only did I know him as one of the greatest to ever do it, but everything about Kobe resonated with me, and still does, in other aspects of my life. Whether it was volleyball when I played, school, work or whatever the case may be, I tried to maintain a smidge of the Mamba Mentality that he had. But I’ll never come close.

“Little kids, they would play, like they would roll up a piece of paper, fade away, and throw it into the garbage can and yell out ‘Kobe!’ So, to have a guy like that, just change the game for us, and to be an inspiration for everybody both on and off the court, you know he’s going to be missed. He’s one of the greats. Top-5 player in my opinion. Um….”

Then, Richards paused.

“He’s going to be… He’s going to be really missed.”

He certainly will be missed, and even that is an understatement.

As odd of a specific memory as it is, I’ll never forget this night—the first basketball game I watched in person without Kobe alive. And now that he’s gone, I think a lot of us have him to thank for growing our love for the game even stronger.