» LOCAL REACTION: Flyers, Raiders players saddened by death of Kobe Bryant
Bryant was just 41.
Ronai first met Bryant when their high school basketball teams faced off in a tournament in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in December of 1995.
Bryant, a 6-foot-6 guard for Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia, was considered the top prep player in the nation. Six months later – bypassing college – he would jump straight into the NBA.
Ronai was the senior point guard at Springfield Catholic Central, which had its own star in 7-foot Jason Collier. Their team would win the Ohio state tournament three months after the showdown with Lower Merion, whom they led after three quarters before finally falling, 65-60.
Bryant had 43 of his team’s 65 points. Ronai had 16.
The pair met again in October of 2018 at a Project Play conference in Washington, D.C.
Ronai was there representing the 17 high schools in Chicago he oversees as the Director of Health, Fitness and Athletics for the Noble Network of Charter Schools. Bryant was a featured speaker at the event which dealt with, among other things, enhancing and redefining youth sports programs.
“I went up afterwards and as soon as I said my name and ‘Springfield Catholic Central, 1996,(sic)’ he knew me and remembered the game,” Ronai said. “We had a nice conversation about a lot of things.”
Kobe Bryant and Jason Ronai who was star point guard at Springfield Catholic Central. Ronai and Kobe played against each other in a high school game in December of 1995 in the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The pair met up at a conference in Washington, D.C. in 2018 and reminisced. CONTRIBUTED
Before they parted, Bryant asked him to say hello to the parents of Collier, who had been a first-round draft pick in the NBA, but died suddenly in 2005 from an enlarged heart. He was just 28.
“That’s why Kobe’s death has been absolutely devastating and scary,” Ronai said. “It’s close to home. He was a 41-year-old father of four daughters. I’m a 42-year-old father of an 11-year-old daughter. We’re both former athletes who played against each other.”
For Ronai the loss is compounded by the deaths of Collier and his wife Krista, who passed away three years ago from brain cancer.
Ronai knows a lot of other people are wrestling with Bryant’s death today, as well:
“I think the whole world is trying to find words to describe why it’s hurting so hard. And I don’t think anybody can find the exact thing to say. It’s floored all of us.”
Several other basketball players and coaches from the Miami Valley are having similar struggles.
“Yesterday was really a sad day,” Dayton Flyers coach Anthony Grant said Monday. He had been an Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach the last season (2015-16) Bryant played in the NBA and had been fascinated by the way the league’s other stars all revered the Lakers’ legend.
It was the same for Ron Harper, the former Kiser High and Miami University star, who won two of his five NBA crowns while teamed up with Bryant and the Lakers.
Harper tweeted several heartfelt messages Sunday and Monday expressing his admiration for Bryant as a basketball player and a dad.
A few years ago when Harper was being honored at Kiser Middle School, he and I talked about his basketball career and he compared playing with Jordan and Bryant.
He gave Jordan the nod as the “best player ever,” but said Bryant was “right there beside him…He’s the closest thing we’ve ever had to (Jordan.) He’s the greatest player in the game now.”
The first time I met Bryant was just a few months after that game with Ronai.
It was in the green room at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J, the night of the 1996 NBA draft.
I was there with Vitaly Potapenko, who had left Wright State after two impactful seasons. Bryant was sitting a couple of tables away.
Around the room there were other standouts in what would be forever considered one of the greatest draft classes ever. Allen Iverson was there, so was Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, Marcus Camby, Steve Nash, Antoine Walker, Peja Stojakovic Jermaine O’Neal and a dozen more guys.
Potapenko was the 12th pick in the draft, taken by the Cleveland Cavaliers, one spot ahead of Bryant, who was chosen by Charlotte and then promptly traded to the Lakers.
Cleveland fans were unhappy that night – Nash was also taken behind Potapenko – and Vitaly vowed to show them “ I’m not so awful.”
While he was eclipsed by Bryant, he had a remarkable career himself, playing for 10 years and then beginning a coaching career that includes an NBA title as an assistant with the Cavs and now has him as an assistant with Memphis.
Ira Newble, who played for Miami University, was Bryant’s teammate in 2008, the year Kobe was named the MVP of the league.
Other NBA players with local roots – Brian Roberts (UD), John Paxson (Alter) and Wally Szczerbiak ( Miami) played many games against Kobe in the NBA,
“Just seeing the way his peers – especially the best in the game – the way they respected and honored Kobe for what he meant to the game was a pretty fun thing to see,” Grant said. “I loved to watch him interact with players.
“We had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the time and to see them pay homage to him and then see Kobe challenge and compete against them – while nurturing and communicating with them too — you just got a different kind of respect for who he was and what the game meant to him.”
And both Grant and Ronai were especially warmed by Bryant’s life after retirement.
“Just seeing the way he loved being a father and loved his daughters made you embrace him all the more,” Grant said.
Ronai felt the same. He said that’s why the loss is so deep:
“You were inspired by the way he was attacking Part II of his life. You sense it was going to be as special as the first part was.”