This was supposed to be a day about the No. 34. It was Willie Burton Jersey Retirement Day: The long-overdue lifting of his banner into the Williams Arena rafters nearly three decades after his playing career came to an end.
The banner was, indeed, lifted. The Barn cheered. Burton gave heartfelt remarks.
But many were thinking about No. 24.
Burton’s birth into the Gophers’ fraternity of retired numbers will forever be shared with the death of Kobe Bryant. The 20-year NBA veteran and the league’s fourth all-time leading scorer died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash that killed nine, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Word broke just minutes before the Gophers would tip off with Michigan State in a game they eventually lost, 70-52.
The score was a footnote.
“That win meant nothing three minutes afterward,” said Spartans head coach Tom Izzo.
Both coaches, Izzo and Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, didn’t tell their players the news until after the game. Viewed as an inspirational competitor thanks to his durability and work ethic, Bryant was one of the league’s biggest stars during the time that today’s college basketball players were learning the game. While most had likely never met him, his influence was immeasurable — like Tiger Woods was to young golfers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Michigan State’s Cassius Winston was shown stunned as he got the news from Izzo after their postgame interview. Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu was said to be crying in the locker room.
“Daniel Oturu is a humongous Kobe Bryant fan,” said Pitino. “He was devastated after the game, in tears, rocked by it.”
Game operations staff weren’t given the time to prepare any possible tributes like many NBA franchises did later in the day. Teams wore special shoes, held moments of silence and took 8-second backcourt violations and 24-second shot-clock violations to honor Bryant’s two jersey numbers with the Lakers. While broadcasters on FOX’s TV coverage attempted to eulogize Bryant, the arena elected not to share the information.
Burton, scheduled to address the 12,000-plus in attendance at halftime, had known Bryant. The two had trained together during his days with the Philadelphia 76ers when Bryant was a burgeoning high school talent in Pennsylvania.
The Gophers legend, who played at the U of M from 1987-90, thought about addressing the tragedy when given the microphone, but he believed the time wasn’t right. He saved his thoughts for after the game.
“He had the same aggression as a high schooler that he had in his 16th year,” Burton said.
Imagine that. Burton, an 1,800-point scorer in his four college years and a first-round NBA draft pick, forging a kinship with a senior in high school, albeit one who was about to become a first-round draft pick, win five championships, bring home two gold medals and score 81 points in a single basketball game.
Bryant’s mental toughness defined his career as he was able to block out noise and outwork opponents time and again. As Burton went on to describe, showing that type of stoicism wasn’t easy on a day as somber as Sunday.
“Sometimes in athletics it’s hard to keep moving forward when you have things that affect you that no one else knows,” Burton said. “Sometimes it’s players out there where situations happen, but you have to move forward. That’s something that is not as easy to do. But in our world, you’re supposed to.”
“Devastating” was the word used by Pitino, Izzo and Gophers point guard Marcus Carr to describe the news.
Pitino didn’t know Bryant but said his death hit him harder than he would have expected. Maybe because of his place in basketball culture, where Pitino has resided his whole life.
“I loved just the way that he was embracing his new life outside of basketball, educating, seemed like he was really involved with his kids,” Pitino said. “Our guys are pretty rocked by it.”
Izzo knew Bryant through Spartans alum Magic Johnson. The Michigan State coach said he admired Bryant’s work ethic.
“It speaks so much about a man when you don’t know him — none of the players did,” Izzo said, “but the idolization, the respect, it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ … I was amazed watching different players that I didn’t think would really look at things that way. It kind of tells you how fragile life is.”
Now at the halfway point of their conference season, the Gophers (11-9, 5-5) will be taking inventory of where they stand in a jumbled Big Ten while still holding onto NCAA Tournament hopes. But Sunday was not about basketball, nor did it end up being about Burton. Moreso, it was about perspective.
“We played like crap,” said Pitino, “but I’m going to go hug my kids and my wife.”