Kobe’s Influential Visit: Location Should be UCI Athletics’ Niche

On Thursday Sept. 23, arguably the best basketball player in the world strutted through the doors of UCI’s Bren Events Center to embrace a crowd filled with the university’s student athletes. Relaxed in his style and demeanor, Kobe Bryant spoke freely, while donning white warm-up pants and a black windbreaker.

Volleyball coach John Speraw interviewed the reigning NBA champion, explaining that he had met Kobe in Beijing while coaching the U.S. men’s volleyball team. The two ran into each other recently and Speraw asked Kobe if he could speak to his volleyball team. Kobe agreed, but insisted that he address not just Speraw’s team, but the entire UCI athletics program in a Q&A session.

In an open forum, athletes were welcomed to ask the “Black Mamba” any question they desired. Bryant candidly complimented sophomore basketball player Michael Wilder on his ability to grow an afro, laughed hysterically when a female athlete asked him to say hello to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, admitted that he has a strong relationship with Michael Jordan, Hilary Swank and Oprah Winfrey and imparted wisdom upon aspiring professional athletes.

As I sat in the crowd, it was surreal to listen to one of the world’s biggest celebrities talk about his unique lifestyle. Whether the athletes at UCI were Lakers fans, Celtic supporters, Lakers haters or really didn’t follow the NBA, it must have still been a privilege to have the opportunity to stand up and project a question to a dedicated athlete who trains like a machine and happens to possess five championship rings.

I’ve often heard stories of how so-and-so saw Kobe at the ARC, at Golden Spoon, at In-N-Out. But for Kobe to formally address players who, for some, have watched him hit clutch shots and throw down highlight reel dunks since they still had baby teeth, it was special.

It wasn’t a shake of the hand, “nice to meet you” or a “here’s an autograph, get out of my face.”
The interview lasted for about two hours, followed by team photos with Kobe. He didn’t dismiss questions or say “no comment;” he did what he did best: put on a great show and inspired many along the way.

Although his manner often reflects a cocky individual willing to win at all costs, his actions at UCI spoke volumes of how much he cares for the future of athletics. This is a lesson more athletes should learn from. Some of UCI’s current athletes could be professionals in the near future. If this is the case, I sure hope they stop to sign autographs and cordially give their adoring fans the time of day.

In the weeks since Kobe’s visit, he seems to have left a lasting impact on Irvine athletics. He told the players that he hadn’t experienced a bad workout in years. It was a reminder that insufficient training does not help in the long run.

The women’s basketball team’s Jazmyne White recently posted on her Twitter, quoting what
Kobe pegged as his most inspirational quotation. It came from his high school English teacher reading, “Rest in the end, not the middle.” Senior Tanya Taylor was also influenced by the quotation, explaining that it’s the women’s soccer team’s new motto. Taylor and her teammates are 6-0 since adopting the slogan.

When the Anteaters have an off night, Kobe explained that it’s important to forget about it, that if they “take a shit, flush it.” There may have been a more refined way of putting it, but the blatantly honest comments have stuck with the athletes.

Perhaps motivation from one of the world’s most committed competitors will inspire Anteaters to train harder than they’ve ever trained, to put in extra hours in the gym and to refuse to be unprepared while gracing an Anteater uniform.

It could be the edge that gives Russell Turner’s squad a chance to play spoiler in March Madness, brings Speraw’s volleyball team back to national championship contenders and pushes the men’s and women’s soccer teams as well as the men’s water polo team (all currently ranked top 20 in the nation) deep into their respective NCAA Tournaments.

UC Irvine has quality individuals at the helm of each sport. In the past decade, the school has brought in a volleyball coach that helped lead the 2008 USA team to a gold medal in Beijing, a hall of fame baseball coach who recruits the region’s finest players to compete against the nation’s top competition and NBA legend Don Nelson’s assistant coach Russell Turner to take over the promising basketball program. The ability to attract exceptional leaders is crucial to these institutions, but it shouldn’t stop at the coaching level.

Positioned in a spectacular community with Newport Beach serving as our friendly neighbors, there are plenty of successful people on and around this campus. The Kobe Q&A session fell into the laps of our athletics’ department, but hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.

It’s probably not possible to top Kobe, that’s understandable. But there are several professional athletes living in these Southern California beach communities. The names range from Olympic beach volleyball champion Misty May-Treanor, who could talk about her path to gold medals, to Mark McGwire recalling the highlights of his 1998 home run chase and lowlights of his steroid scandal, to hall of fame Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

It’s a challenge, but it’s worth pursuing more inspirational sporting figures. That element could present further reason for promising Southern California recruits to sign with UCI over rivals Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UCSB. We have a niche worth utilizing. Who’s next?