CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Devin Vassell’s jersey number is no coincidence
Like thousands of young basketball players, Vassell grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant – so much so that he wears Bryant’s No. 24 as an homage to the hoops superstar.
And, like seemingly everyone else around the globe, Vassell took the news of Bryant’s untimely death hard. He and some of his cohorts on the Florida State men’s basketball team were gathered in their locker room when they heard the news that Bryant’s helicopter had been involved in an accident near Los Angeles on Sunday morning.
“Everybody was kind of in shock,” Vassell said. “You didn’t really want to believe it. There were a lot of us looking on our phones to make sure it was true.”
Vassell, a sophomore forward, said that Bryant was the Michael Jordan of his generation – a larger-than-life figure who wowed on a nightly basis with both his skills and his competitive drive.
The news of Bryant’s passing dominated media coverage on Sunday, but Vassell found that he felt even worse when he woke up Monday morning to the realization that Bryant was still gone.
It wasn’t just a bad dream.
“Just waking up and thinking about it,” Vassell said, “and realizing that we lost an icon.”
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton echoed those sentiments.
“Any time you have a tragic accident, anything happen like that, your heart goes out to the family,” he said. “Because nothing is worse than losing a loved one, but especially in an accident, a tragic accident like they have to endure.
“That level of pain is just almost unthinkable.”
Bryant was just the fifth player in basketball history to go straight to the NBA out of high school.
Although he didn’t play college basketball, Bryant’s path had a brief stop at Florida State.
According a report by the Tallahassee Democrat, Bryant’s AAU team played in a tournament at FSU’s Tully Gym in the mid-1990s, and former Seminoles coach Pat Kennedy did his best to recruit him.
No such luck. Bryant was picked 13th overall in the 1996 NBA draft, and he went on to win five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“He made such a great contribution to the game of basketball in such a classy way,” Hamilton said. “He will be missed by a lot of people. …
“The only thing we can say is, Kobe, may he rest in peace.”
Already paying tribute Bryant with his jersey number, Vassell said he planned to take things one step further when the No. 5 Seminoles visit Virginia on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN).
“I just want to dedicate my game to him,” said Vassell, FSU’s leading scorer with 13.1 points per game. “It’s just hard. Prayers go out to the family and everybody else who was in the incident.
“I know it’s a hard time for everybody, especially people in the basketball community.”
The Seminoles are bracing for a rematch with Virginia, who they outlasted, 54-50, in Tallahassee two weeks ago.
The Cavaliers have won two of their three games since that first meeting with FSU, although they needed overtime to win at Wake Forest on Sunday.
FSU, meanwhile, is riding a 10-game winning streak that is the program’s longest since 2016.
It’s an historic stretch, one that coincides with the Seminoles’ highest national ranking since 1972.
But FSU has also survived close calls in three consecutive games – including that first win over UVA – and Vassell said he’d like to see the Seminoles play well enough to give themselves some more breathing room as they move forward.
“I feel like, and Coach (Stan) Jones says it a lot, too, you can prepare, but basketball has a little bit of luck to it,” Vassell said, referring to FSU’s longtime assistant coach. “There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve got to correct and fix, because our luck could run out.”