Growing up Kobe: What it’s like for these college players to share a legendary name

  • Covers college basketball
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
  • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

For the current generation of college basketball players, Kobe Bryant was an icon. They dreamed of one day playing the game the way he did. He inspired them. They idolized him. He was “The Mamba” and they wanted to emulate his work ethic. In some cases, he was also the motivation behind their names. For college players named Kobe — or some variation of the name — the impact of the five-time NBA champion’s life and death carried different meanings. Here are the stories of a few collegiate athletes who share the name.

Kobi Bryant, Urbana University (Ohio)

Senior midfielder/forward (soccer); started 18 games as a senior for the Division II Blue Knights and 66 of 68 over her four-year career

“If I was a boy, my name was going to be Kobe with an ‘e.’ My name isn’t something people forget. But my mom was more of a Shaq fan.

“I played basketball until I was in eighth grade. But I had to quit because I couldn’t shoot. I could dribble. But everyone expects you to be good because of the name.

“But I like it. I like the pressure it brings you. I like the challenge.

“I went to St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, where LeBron James went to high school. Everyone was like, ‘Why aren’t you on the team?’ I would say, ‘Trust me, you don’t want me on the team.’

“But you definitely have to be more than an average person if your name is Kobe (Kobi) Bryant.

“When I was 9 or 10 years old, I had a moment where I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really named after Kobe Bryant.’ But I liked it. I liked the notoriety of it.

“The day he died, I was in the shower. And I looked at my phone and I had three missed calls from my mom. I called her back. My mom was crying. It was really upsetting. I had to check other news sources.

“It was just weird because people would say my name afterward and I’d realize that they were talking about him, not me. I definitely think it was different for me. I think having the same name made his death more unique, in a way.

“I definitely drank some champagne [as a toast to Kobe Bryant’s life] and watched the news that night.

“I feel more responsibility to hold up the name now.”

Kobby Ayetey, North Carolina Central

Junior forward, averaged 2.7 points and 1.8 rebounds in his first season with NCCU in 2019-20 after transferring from Baltimore City Community College

“I wasn’t named after Kobe Bryant. In Ghana, where I’m from, a male born on a Tuesday is named ‘Kobby [COB-be].’ It’s my soul name.

“Growing up, I’d heard about Kobe Bryant, but I didn’t know much until I started playing basketball. People would just go ‘Kobe! Kobe!’ when they saw me. So, in Ghana, I started watching Kobe Bryant videos. During that time, I started learning about Kobe, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and other players.

“I said to myself, ‘I guess I can be like Kobe one day.’ But then I was like, ‘Nah, he’s too nice.’

“When I came to America, everybody called me Kobe. I didn’t correct them. I just stuck with it. I’m like, ‘That man is great and I’m not on his level, but I can work like him.’

“I remember the first time I got a pair of Kobe shoes. I was 17. They were a gift. I went crazy.

“On the day he died, one of my cousins in Baltimore called me. He said he’d received a text that said ‘Kobby’ had died. He said, ‘Are you good?’ Then we realized it was the real Kobe Bryant, not me. I didn’t believe it. I just prayed that it was not [true].

“I didn’t eat. I didn’t eat until maybe the next day. I was just empty. That’s it. I was just empty. I just started thinking about life in a different light.

“I think he was an inspiration in a different way. No. 1, his work ethic. And the kind of man he was. He was a family man. I’m very close to my mom and grandma. I just wanted to be like him.”

Kobe Wilson, Alcorn State

Junior forward, averaged 3.3 points and 6.0 rebounds for ASU in 2019-20

“Yeah, my mom, she named me after Kobe Bryant. She was a Lakers fan, but she wasn’t, like, the biggest basketball fan.

“Growing up with the name Kobe? It was fun at times. But there was trash talk every now and then. There were definitely some people who wanted to challenge me just to see what I was all about.

“Back in middle school, it was actually crazy. During one game, I don’t even know how this opposing team even knew my name at the time. But they were talking a lot of trash before the game. We ended up beating them.

“I definitely took a lot of pride in my name. He was my favorite basketball player. I always felt like I had to work hard, even though I know I’m my own person. He definitely made me want to work harder and be different.

“It’s actually crazy. He died on my 21st birthday.

“My teammates had sent a picture of the article in our group chat and I was like, ‘It can’t be real.’ Everybody just started talking about it, all day on my 21st birthday. That sums up how the day went. I tried to run away from it. That was all anyone talked about.

“I didn’t have plans to celebrate because we still had practice. We had a game the day before and the day after.

“When the news came out, it started raining. That made it even more unbelievable.

“He has a great legacy. His death made me feel like I have to take it up another level.

“He reached so many people.

“If I could reach half the people he reached, that would be big.”

Kobe Dickson, Cornell

Sophomore forward, averaged 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds for the Big Red in 2019-20

“My parents were Lakers fans before I was born. Then they had the chance to adopt me and they thought I should be named after their favorite player.

“Growing up, on the basketball court you’d hear, ‘You’re not the real Kobe.’ It just made me play harder, to be honest. I knew he wouldn’t respond. He would just cook them.

“I always felt like, if I wasn’t working my hardest, I’d be a disgrace to his name and him.

“On the day he died, I was in the car coming back from a restaurant with friends when I first saw the reports on Twitter. It was a rough couple of days after that. I don’t know how to describe it.

“After he passed, I looked at myself in the mirror. I wanted to be sure that I was doing all I can to not waste anything. His passing meant no one is invincible.

“But when he died, I put my phone on ‘do not disturb.’ I had jerseys. I still have pictures of him.

“I want to live through him and be the best basketball player I can be. “

Kobe Langley, UNC Greensboro

Freshman guard, averaged 0.8 points for the Spartans in 2019-20

“My grandfather picked out the name for me when I was born. He died a couple years ago. And since then, that always stuck with me. That was important to me.

“My grandfather loved Kobe. He loved to watch Kobe play. Me too. Growing up, I always had the Kobe jersey, his shoes. I was Kobe down to my feet.

“You’re holding up his name. He played with anger and he played with passion. When I played, I wanted to play just like that, with passion and anger.

“That gives me the aspirations and the goals to be just like him. His relentlessness, his will to win, his heart was everything, all about basketball.

“My coach told us the news that Kobe Bryant had passed away during a team meeting.

“I know when I got the news about his death, I didn’t believe it. I had to go through 20 to 30 people to try to get something else beside the real answer. Everybody was talking about it.

“I was in tears myself, because he was somebody I looked up to and wanted to be like and now that he’s gone, it’s like, man …

“I feel like I have to try to be just like him.”

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