Junior Camacho was raised as a die-hard Lakers fan. As a kid, he sat on the couch with his dad and watched every game, paying special attention to Kobe Bryant. When he wasn’t watching the games, he was outside mimicking Bryant’s signature moves to the best of his 5-year-old body’s ability.
On Sunday, Camacho saw Bryant on TV once again, but this time his emotions were much different.
“I broke down and started crying,” said Camacho, who plays basketball for Valencia High School.
Kobe Bryant and several other people, including his daughter Gianna, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas on Sunday morning. Bryant was 41 and his daughter was 13.
The Santa Clarita Valley prep basketball community, along with the basketball community as a whole, is grieving the loss. Some coaches, like Saugus boys coach Alfredo Manzano, were too emotional to speak when contacted for interview.
“His mentality was just great,” Camacho said. “I loved his work ethic and he never backed down. Even if something bad happened, he fought through it and kept going … I worked on the same moves just to be like them and try to get the same work ethic.”
Vikings coach Bill Bedgood sent a group text message to his team as soon as he heard of Bryant’s death. Growing up, Bedgood watched Michael Jordan and recognized the similar role that Bryant took on for his players.
“For the generation of players I coach, it’s been Kobe,” Bedgood said. “Kobe was that huge star that everybody wanted to shoot like and play like and be like. When he changed his number from 8 to 24 guys were so excited because they could wear his number on a high school team.”
Golden Valley girls basketball coach Sixx Johnson had the opportunity to play basketball against Bryant, who had freshly moved to L.A., at Balboa Park when they were both 17 years old.
Although his NBA career wasn’t full-fledged quite yet, Johnson got to experience Bryant’s competitive nature firsthand.
“He was really confident, you could see it then,” Johnson said. “He was on another level. He walked around with that chip on his shoulder and you knew he was a competitor. You could tell he was always about business and wanted to dominate anyone who was in front of him in the court.”
The Master’s University alumnus Mike Penberthy also had the opportunity to experience Bryant’s nature as his teammate on the Lakers for two seasons. Penberthy was with L.A. from 2000 to 2002.
“Kobe was an incredible competitor. He wanted to play one on one all the time. He never took a day off. He worked hard on his game every day,” Penberthy said via text message.
“He made so many difficult shots and he made so many important shots. I’m truly sad for his family and for all the families involved.”
Penberthy now has two sons who play boys basketball for Hart High School — Ty and Jaden. They’ve had a few interactions with Bryant growing up and have heard their father recount myriad stories about him throughout their childhood.
“He was a good guy,” Ty, a senior at Hart, said. “You could just tell how focused he was all the time. (We heard) tons of stories of him in practice just competing and going at it and he did everything he could to win.”
Bryant was also just starting to make an impact on the prep basketball community. He coached Gianna’s team as well as opened Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
SCV basketball players like Ty and Camacho have had the chance to train at the facility and give it rave reviews. Johnson also saw the impact that Bryant and Mamba Sports Academy were having on prep hoops, especially for girls basketball.
“Just being a fan of sports and the fan of fathers in their kids’ lives,” Johnson said, “I thought that was huge to have that facility fairly locally. It was huge what he was doing for the sport. It was going to get even bigger as time went on … It just sucks that we had to miss out on such a promising first phase of (Gianna’s) life and second phase of Kobe’s life.”
Camacho will never see Bryant on live television again. He’ll never see his vision for prep basketball come to fruition. But he’ll also never be able to shed the work ethic and skills that were inspired by his idol.