Sleepless and all cried out, former Minnesota United fan favorite Miguel Ibarra still can’t believe the basketball superstar who through a chance encounter inspired him to dream big is gone.
The first Twitter alert reporting Kobe Bryant’s death hit Ibarra’s phone midmorning Sunday at his parents’ home in the Southern California desert north of Los Angeles, some 70 miles from where the helicopter Bryant often used to avoid L.A. traffic crashed on a foggy hillside in the Santa Monica mountains.
The former Los Angeles Lakers legend, his daughter, Gigi, and seven other passengers died on their way to a youth basketball game. Bryant was 41.
Ibarra tweeted three times in the next 10 minutes, twice with a clasped emoji praying hands that it wasn’t true.
“When I first saw the news, I really thought it was a joke or a hoax,” he said Monday night. “Then all my friends started texting me. Now it still feels like it’s not real. It’s really devastating.”
Ibarra was 6 years old and growing up in that desert town of Lancaster, Calif., when Bryant arrived in Los Angeles an NBA rookie. He was 10 when Bryant starting winning titles with the Lakers, five of them all told.
His father, Angel, loved the Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal. Ibarra grew to love his father’s team, too, but chose his own favorite player, the one who he now calls his “idol” responsible for his MLS career.
Like so many across the Southland, Ibarra collected jerseys and sneakers bearing Bryant’s name when he was a kid. He still owns a closet full that he once considered selling, but now gladly didn’t.
But it was a chance encounter at college on a trainer’s table that altered his life.
Ibarra was a senior at UC-Irvine, where Bryant often trained in summers not far from his Newport Beach home. He still keeps close a photograph taken one afternoon. It shows Bryant seated on one table in the trainer’s room, wearing a “Hunt or Be Hunted” T-shirt, while Ibarra received treatment for a game that night on the next one.
“I was shy and I didn’t want to ask him for a picture,” Ibarra said. “He looked to his right and started talking to me, just like a normal person having a conversation.”
Raised in Italy where his father played professionally and fluent in Italian, Spanish and soccer, Bryant asked Ibarra what position he played. He talked about soccer great Lionel Messi, who plays for Barcelona, Bryant’s favorite European team.
“I told him he should come to our game that night,” Ibarra said. “He said `I wish I could, but I have to go to a wedding with my wife and you know how all that goes down if I don’t show up.’ ’’
Those fleeting moments personalized a kinship Ibarra always felt with Bryant, if until then only from afar.
“He really acted like we had known each other for a long time,” Ibarra said. “That really meant a lot to me.”
So did watching Bryant train up close, a glimpse that Ibarra said inspired him to think big himself.
“Every offseason, I watched him put in the work,” Ibarra said. “It makes you think what you could be if you put in the work, too.”
Ibarra never saw Bryant play in Los Angeles at Staples Center. But he watched Bryant from the front row at Target Center when Ibarra played for the NASL franchise that became the MLS’ Minnesota United.
“Seeing him up close like that, my idol since I was little, it was frickin’ amazing,” he said while watching a replay of Bryant’s final NBA game in 2016.
Now Bryant is gone, four years after he played his final NBA game and far too soon.
His memory lives on, in many unexpected ways: Ibarra’s dog back home in Lancaster is named Kobe. He taught former United teammate and best friend Christian Ramirez’s young daughter to shout “Kobe” every time she picks up something and throws it.
Ibarra didn’t fall asleep until 5 a.m. Monday and awoke at 8 a.m. hoping Sunday had all been a dream.
“I woke up and still couldn’t believe it,” he said. “LeBron (James) just passed him in points, so it feels like that was just yesterday.”
James passed Bryant into third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in a game Saturday at Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown.
Still seeking his next team after United didn’t renew his contract, Ibarra has stayed close to home since Sunday morning rather than join the public grieving across the Los Angeles area. He said he’ll make the 75-mile drive to Staples Center later this week to “put down some roses and stuff like that.”
But but knows he can’t escape Bryant’s death wherever he goes. Or doesn’t go.
“Go to the store, the gas station, everywhere and someone is wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey,” said Ibarra, who said he still remains hopeful he can return to play in Minnesota. “He’s everywhere. California has kind of shut down. Actually it seems like the whole world has hit pause because of the impact he had on the whole country, maybe the whole world.”