Gophers coach Richard Pitino found out about the unexpected death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Sunday afternoon before his team played against Michigan State, but he told his players afterward.
Sophomore center Daniel Oturu, who made it known to teammates and coaches he idolized Bryant, seemed hardest hit by the news, Pitino said.
The former Los Angeles Lakers star tragically died in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others earlier Sunday. Oturu cried hearing about it following Sunday’s 70-52 loss to the Spartans at Williams Arena.
“Daniel Oturu is a humongous Kobe Bryant fan,” Pitino said. “He was devastated after the game. I mean, in tears. He was rocked by it.”
On Sunday night, Oturu posted on his Instagram account a selfie he took as a high school standout with Bryant at a Nike Camp in 2017. The Gophers 6-foot-10 star wrote on social media about what Bryant meant to him, which echoed so many other fans, athletes and basketball players locally and around the world.
“You were more than just my favorite player,” Oturu wrote. “You were my hero. My heart is so broken. Rest in Peace Kobe. I’ll never forget what you meant to me.”
Bryant’s greatness inspired Oturu to always work on improving his game.
After starting on the U's NCAA tournament team as a freshman in 2018-19, Oturu’s hard work in the offseason turned him into one of the top big men in college basketball this year. He’s averaging a team-best 19.7 points and Big Ten-leading 11.3 rebounds for the Gophers through 19 games.
On a wall facing Oturu’s bed in his childhood home in Woodbury still hangs a poster of Bryant. Hanging in front of that picture are medals Oturu received in high school, including when his game-winning dunk led Cretin-Derham Hall to the Minnesota Class 4A state championship his senior year in 2018.
The same NBA superstar featured in posters in Oturu's bedroom gave him and other campers advice about the game of basketball and life a few years ago at Bryant's Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles.
“That was pretty cool,” Oturu told the Star Tribune after the camp in August 2017. “The highlight was meeting Kobe. Definitely him. We all spent more time with Kobe than LeBron and [Kevin Durant]. He talked to us about how to build your brand, staying focused on your goals. He gave us many examples that were really cool. First time I met him. He’s a serious person about what he wants to do. I don’t really meet a lot of people who are as serious as him. He’s very dynamic. He’s very serious about what we wants to do, even if it’s not basketball related. You can tell that he’s a competitive person. I’ve always been a Kobe fan. I think Kobe is the greatest player of all-time.”
For a younger generation of NBA fans, Bryant represented the GOAT or Greatest of All-Time in the era when they started to fall in love with basketball. But Oturu also didn’t have any problem telling anyone that would listen that Bryant was even better than Michael Jordan.
Oturu even told Bryant in person at the Nike Camp about giving him the nod over MJ in the GOAT discussion.
“Yeah I told him,” Oturu said before his freshman year with the Gophers. “He just said, ‘Thank you.’”