Devean George played the first seven seasons of his 11-year NBA career for the Los Angeles Lakers. He is now back home in the Twin Cities and the founder of Building Blocks, a nonprofit attempting to bring improved housing to north Minneapolis.
George also does volunteer work with a youth group in Inglewood, Calif. He appeared there at a charity 5K over the weekend, and arrived at LAX for a flight home around 9:30 a.m. on Sunday.
“All of a sudden people were frantic, running all over, showing one another phones,” George said. “I thought maybe it was a terrorist attack, or we had started a war. Then, my phone started blowing up.”
The messages were informing George that his friend and former teammate Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. “First, you don’t believe it,” George said. “And then you feel empty. It’s just heartache. The loss is tremendous.”
George beat outrageous odds to be drafted out of Division III Augsburg — by way of Benilde St. Margaret’s High — by the Lakers with the 23rd selection in 1999 draft. He was actually a year older than Bryant, but Kobe came to the NBA out of high school and already had played four pro seasons when George arrived in L.A.
“Kobe knew I had some grit, making it from D-III to the first round of the NBA,” George said. “And he took me under his wing; he was determined to toughen me up for what was in front of me.
“Every scrimmage, we guarded each other. Every one-and-one, he made sure it was me and him.
“And when the veterans got on me with the rookie hazing — ‘You don’t belong here from something called Augsburg’ — and I looked at him for help, Kobe would shake his head and say, ‘Deal with it. This is the NBA.’ ”
The Lakers had their three-peat of NBA titles in George’s first three years (2000-02). He went from seven minutes a game as a rookie to 21 minutes in Season 3. He then played three seasons in Dallas and a final season in Golden State in 2009-10.
George would stop postgame to say hello in the Lakers’ family room, and on Monday, he recalled the change in Bryant at the sight of his daughters. The second-oldest of four, Gigi, 13, died with her father and seven other people in Sunday’s crash.
“Those girls changed him … 100 percent,” George said. “Changed him through the years, but also in five seconds when he saw them after a game.
“Kobe was the NBA’s Black Mamba, the No. 1 killer of all time on a basketball court, and then he’d see those girls and he’d get this smile on his face and turn into the weakest, sweetest guy ever.”
George paused for a moment in Monday’s phone conversation, then said: “Those girls, they turned Kobe from the killer mamba into a puny little garter snake.’’