‘‘Tomorrow is not promised.”
Those are among the saddest words ever spoken by beloved Minnesota athletes. We heard them first from Kirby Puckett when he was forced into retirement by glaucoma. We heard them again Sunday, when Willie Burton reflected on the death of his old practice partner, Kobe Bryant.
Sunday, The Barn was a bubble. While any fan with a phone could have learned about the death of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others on a helicopter that crashed in the Los Angeles area, the players on the Williams Arena court did not hear the news until after the game.
The Gophers honored Burton before and during halftime of the game against Michigan State, raising a banner featuring his picture and number into the rafters. As Burton gave a speech on the court at halftime, he decided not to mention Bryant’s death, even though they were connected by basketball and geography.
When Burton played for the Philadelphia 76ers, he worked out regularly with Bryant, then a high school phenom at Lower Merion High in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“I started to make a comment about that,” Burton said. “But I decided not to because I didn’t think that was the place and time.
“I worked out with Kobe Bryant every day. I was with the 76ers and he was a senior in high school. Every day, I worked out with him. He had the same aggression as a high schooler that he had in his 16th year. And to hear and see something like that ... there were a lot of thoughts going through my head on what to say and how to do it.
“It was more or less, ‘Just be appreciative of what’s happening around you. Take this all in. Tomorrow is really not promised.’ ”
The coaches — Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo — said they heard the news before the game but decided not to tell their players. Izzo told point guard Cassius Winston while they were waiting to be interviewed after the Spartans’ 70-52 victory. Winston asked, “Kobe?” Then, “Bryant?” Then stood with his mouth wide open in disbelief.
“That’s a hard one, there,” Pitino said. “I don’t normally get affected by people I don’t know, but that one …
“I found out right before the game. We didn’t tell the team. Daniel Oturu is a humongous Kobe Bryant fan. He was devastated after the game. I mean, in tears. He was rocked by it.
“Unfortunately, it keeps it in perspective for us all ... I’m going to go hug my kids, and my wife. Because that’s just devastating. For whatever reason it just feels like it hits home. Maybe it’s basketball.”
Izzo had met Bryant through Magic Johnson, who starred at Michigan State and with the Lakers.
“The players are devastated,” he said. “I got a chance to meet him a couple of times because of Magic, but my players didn’t know him and I would just like to say how sad I am for his family. He kind of stood for everything I believe in. He was, according to Earvin, the hardest-working guy in America.
“Life is short. Live every day.”
Gophers point guard Marcus Carr reacted the way so many players of his generation must have — by lamenting the death of a player who, in the age of blanket television coverage and instantaneous highlights, could not get enough of Bryant’s spectacular and single-minded playing style.
“Heard about it right after the game,” Carr said. “Honestly, it’s devastating. It’s real sad. A person we all look up to, we all grew up watching, who helped us love the game.”
Burton is an administrator for athletics in the City of Detroit school system. He founded Excel U, a company that hopes to aid the development of student athletes. Late Sunday afternoon, he quizzed reporters on the challenges facing college athletes and students.
Tomorrow is not promised, but Burton intends to do good whenever another one arrives.