This Fil-Am coach witnessed Kobe and Gigi Bryant's final game
Filipino-American coach Joe de Vera, pictured here with NBA legend Kobe Bryant, fondly remembers watching Gianna's final game.
Photo courtesy of Joe De Vera

This Fil-Am coach witnessed Kobe and Gigi Bryant's final game

Alder Almo (Philstar.com) - February 26, 2020 - 2:08pm

Here’s how Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s untimely deaths impacted the life of Filipino-American basketball coach Joe de Vera.

JERSEY CITY, New Jersey — One month ago, Joe de Vera was starstruck when he had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and coach against Kobe Bryant. It turned out to be just like that — a moment that would never happen again, as the next day, January 26, he was struck by the tragic news of Bryant and his daughter Gianna along with seven others’ deaths in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.

De Vera’s plane had just landed in Boise, Idaho — where he lives and helps run a youth basketball program — when his phone blew up like crazy. Several missed calls and notifications instantly killed the excitement he was feeling just moments earlier when he posted photos of him and Bryant and his unforgettable experience at Mamba Academy. 

“I had to take a step back and I had to sit down (in the airport) and process it,” De Vera told Philstar.com in a phone interview. “My initial reaction was absolute grief and hundred percent upset.”

De Vera went to California that weekend filled with excitement to meet and coach against Bryant and spend time with his UCLA Fraternity brothers in his first Quinceañera, a Hispanic tradition. He went back home filled with so much grief. 

“The words ‘tragic’, ‘shocking’, ‘surreal’ and even ‘absolutely freaking horrible’ aren't strong enough words to express how I felt,” De Vera said.

‘Keep doing what you do’

With his mind still grappling with the shocking news, De Vera had a flashback of his fleeting moment with the Lakers’ icon.

It happened just four minutes before the game between Gigi’s Mamba Team and his affiliate club, Idaho Tree of Hope on Court 3. Coach Maurice “Mo” Hines, who invited him to come along as guest coach, introduced him to Bryant. 

“I was excited and nervous at the same time. He’s an icon. Watching what he did with Mamba Academy and everything else, he’s larger than life,” De Vera said while recalling the 30-second meeting. 

But it took him just a few moments before settling down. 

“He was totally calming, warm and very gracious,” he added. 

With sweaty palms, De Vera shook Bryant’s hands and started a small talk. 

“Hello Mr. Bryant — very honored to meet you, not only because of what you've done on the basketball court, obviously, but what you're currently doing in support of girls basketball,” he said.

Bryant replied: “Thank you. Do you coach girls?”

It was at this point when De Vera took his chance to invite him to a visit that will no longer happen.

“Yes, I do. I run a club program, affiliated with Coach Mo's program, that has about 100 girl players in Idaho. You need to come up sometime and see it for yourself, if you're able.”

Kobe’s final words still lingers in De Vera’s mind up to this day.

“Maybe I will. Until then, keep doing what you do,” said Bryant before they went to their respective benches. 

.Kobe and his daughter Gigi were on their way to the latter's game in the Mamba Cup Tournament when their helicopter crashed on the hills of in Calabasas, California. Photo courtesy of Joe De Vera

Kobe the coach vs Kobe the player

De Vera described Kobe the coach as the exact opposite of Kobe the player. 

“He was very calm. He never stood up,” De Vera observed. 

Bryant was ruthless in his quest to be the greatest during his 20-year NBA career. But he shed his Black Mamba skin post-retirement and spun his dark alter ago into the positive, inspirational “Mamba Mentality”. 

He was a calming presence to Gigi’s team, which went on to win the game, 35-29 — a breakthrough victory after absorbing two straight losses to Hines’ team in the months leading up to their Mamba Academy encounter. 

Unique father-and-daughter bond

De Vera gave his first that turned out to be also his last impression of Gigi, who scored five points in her final game.

“First, she was only 13. The fact that she’s a lot younger (against the rest), that’s pretty impressive. The skills and physicality she’s shown is already a big jump from her age group. She reminds me of Kobe as a young female with nice ball handling skills, tough and physical and has a good stroke,” said De Vera, his voice cracking, knowing that he will no longer see her reach her potential. 

It was neither the Gigi nor Bryant’s game that really struck a chord on De Vera’s heart upon learning the tragic news. It was the father-and-daughter bond that resonated well with him.

Like Kobe, De Vera is also a father of four (two boys and two girls) who started coaching because of his kids. One of his daughters is now playing college ball for University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS) Mountain Lions. 

Laker faithful

De Vera grew up a Lakers fan in Long Beach, California, where his parents — his father Noli De Vera who hails from Balintawak, Quezon City, and his mother Isabel Hernandez De Vera from Mataasnakahoy, Batangas — migrated during the Vietnam War thanks to his mother’s nursing degree from University of Santo Tomas (UST). They moved to the US when he was three, and he last visited the Philippines for a business trip just five years ago and hopes to make another trip soon, this time a much deserved vacation with his family. 

De Vera was already a Lakers fan even before Magic Johnson’s “Showtime: era, and his affinity with the team grew even bigger when he studied at UCLA, where he met his wife Emily Miller. 

Bryant convert

De Vera though wasn’t a big fan of Bryant not until toward the latter part of his career and post-retirement where Kobe being a #GirlDad and his contribution to women’s basketball made a strong connection to De Vera. 

“I wasn’t the Kobe fan initially. I love his game but he came across to me as arrogant, brash, self-centered but he was fantastic and phenomenal player. The mistakes he [committed] made me less of a fan, not that I’m a perfect but because it’s against my beliefs as a married man,” De Vera said.

Bryant became a polarizing figure when he was accused of rape in 2003 in Denver, Colorado. But he used that negativity as a fuel to his drive to reach greater heights in his basketball career. He worked hard not only on the court to repair his tarnished image but also off the floor, winning her wife and family back, creating the Mamba Mentality to push the next generation to be their best in everything that they do, to turn negatives into positives in the quest for greatness, supporting women’s basketball and becoming the MVP of #Girldads as what his wife Vanessa said in her eulogy to him on Monday (Tuesday Manila time). 

“I became a fan when he retired, the way he approach the game, he approached his marriage and supported women’s basketball,” De Vera said.

‘Until then, keep doing what you do’

As millions of fans continue to mourn and finding it hard to find closure, De Vera vowed to celebrate the life of the Lakers’ icon. 

“Personally, I want to live by his Mamba Mentality — how he approaches the game, how he outworks everybody. I want to be better at my day job, as finance mortgage adviser, as a basketball coach and more especially as a father and a family man,” De Vera said. 

“I want to improve as a family person. He (Kobe) was the most visible guy out there, his love for his wife, his daughters especially Gianna was right up there,” he added. 

“Lastly, just wanting to use the game of basketball to help girls become confident, strong and productive and just strong is the best word to put it, using basketball as a tool for girls to be empowered. Playing basketball is just a mean to an end. Learning the process of being great, being successful, that’s what Mamba Mentality really means,” he said. 

For all of Bryant’s exploits on his Hall of Fame basketball career, it was the little things he did off the court that truly cemented his legacy.  

Bryant may no longer be with us. He may no longer have the chance to visit De Vera’s girls basketball team in Idaho but his spirit, his Mamba Mentality will do at some point. And this goes the same to all who are still grieving and deeply impacted by his death.

As Bryant told De Vera, “until then, keep doing what you do.”

***

Alder Almo is a former senior sportswriter for Philstar.com and NBA.com Philippines. He is now based in New Jersey and contributes for the NBA-focused website otgbasketball.com.

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