Kobe Bryant made an impact on Utah men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak

(Josh Newman | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah men’s basketball head coach Larry Krystkowiak conducts a press conference with the jersey of Kobe Bryant hanging from the podium, Jan. 28. 2020.

With a Kobe Bryant No. 24 jersey in tow, and with a pair of Bryant’s signature Nike sneakers on his feet, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak spent much of his usual Tuesday news conference speaking about the global icon.

After about 20 minutes, Utes Associate Director of Communications John Vu made a last call for questions.

It was then that Krystkowiak really started talking.

“Last time I felt like this was 9/11, where it really just hits you in the gut,” Krystkowiak said. “I know that at that same time, what happened was our country was kind of brought together. Politically, religiously, there was just a lot of feel-good, and everybody was really compassionate towards one another.

“Unfortunately, it takes things like this, where you kind of open your eyes, sit back and it brings everybody together. I think, it’s just that you never want somebody to leave too early.”

[Read more: Remembering Kobe: Utah Jazz reflect on NBA legend’s death]

Bryant died on Sunday at the age of 41, one of nine people involved in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. Krystkowiak, who had a series of 10-day contracts with the 1996-97 Lakers when Bryant was an 18-year-old rookie, was at home Sunday watching games.

His wife and son were in different rooms of the house. Both yelled the news to Krystkowiak, who, like so many other people in the moment across the world, was dumbfounded at what he was hearing.

“It’s been a rough day-and-a-half or so,” Krystkowiak said.


When • Thursday, 7:30 p.m. MST

TV • FS1

In the spring of 1997, Krystkowiak was newly married and at the tail end of his playing career. He spent the 1995-96 in France, and was out of the NBA when the 1996-97 season began. Del Harris was the Lakers coach at the time, who coached Krystkowiak for his entire run with the Milwaukee Bucks from 1987-92. Krystkowiak saw the Lakers were down a few big men, so he jokingly sent Harris a message about needing somebody.

Harris took it seriously. Krystkowiak wound up spending nine games with those Lakers, seeing action in three of them. Krystkowiak, 32 at this point and trying to hang on with this late NBA chance, always wanted to get to the gym early to get work in.

He was never able to beat Bryant to the gym, which confirms long-told stories of his maniacal work ethic.

“He was just a young kid and I was obviously at the other end of the spectrum,” Krystkowiak said. “When you’re part of that, even though my role was very minimal, you still put on a Laker uniform.”

Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley was quoted on Tuesday morning as saying that his players have had trouble focusing since Bryant’s death. In fairness, any current college player was a child discovering basketball a decade ago, when Bryant was still at the very peak of his powers. It stands to reason that some college players, especially on this side of the country, grew up idolizing Bryant.

Krystkowiak took the notion of lack of focus in a different direction. He doesn’t expect that at all as Utah readies for a critical game at USC on Thursday night (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Instead, Krystkowiak expects quite the opposite from his players.

“To me, we should be playing for Kobe, and it creates a little bit of an inspiration and a motivation of how quick things can come to an end,” Krystkowiak said. “I think he was a great role model for how to play the game.

“There’s a lot of excuse makers, and people that are always going to come up with something,” he said. “At the end of the day, they just didn’t work hard enough and Kobe didn’t have a lot of time for those people. He was very focused and in times like these, it should be a great inspiration.”

Having grown up in Oak Park, Calif., about 12 miles from the crash site, Utes sophomore forward Riley Battin is the lone Southern California native on the roster. Battin did not grow up a diehard Lakers, but he idolized Bryant.

Battin said he had a No. 8 Lakers jersey and when Bryant switched to No. 24, Battin had that one, too. Battin was in his dorm room on Sunday as news of Bryant’s death began to circulate.

“Growing up in California, he was the guy,” Battin said. “That was hard for me because he is the first of my idols to pass. It’d definitely been tough. It’s something you always dreamed about, you know? I wanted to be Kobe."