RICHMOND, Va. -- As tributes and memories of former Lakers great Kobe Bryant pour in from all four corners of the globe, both Mike Rhoades and Chris Mooney have recollections that pre-date any of Bryant's 20 years in the NBA.
Both head coaches are Pennsylvania natives. Rhoades grew up in Mahanoy City, between Harrisburg and Scranton. He was a recent graduate of Lebanon Valley College when he went to see a high school playoff game in which Bryant's team from Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia was playing. It's a story Rhoades has told many times since then.
"We went to Martz Hall in Pottsville, Pennsylvania," Rhoades recalled.
Lower Merion was in a playoff game in March of 1996, on their way to a state championship.
"It was pretty awesome watching him," said Rhoades.
"What I remember most about it was, he dominated the game, but at halftime, he was out playing one-on-one with one of his teammates" Rhoades continued. "They were going at it as hard as he was playing the actual game. You could tell how much he (Bryant) loved basketball, and I saw it on a 17-year-old high school senior."
Likewise, Mooney, a Philadelphia native, remembers working a basketball camp at La Salle University when he first encountered a teenage Bryant.
"His father was an assistant coach at La Salle, maybe trying to help recruit Kobe," Mooney remembered. "When he used to play in the counselor's game, I remember thinking 'How good could he be?' He was only 16 or 17 at the time."
"You just couldn't believe that somebody so young could be so talented," Mooney continued. "Better than everybody, already. Super confident, but also relentless."
Like so many other fans, the news caught both programs by complete surprise, and was initially met with a certain amount of skepticism. But once the reality began to settle in, both Mooney and Rhoades addressed their players about the loss of a player most, if not all, of them admired.
"For our guys, if they haven't lost someone close to them yet, this probably feels like it's a lot closer because of how familiar everyone was with Kobe" Mooney explained. "It seemed like (Bryant) would have an amazing next 40 years also".
"For a lot of people who grew up watching him over those 20 years, it's pretty crazy," Rhoades said. "It tells you how precious life is. A lot of people talk about Kobe, but there were also young girls just going to play basketball (in the accident). That's what's devastating to me."
VCU and Richmond meet for the 84th time in series history Tuesday night at the Siegel Center in the first of their two meetings this year.