A reminder of just how special the game of basketball can be

Ross Litscher, Sports Editor

The last week of January is a very busy time in the normal basketball season. The NBA has just passed the halfway point of the season, with the All-Star break just weeks away, and high school and college hoops teams are in the middle of conference play. They are trying to get team chemistry right and boost their resumes with conference and postseason tournaments being just over a month away. 

Our own Madison College WolfPack basketball teams are coming off busy weeks of multiple games being played, as both teams try to right the ship with the NJCAA Region 4 Tournament less than a month from now.  

But a tragic event three years ago gave new meaning to this week. I’m writing this on January 26, which is the exact date in 2020 when NBA legend Kobe Bryant, along with his daughter Gianna and two of her teammates, lost their lives in a helicopter crash. In total nine people lost their lives in Calabasas, California, on that day.  

This tragedy sent shockwaves throughout the basketball community. Not just for LA Lakers fans, where Bryant played all 20 of his NBA seasons, but for any NBA fan who watched Kobe play, any basketball player who grew up loving the game and the youth and women’s basketball communities in which Bryant was passionate about because of his daughter and her team that he helped coach.  

The Milwaukee Bucks had a unique connection to Bryant.  

Not just because they were one of the 29 teams that he repeatedly went to work against (most notably his buzzer beater at the old Bradley Center in December of 2009 to defeat the Bucks in overtime), but also because of their superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.  

Lost in the mourning taking place in late January 2020, Giannis completely cleared his social media accounts in reaction to the news. Giannis shared many similarities as Bryant. Most notably, both had to make the transition of moving overseas from Europe, as Bryant had spent some of his childhood in Italy where his father, Joe Bryant, played professionally.  

Giannis had interacted with Bryant on many occasions, most famously being on Twitter between 2017 and 2019 when Bryant began challenging NBA players individually to reach new heights. In ’17 he challenged Giannis to win MVP, which he did twice in 2019 and 2020 respectively.  

Once that was complete, Giannis, being the competitor that he is, tweeted at Bryant asking for another challenge. Kobe challenged him to win an NBA championship in 2019. At the time of the tragedy, the Bucks were having one of their best seasons ever. By March, they were 52-8, which was the best 60 game start in Bucks history and the fourth best start in NBA history. But then something called COVID-19 happened, and the Bucks lost all momentum.  

When the season resumed in the summer 2020 bubble, the Bucks didn’t have the consistency they had before, as they ended up losing in the second round of the playoffs despite having the best record in the league. The loss happened in the last week of January 2021 and hardly felt normal, with COVID-19 cancellations and the lack of crowds making everyone wonder when we would get real basketball atmosphere’s back. Kobe’s championship challenge seemed like a hollow dream with everything else going on.  

But luckily this is a story of redemption.  

I believe that the events of January 26, 2020, and COVID-19 made the basketball community and really most people in general more appreciative of the little things in sports and in life. In July of 2021, the Bucks went on to defeat the Phoenix Suns to win their first championship in 50 years and it was in front of a packed crowd both inside and outside Fiserv Forum.  

So this week, as we count down the days until spring and root on our local basketball teams here in Wisconsin, it’s good to remember how grateful we are to have sports back in full swing, and that the comeback is always bigger than the setback.