EVANSTON, Ill. — Duane Washington Jr. had to make a phone call to comprehend the news.
Moments earlier, Ohio State was finishing its film session when the coaching staff delivered stunning news: NBA superstar Kobe Bryant had passed away in a tragic helicopter accident Sunday afternoon.
Word had spread via social media, but the Buckeyes were unaware as they abided by team rules and had their phones turned off during official game preparation work.
Each player took the news in his own way, but none felt it more acutely than Washington. The nephew of longtime Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with Bryant for much of his career, Washington was close enough to call Bryant “Uncle Kobe.”
So when Washington called his father out of disbelief, the news shook him.
“I didn’t believe it was real at first,” Washington told The Dispatch.
As he recalled the sequence of events following Sunday evening’s 71-59 win over Northwestern, Washington’s voice wavered. One tear slid out of his right eye as freshman teammate D.J. Carton, standing to his left, wrapped his right arm around Washington’s neck for comfort.
Washington and Bryant hadn’t seen each other since Washington lived with Fisher while spending his senior high school season at Chatsworth (California) Sierra Canyon, Washington said. It had been a different story as a youngster.
“I remember going to my uncle’s games and (Bryant) always coming up to me and calling me ‘neph’ (nephew) and giving me a hug and telling me I’m getting bigger every time I saw him,” Washington said. “It’s Kobe Bryant, man. I looked up to him as a role model. It’s just heartbreaking to have an unfortunate accident like that.”
As a team, the Buckeyes canceled their planned shoot-around before the game. After their film session, they instead went through a walk-through at the team hotel before taking a walk to Lake Michigan.
“We really wanted to just talk through it with our guys,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “More than anything, this is a poignant moment in their life, and they’re always going to remember where they were when they heard the news that Kobe Bryant passed. The brevity of life is a hard thing for 18- to 22-year-olds to understand, much less anybody else.
“We just talked through that for a moment, talked through how grateful we were for this opportunity to do this with each other, and that was it.”
When Washington took the court, he had inscribed messages on his shoes and on the tape on his left wrist. It included “Proverbs 3:5-6”, a pair of Bible verses reading, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
Senior Andre Wesson also had a tie to Bryant: He committed to play for Ohio State on the same day Bryant announced his retirement and, as a result, decided to wear No. 24 in college after donning No. 5 at Westerville South.
Carton said he wouldn’t be a basketball player if not for Bryant’s example.
“I really looked up to that man,” Carton said. “One of the reasons I’m here, one of the reasons I play this game is just to be able to go out and put it all on the floor.
“Things like this happen, and you never know when your last day could come. Things like that really put some perspective on life.”
At the arena, Washington gave the final word in the last pregame huddle before the starters were announced. As he usually does, he sang the national anthem as it was performed. When the Buckeyes reserves bounced to the music just before the opening tip, Washington joined in.
Coming off the bench, he finished with eight points, three assists, three rebounds and no turnovers in 28:48.
The possibility of sitting out the game was never an option, he said.
Basketball has always been my getaway,” he said. “I didn’t think it was fair for my brothers for me to miss out on a game that we felt like we had a great chance of winning. They need me out here and I need them, so I pushed through it and focused in for an hour and a half, and we came out with the (win).”
Carton, who led the team with 17 points and held his embrace with Washington as he searched for words, said the Buckeyes played with a greater effort than seen in recent weeks.
That, in part, was born out of a desire to pick up their grieving teammate.
“I know how tough my guy is here,” the freshman said. “He has a love for this game and he has a love for us, so I knew he was going to play. I knew it wasn’t up for debate.
“You never want to see one of your brothers down. It hurts all of us. That’s kind of what pushed us. When we see someone down, it takes people to step up, and that’s what we did today. And it’s going to have to continue if we want to keep winning games.”
Then it was back to the locker room, where moments earlier the Buckeyes had shouted their rendition of the Buckeye Battle Cry, a postgame tradition after wins that hadn’t been heard much lately. Holtmann was right: They will always remember where they were when the basketball world lost a legend and Washington lost an uncle.
There’s time ahead to try to build upon the experience. Sunday night, there were still tears to be shed.