SOLEDAD — A chance to meet with a basketball legend brought joy to a Soledad family for a short time before an accident less than 24 hours later brought pain to the family and basketball-loving fans worldwide.
The family of Efrain and Mari Villegas was attending a Mamba Sports Academy Basketball Tournament for youth players when Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif.
According to Mari Villegas, her family had met Bryant on Jan. 25 — the day before the crash — while at the tournament with their 11-year-old son Bryan, who was a member of the Motion 8 11-and-under boys travel team that included other players from throughout Monterey County.
“Our son Bryan is a seventh grader at Soledad’s Main Street Middle School and plays for travel teams, including the Pinnacles Basketball Academy, and is also a member of the Soledad school team,” Villegas said. “While playing for the Pinnacles Basketball Academy, he was chosen to an All-Star team that traveled to Las Vegas last year. He was noticed by coaches at the tournament and was asked by the coach of Motion 8 if he could play some tournaments for his team.”
Villegas continued, “Sometime in early November, Bryan was told about the Mamba Sports Academy Tournaments and asked if he could play there with the Motion 8 team. Bryan was thrilled to be asked, as Bryant was his favorite player before retiring, along with current NBA player Steph Curry. He would always tell us how much he wanted to meet Bryant and to watch his talented daughter Gigi play.”
On the weekend of Jan. 25 and 26, the Villegas family was traveling to Calabasas to participate in the tournament when they stopped in Bakersfield to take care of some business.
“When we were in Bakersfield, Bryan kept telling my husband Efrain that he wanted to get to Calabasas, as he felt that might be an opportunity to see Kobe Bryant coach and watch Gigi play,” Mari Villegas recalled. “Efrain kept saying there could be other times that they could run into Kobe, but he finally changed his mind and we got on the road to arrive at Calabasas.
“We were able to watch Gigi play and it was exciting, as her team was able to win in the last few minutes,” she continued. “We also watched as Kobe coached his daughter’s team to the win. After the game was over, we watched Kobe and his team walk up a stairwell to another level of the gym. My youngest son, Efrain Jr., followed the group of players and Kobe and said to go up the stairs and we could get to see Kobe.”
Mari Villegas and her two boys then went up the stairs and could see Bryant talking with his team and a few parents. The family waited until Bryant stopped his chalk talk and then walked into the conference room.
“Kobe walked up to us and greeted us and asked if he could help us with something. I asked him if it would be possible to take a picture and Kobe said, ‘Oh si esta buen’ (OK, that is fine),” Villegas said. “Bryant told Bryan that he is a good player and to keep working hard to get better. Kobe then posed for the picture with my sons and patted their heads, gave them a hug, told Bryan good luck in the tournament and told us goodbye. Bryan and Efrain were so excited because Kobe was so kind to them.”
After meeting Bryant, the Villegas went for dinner and to rest at a motel to prepare for the second day of the tournament the following day. The next morning the family started receiving phone calls from family and friends about the fatal helicopter crash just after the accident occurred.
The joy that the family felt the previous day turned to pain and shock as such short time had passed since meeting the basketball star.
“We were in such disbelief when we heard the news about the accident,” Villegas said. “Within minutes we traveled to the Mamba Academy facility, where families gathered along with their kids. It was so sad to realize what had happened. Of course the rest of the tournament was canceled. Later we received an email from the Mamba Sports Academy that the tournaments would continue the following months, as that is what Kobe would have wanted.”
The email from the Mamba Sports Academy encouraged the players and families to continue to play the game of basketball at the academy and beyond.
“Our hearts are heavy. Our head is heavy. It is our duty, though, to continue our mission — Kobe’s mission — to help the next generation of athletes and leaders achieve their full potential. And, with your help, we’re going to do just that,” the Academy stated.
Bryan Villegas returned to school in Soledad the following day and was offered counseling by the school staff if he needed it. The youngster will continue to play basketball for Main Street Middle School and with his various travel teams.
A public memorial in honor of Bryant is set for Monday, Feb. 24, at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. It will also honor Bryant’s daughter Gianna and the seven others who died in the same helicopter crash in late January.