LINCOLN — Fred Hoiberg showed up to the United Center early that night.
His Chicago Bulls — with Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose — were in the middle of a fight for a playoff spot.
The Lakers were in town on this cold February night, and a stressed-out Hoiberg wanted to relax in an empty arena before the chaos. But when he walked toward the court, he heard the sound of a ball. Then he saw Kobe Bryant, arena lights still dim, shooting alone.
“He was the first guy out there in the gym, by himself, 2 1⁄2 hours before the game in a full sweat,” the first-year Husker coach said.
He walked up to Bryant, who was on his farewell tour in his 20th season in the NBA, and gave the legend a hug.
“I just thanked him for everything he did for the game,” Hoiberg said Sunday. “I’ll never forget that.”
Bryant and eight others were killed in a helicopter crash early Sunday in the foggy hills above Calabasas, California, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The 41-year-old’s daughter Gianna, 13, was among the victims, according to reports.
The death of the 18-time NBA all-star, who won five championships during a 20-year career with the Lakers, shifted basketball’s axis forever and brought out memorials on social media, at Bryant’s high school gym in Philadelphia and outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
News reached Hoiberg and the Nebraska basketball team in Lincoln early Sunday afternoon shortly after practice.
“One of our players came out of the locker room (and told us), and everybody didn’t know if there was any truth to it,” Hoiberg said.
Bryant’s death hit Hoiberg particularly hard.
The two shared the court multiple times during Hoiberg’s 10-year NBA career in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Hoiberg was tasked with slowing Bryant down as coach of the Bulls for three seasons. The two never played on the same team but faced off in Western Conference matchups while Hoiberg was with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In 2004, the Lakers and Timberwolves battled in the Western Conference finals. Bryant averaged 24.3 points and 5.5 assists in the series. Hoiberg played 24.5 minutes a game, averaging 5.5 points, occasionally having to guard the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history. The Lakers won in six games.
“When it mattered, he was the guy they went to,” Hoiberg said. “He and (Michael) Jordan are the two guys that just had that … they just had that ‘it’ factor. They had that thing where they just tear your heart out at the end of the game.”
When Hoiberg and his team heard the news, reports were not yet confirmed, so he hadn’t yet talked to his guys about Bryant’s death. A few players shared solemn posts on social media Sunday.
Hoiberg, talking by phone on his drive home, was still wrapping his mind around the news. He called Bryant the hardest-working player he’d ever been around. He thought of his family and the basketball community.
He was glad he showed up to the arena so early that February night.
“He was such a competitor, and everything that he’s done for the game, it's just hard to imagine that it could happen. I’ll never forget the opportunity I had to compete against him,” Hoiberg said. “It really is surreal. You just don’t think that it’s ever going to happen to somebody that you think is invincible.”