In the wake of former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant’s shocking death, the sporting world came together in unity at the memory of one of the best basketball players of all time. Yet while talk of basketball was prevalent in every tale of Kobe’s legendary work ethic and dominant play on the court, what resonated with so many was the way Kobe had somehow become a better father than his Hall of Fame play on the hardwood.
Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who perished in the helicopter crash that killed eight others including her father on Jan. 26, was the second coming of her father on the basketball court.
Hitting the same fadeaway jumpers during her AAU games that her father made famous at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, Gianna was smashing the silly myth that Kobe’s legacy ended on April 13, 2016, after he scored 60 points in his farewell game.
The world will never get to see exactly how great Gianna was, or how Kobe transitioned from basketball superstar to the “Girl Dad” of four daughters that he shared with his wife Vanessa.
The sight of Kobe sitting courtside with Gianna at the Staples Center barely a month before their untimely deaths, explaining and teaching his daughter the intricacies of the game on the court where he plied his trade, is a moment that will live on for a lifetime.
For Slippery Rock women’s basketball coach Bobby McGraw, he cherishes the opportunity for his son to grow up around the team in the sport that he loves.
“It’s important because my son doesn’t stay with me,” McGraw said. “So, for him to enjoy the same thing that his dad enjoys and enjoy being around this environment, it’s wonderful. It’s an absolutely incredible place to raise your child.”
While McGraw said his son Reed has “gone through different phases” through his childhood, often mimicking his father’s previous profession in law enforcement, he’s grown fond of sports.
“It’s not so much to have him around sports because that’s his choice to be around sports,” McGraw said. “I joke around with people all the time, ‘as long as he doesn’t grow up to steal cars and is nice to everybody, I don’t care what he does.’”
Slippery Rock men’s basketball coach Ian Grady was raised with sports serving as a pillar of his life, with his father and brother both playing.
“I grew up around my dad coaching me at a young age, and we were very active growing up playing multiple sports,” Grady said.
Like the Gradys, on Christmas Eve, McGraw said he was spending time with Reed, and all he wanted to do was head up to Mihalik-Thompson Stadium to emulate the play of his favorite players, Henry Litwin and former Rock quarterback Roland Rivers III.
As a transfer to Slippery Rock before his junior season, Rivers took a “leap of faith” coming up to SRU from his home in Georgia and first college, Valdosta State.
Immediately upon arriving on campus, Rivers said he noticed how different the atmosphere was in the small town in the middle of western Pennsylvania. His love for the town, and its people, grew stronger with each passing game.
“Now that I’m here at The Rock, everything happened for a reason,” Rivers said to The Rocket in November. “If I had to go out and change anything, I wouldn’t change anything at all.”
Despite falling just short of his ultimate goal, winning a national championship, Rivers attributed his time at Slippery Rock to helping him grow as a person.
Slippery Rock football coach Shawn Lutz found out early in his time as an assistant on legendary coach Dr. George Mihalik’s staff how quickly time spent at SRU can change someone.
“I thought I was going one or two years then getting to the highest level I could,” Lutz said. “I got married pretty quickly, had three beautiful boys and it just worked out for me to be here this long. I really enjoy success here.”
Now in his 24th season on the Rock football staff, fourth as head coach, Lutz realizes the importance of football in his life, but he’s sure to never forget how life transcends sports.
“There’s life, there’s family and just having a balance between family and football means so much,” Lutz said. “I could be at a Power 5 school where I don’t value family and I don’t get to see my kids play at sporting events because the emphasis is all about pressure and winning. I value the importance of the family approach at this university.”
Football has been a way to enhance Lutz’s life, and in the process, he’s been able to share his passion for the sport with his sons.
In the case of SRU Director of Athletics Paul Lueken, athletics and the love from the Slippery Rock community helped him to overcome a life-altering tragedy.
Losing his first wife to cancer in 2010, Lueken credited the outpouring of love and support from across the campus in helping him escape the darkness.
“I learned what was important,” Lueken said. “Definitely, don’t sweat the little thing in life. I try to look at the big picture and stay as calm and level headed as I can. Still get excited sometimes, when I need to, but it really taught me about what’s important in life. The family, the community, and the support I have.”
Having spent 25 years now as the AD at Slippery Rock, getting to work with the people in the community and at the university who make the job so rewarding, Lueken couldn’t see himself anywhere else.
“To still be in this position 25 years later… I’m living the dream. I still enjoy it every single day,” Lueken said.
The atmosphere of love and support arising from the people in athletics at Slippery Rock, and across the entire campus, has allowed SRU to excel in areas where other universities lack, according to Grady.
“I love Slippery Rock,” Grady said. “I love the people here more than anything. Slippery Rock is one big team, and we operate like that on a day to day basis.”
McGraw credited Lueken for giving him an opportunity that forever changed his life.
“I could not be more grateful to Paul Lueken for the opportunity,” McGraw said. “If it wasn’t for Mr. Lueken, I wouldn’t be doing this interview right now. This [job] saved my life.”
After leaving the marines, McGraw worked for the Pennsylvania State Police, specializing in heinous cases that involved children. Being forced to talk to child molesters and murderers took a toll on him, he said.
“For somebody to pay me to coach basketball is a blessing I can’t describe,” McGraw said. “I literally have the best job in the world.”
Aside from being the chair of the sport management department, Dr. Brian Crow also has his own consulting firm in which he is able to analyze and critique professional and major college sports venues.
Crow said the pleasure of having all-access passes to such facilities and working at Slippery Rock in the sport management department gives his life immeasurable joy.
“It’s been one of the best moves I’ve made,” Crow said. “Career-wise, I’ve made a lot of friends, met my wife here, and I never really knew SRU as a sport university, but when I got here, I realized that the sport marketing and sport management programs were some of the best in the country.”
Watching his own children learn from the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” earned through sports has brought similar joy to Crow’s heart. Every summer, he said, he enjoys a vacation with his children that usually centers around sports.
Taking a page from Crow’s own experience growing up with a strong involvement in sports, he’s been able to pass that love down to his children.
“It was a bonding experience when I was growing up, with kids in the neighborhood, family members,” Crow said. “I wasn’t very good as an athlete, but it helped me realize that being part of a team is just as important as individual success. And that’s what I try to parlay into class and lectures.”
As was the case with Crow, Rivers grew up competing with his brothers in nearly everything that they did. Whether it was football, basketball, swimming or whatever activity they enjoyed doing, it instilled within him a passion for competition.
“That same feeling I had when I was a kid competing with my brothers and always wanting to win is the same thing that persists for me today,” Rivers said.
As an athlete who played lacrosse at Slippery Rock, Assistant Athletic Director of Compliance and Senior Women’s Administrator Andrea Miller transitioned from the field into the athletic department.
“Sport plays a huge role in my life and always has,” Miller said. “I am fortunate enough to have found a career in sports that I love where I have the opportunity to impact the lives of our student-athletes.”
As the highest-ranking woman in the athletic department, Miller has made a concerted effort to help other women rise through the ranks in sports, whether it’s a student-athlete or an administrator.
“We don’t want to beat each other down, so we’re always there to support each other,” Miller said. “Females in athletics need to lift as we rise and be leaders, but we also need to be genuine friends to those other females on our teams.”
With sports at Slippery Rock sometimes leaning more toward football and men’s basketball than others, the importance of building up all athletics, especially women who sometimes fly under the radar, is paramount to Miller.
In its purest form, sports serve as a way of bringing groups of people, regardless of differences, together.
While friendly rivalries and fierce competition are encouraged in sports, all too often, such camaraderie devolves into the worst human emotions: hatred, ignorance and cruelty.
The LeBron vs. Kobe debated has raged on amongst fans for years and years with a lot of fans leaning radically to one side or the other. Following Kobe’s death, Twitter relented. Why can’t the two superstars be cherished for their individual talents and remarkable impact on basketball, it seemed to say.
Debate will forever encompass sports, but at the end of the day, sports serve as a conduit to friendship, competition and building character.
More often than not, strong bonds develop between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren from the shared love and passion for sports.
As is the case with Kobe and Gianna, sports didn’t make the relationship. A father and daughter strengthened their love through basketball. A notion that is familiar to countless families around the world.
Sports can create within people the desire to reach for the stars. As is the case with Rivers, an NFL-hopeful.
“I really fell in love with the game of football when Ben Roethlisberger threw that game-winning touchdown to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone against the Cardinals,” Rivers said. “Ben Roethlisberger became my favorite quarterback. That’s when I really chased after wanting to be a quarterback. That’s what I wanted to do right then and there.”
Like any good story, it all started with a dream. But it really began with his brothers in the backyard.