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In the mid-90s, Tom Thibodeau served as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers when a certain Lower Merion High School senior would stop by the team’s practices at St. Joseph’s.

“He’d come real early,” Thibodeau said by phone Sunday of Kobe Bryant. “Anytime he had any time off from school, he’d come there and hang out all day. He’d be the first one there. He’d want you to put him through a workout. He’d wait for a player to come in and he’d go ask the player questions. Then he’d go try to play the player 1-on-1. Then he’d go lift weights. Then he’d watch practice. Then he’d wait for practice to be over and he’d want to play against anyone. He’d talk to players about shooting, about defense, about 1-on-1 moves. His drive is what made him so special.”

Like anybody else associated with the NBA world, Thibodeau struggled to process Sunday’s tragic news that Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash. In a phone interview with NBC Sports Chicago, he paused twice to collect his thoughts and emotions.

“Something like this just stops you dead in your tracks. It’s so heartbreaking,” Thibodeau said. “Your heart goes out to his family, the Laker family, the NBA family.”

Thibodeau, the former Bulls coach, heard from Bryant a mere week ago. Bryant talked to Thibodeau about coaching his daughter’s basketball team.

 

“He was so into it. You could hear it. He was such a doting father,” Thibodeau said. “And that’s the thing: He excelled at everything. He wanted to be great at everything. It didn’t matter what it was, whether it was being a father, being a husband.

“Who he was as a person I think stands out more than anything else.  He had such curiosity for learning. He wanted to know everything he could possibly learn about everything. In high school, he was hanging around pro players, college players, coaches. And then to watch all the things he achieved, his career was so amazing.

“But much like Michael [Jordan], his transition after his playing career was off to a flying start. There were so many great things you knew he would accomplish with his post-playing career. It’s just so sad. It’s hard to believe.”

Indeed, Bryant had transformed an image once scarred by a sexual assault allegation to that of a family man and doting father. He recently won an Academy Award for best animated short film for “Dear Basketball.” He talked excitedly about future opportunities in and outside the game he loved.

Thibodeau witnessed that love and joy for the game during Bryant’s teenage years. Then, years later, they competed in back-to-back NBA Finals when Byrant’s Lakers faced a Celtics team with Thibodeau as Doc Rivers’ lead assistant.

“You watched him play and you saw the competitiveness in him. That part was obvious. But he was such a student of the game,” Thibodeau said. “The thing that was neat was as I got to know him and I saw how he studied players, you could see how much it drove him. Michael was a big driving force in his life when he lived overseas. That was the guy he studied. He would mimic his moves. It was amazing. He did it when he was in high school.

“Just to see him execute what he said he was going to do at the pro level. A lot of it is because Kobe was very persistent and very determined. It’s hard to even comprehend that he’s gone.”

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