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Tyner boys' basketball coach E'Jay Ward, center, encourages his players during a postseason game against Upperman in March 2018. / Staff photo by Tim Barber

This story was updated at 11:44 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 27, 2019, with comments from former Brainerd star Malcolm Mackey who met Bryant.

Like millions of other basketball fans, the news of the tragic death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant hit the Chattanooga sports community hard. Bryant, his 13-year old daughter Gianna and seven other passengers were killed when the helicopter they were flying in crashed on Sunday in Calabasas, California.

Local coaches, players, former players and others tied to basketball said they spent most of the day solemnly watching television and refreshing Twitter for updated news reports.

"I had just gotten home from church and started watching television," said legendary former Brainerd coach Robert High, who guided the Panthers to three state championships and won more than 1,000 games during a career that spanned from 1976 to 2013. "My sister called to see if I was watching the news because Kobe had gotten killed. Man, that sent some feelings through me that I can't even explain. It took the breath out of me.

"I have sat and watched the coverage all day long. If today didn't bring tears to your eyes, you have no heart. I always loved to watch Kobe play because of his skill level. When I was coaching, Kobe was the guy all the kids would pattern their game after. I used to tell our kids that only one person can wear number 24 because everybody wanted to be like him. I coached so many kids named Kobe in the last few years of my career, it was unbelievable. His legacy will never die."

East Hamilton senior Madison Hayes, who recently became the first McDonald's All American from a Chattanooga public school, said she was watching a college game with her mom when she heard the news.

"I think what hit me hardest was just that his daughter was with him," said Hayes, a Mississippi State signee. "Watching how he was with his daughter, how he would take her to games after he retired from the NBA and teach her that Mamba mentality about how to approach the game, that's what stands out. Just the relationship they had.

"I grew up watching him, and what I took from that is his passion for the game and just how hard he worked and the way he had no fear on the court."

(Read more: A look at some of Kobe Bryant's career highlights)

(Lady Vols remember the legacy of Kobe Bryant after beating LSU to boost their NCAA tournament worthiness)

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Remembering Kobe Bryant

Former Brainerd star Malcolm Mackey, who was part of the Panthers 1988 state title team before helping Georgia Tech reach the 1990 Final Four, went on to have a two-year NBA career and played professionally for more than 10 years in Europe. He was also a first round draft pick by the Phoenix Suns in 1993. 

Near the end of his NBA career, Mackey was in Los Angeles for a round of summer league games in 1996 and met Bryant, who was about to begin his rookie season with the Lakers.

"We met on an elevator and exchanged compliments," said Mackey, who lives in Atlanta now. "I wished him luck with his rookie season and later I kept up with his career because I'm a huge Lakers fan. Basketball is a fraternity, so we keep up with each other even after our playing days are over.

"It was amazing to see what he accomplished in a 20-year career with one team. There aren't many people in this world who are recognized by just one name, but Kobe is one of those people. He out-worked everybody else. I mean this is a guy who shot an airball late in a playoff game and when he got back home he went straight to the gym to work on his shot so that wouldn't happen again. He was just driven to be great."

Mackey was driving to a gym near his home when he heard the news of the crash. He said he turned around to go back home and watch the news for more details.

"His mentality is something that translates beyond basketball," Mackey added. "It's about when you feel like giving up, you push on and do the best you can. That's what a lot of us learned by watching Kobe.

"It seemed like he was well on his way to life after the game. He won an Oscar and was going to do great things beyond the game. You have to know that none of us know the day when our time is up. Regardless of if you're rich or poor, if you eat right and take care of yourself, really only God knows when your time is up. Until then, just try to be a good person, hug your kids and your family and think about what kind of person you want to be remembered for."

Jay Price played at the University of Tennessee with All-American guard Allan Houston and later worked as the marketing and public relations director for Houston during part of his NBA career. Price is now the men's coach at Chattanooga State and said no player will ever wear Bryant's No. 24 for the Tigers again.

"He just meant so much to the game, I want to honor that and retire that number from ever being worn again by a player here," Price said. "I saw Kobe play several times in person, and it was special. We lost a guy that taught us how to compete and what hard work was all about. Nobody outworked him, and it showed.

"I've been in disbelief all day. I wanted it to be fake news when I first heard. It's just so sad, and it's even worse that one of his beautiful daughters was with him and was lost in the crash. You think the people with money and fame don't die early, unless they get into things they shouldn't. But this just shows you that death doesn't have a preference. It takes us all.

Like many in his generation, Tyner boys' coach E'Jay Ward grew up idolizing Bryant and patterned the way he played the game after him. The 30-year old Ward — whose team is still reeling from the loss of teammate Javon Craddock, who died from a heart condition two years ago — said he took time out to text or call each of his players Sunday, just to let them know he cares about each of them.

"I still can't believe it. Kobe was my generation's hero," Ward said. "I saw in him what the generation before me saw in Michael Jordan. He never took any plays off. I loved everything about his approach to the game and his mindset. He was very impactful for me.

"Now that I'm a coach, I immediately texted my whole team and told them all that I love them and reminded them that tomorrow is never promised, so take advantage of every opportunity.

"With our kids still coping with losing a teammate, we all understand how short life can be. But this is somebody who seemed invincible that's left this earth. It's an eye-opener. We were just getting a chance to see him enjoy life after the game. It's just so sad."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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