Kobe Bryant has in recent years become a regular visitor at UC Irvine.
Because Anteaters assistant Ryan Badrtalei coordinates his workouts, Bryant can sometimes be found on the court, in the pool, on the track, or lifting weights. As a resident of nearby Newport Coast, the Lakers star has become a friend of the program's.
Turning UC Irvine's home floor into a gym of dreams, Bryant also made appearances at open gym sessions last week that allowed some of the Anteaters to experience playing pick-up games with the Black Mamba himself.
"That's probably as good as it gets as a basketball player to be lining up with that guy," UC Irvine coach Russell Turner said. "It's not uncommon for him to be on campus. It was uncommon for him to want to get into pick-up games. They were somewhat in awe, just as I would have been if back then we would have walked in the gym and had Michael Jordan playing."
Turner cannot watch his players in the summer sessions due to NCAA rules, but has spotted Bryant shooting late at night in the gym after hours -- sometimes even during the playoffs.
UC Irvine was 13-19 in Turner’s first season, and the program is still searching for its first NCAA tournament appearance. Having the presence of one of the NBA's best players on campus certainly can't hurt, and Bryant has been happy to help when he can.
Bryant spent about two hours speaking with UC Irvine athletes last September in a question-and-answer session after being invited by men's volleyball coach John Speraw, who met him at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
"He was really funny and open," women's basketball player Raquel Theus said then. "I think the thing I remember the most is his favorite quote 'Rest at the end and not in the middle.' I like that it came from his high school English teacher."
Turner's team posed for pictures with Bryant that night and has also gotten to learn from other NBA players due to the coach’s previous job as a Golden State Warriors assistant. After an Anteaters win last November, they got a visit from Stephen Curry, Andris Biedrins and Reggie Williams, who delivered the message that the NBA dream could be realized for players with mid-major and international backgrounds.
The hope for Turner is that associating UC Irvine with high-level players might help the Anteaters turn the corner, though Turner and the team have had some bad breaks.
Forward Eric Wise would have been the team's returning leading scorer, but decided at the end of the season to transfer. The NCAA upheld its decision to rule top recruit Maxime Chupin ineligible for receiving benefits above the center's actual and necessary expenses from a club team in France. Another center, Adam Folker, is recovering from season-ending hip surgery and has yet to be cleared to play. Guard Brandon Scott was forced to retire after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament for a third time during a San Francisco Pro-Am game.
The Anteaters are left with no seniors and a host of new faces who should get opportunities to play immediately.
"People won't expect much of us, but I'm not going to fall into that thinking," Turner said. "We've talked about that. The things we've got to focus on are getting better every day, and working to build a foundation.
"There's excellence associated with this university across the board, and I have great confidence we’ll get there."