Buffalo teacher who played with Kobe's father mourns 'devastating loss'

Jan 27, 2020

The news of Kobe Bryant's death is sending waves of shock and sadness throughout the world of sports and beyond. In Buffalo, former Los Angeles Laker and San Diego Clipper Willie "Hutch" Jones is remembering the NBA superstar for more than his skills on the court.

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant jumps over a row of fans after saving the ball from going out of bounds in 2001.
Credit Pat Sullivan / AP

Jones said he heard the news of Sunday's helicopter crash as he was driving home from his daughter's soccer game.

"I went into shock. A cold chill just went all over my body," Jones said.

He immediately started having some flashbacks from his pro-basketball days.

"I remember when I was in California, you know, being with the Los Angeles Lakers family and so forth. Even before the Lakers, I was with the Clippers and I was playing ball out there with his father, who was Joe Bryant, or everybody used to call him 'Jellybean,'" he said.

Jones said he used to see little Kobe running around with the families of other players during practices.

"You know, in the NBA, people always got their families around. They're always there. And there was this little guy, about up to my knee. He must have been four or five years old and his name was Kobe," he said. "And that always kinda stuck in my mind, a kid named Kobe, because back in those times names like David, Rich, Michael, John, Eric. Nobody had a unique name like Kobe."

Jones said the game will remember Bryant for was his work ethic and intelligence.

"He could speak five different languages and just slip from one language to another language at any point in the conversation," he said. "He may have been probably one of the smartest individuals in the NBA who never graduated from college. This is a devastating loss to mankind. Kobe was an international icon. He just bridged so many different barriers. It's shocking."

Willie Jones (front) and some of the participants in his afterschool program.
Credit Willie "Hutch" Jones Educational and Sports Program

Jones is a Buffalo Hall of Famer who played basketball at Bishop Timon High School and was drafted by the Lakers in 1982 after earning his degree in Health and Physical Education. He is now a gym teacher at Burgard High School and the Willie "Hutch" Jones Educational and Sports Program he started is celebrating 35 years.

Jones said Kobe was a role model for today's young people.

"All of these kids now, this is who they see as they grew up," he said. "You know, I've seen people like Julius Irving, that era of NBA players coming up. But this era, kids 16, 17 years old, the only people they can really remember. They wouldn't remember Larry Bird, they remember Kobe. I like to do a lot of comparisons with Kobe because of his work ethic and his intelligence."

He said a lot of people don't realize how much work, drive and competitiveness goes into being as great as Kobe.

"They say, well, Kobe had a set of skills. No. Kobe may be in the gym before the game, he may be in the gym after the game. He may shoot 200 of the same shot. Not just 200 shots, but one same shot," Jones said. "I think his work ethic was fierce and I think that's what gave him the ability to change the game, because he was so redundant with what he did with his set of skills."

Jones expects the Lakers organization to arrange an official memorial tribute to honor Bryant.

"He did so much for the community, you know, not just Los Angeles, but around the world. He was just a giving person, not only in his investments. You look at some of those things and other things, he just gave back," he said. "You know, he was in the process of taking his daughter to a basketball game so she could play. So Kobe always kind of gave, and he gave unconditionally."