GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Wayne Ellington was two weeks into his only season with the Los Angeles Lakers in November 2014 when his father was shot and killed. He left the team to be with his family and try to make sense of the loss.
Ellington wasn’t a star, already on his fifth team in a transient NBA career, and wasn’t a starter for the Lakers. But it was the star of the team, Kobe Bryant, who reached out to him and provided the helping hand he needed to get back on the court.
After Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 along with his daughter Gianna and seven others, Ellington went on social media several times and expressed his anguish.
On the day it happened, he tweeted: “At a loss for words. RIP to my idol and his beautiful baby girl. Some things we will just never understand. Praying heavily for the Bryant family. My heart hurts.”
Later that day, he tweeted: “Today been like a nightmare I haven’t been able to wake up from.”
The next day he revealed a little bit about why it hit so hard, tweeting, “In 2014, when I was playing for the Lakers, my Pop got killed. Bean was there for me. His texts and advice motivated me to get back on the court when I was in a completely dark place.”
Ellington has tweeted only once more since, advising, “Be sure to tell your people you love them as often as possible.”
Otherwise, he had refused to speak about his feelings as others told their stories. But on Saturday, with the memorial service called, “Celebration of Life Memorial” scheduled for Monday at Staples Center, Ellington finally opened up.
“Obviously, there was a ton of people reaching out initially,” he said of that time when Bryant helped him. “But I was surprised that he was one of the guys that was consistently hitting me up and checking on me and giving me advice and having conversations about ways to cope with such a tragedy.
“One thing he always talked to me about was using the game of basketball as a safe haven, and using that to get away from all the outside noise and all the outside trauma that I had going in.
“That really, really resonated with me and stuck with me. I was in a dark place when that happened to me and my family. Him and his conversations is actually what brought me back to the court at that time.
“So it all just kind of hit me pretty hard on that day when I got the news about him, just because he already held a super-special spot for me in my life, but after that and after those interactions with him, he was like at the top-top of my list.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Ellington said he idolized Bryant, who starred at Lower Merion High School. He never got to see him play there but absorbed the stories.
Over time as he talked about Bryant, the sadness seemed to pass and be replaced by a smile.
“Just because now I’m remembering him for all the stories and the good times and the things I learned from him,” Ellington said. “Obviously at that time, it’s hard. You’re trying to understand why. You’re kind of in disbelief. Now it’s more, OK, some time has passed, and I’m remembering Kobe for all the amazing, great things he’s done.
“I think [the memorial should be a celebration]. People should be able to celebrate him and like I said, all the amazing things he’s done in life, not just basketball. But in life. You can see around the world how many people he touched in such a positive way. The impact that he had on the world is unbelievable.
“You can’t even say the basketball community, it’s literally the world. He left an unbelievable mark.”