Point guard John Mendoza wore number 24 on Monday as he dribbled up court for the seventh grade A team at Alpine Middle School. While focused on his opponents from Kermit, he said the sudden death of his hero, Kobe Bryant, along with Bryant’s daughter and seven others, was still on his mind one day after their tragic helicopter crash in California.
“Some people are sad, so we said we’d play this game for him too,” Mendoza said after his game, and after he put his Lakers jersey back on. “He's a good idol. He had a good mentality.”
Fresh off a tournament win in McCamey, the Fightin’ Bucks handled the top Yellow Jackets seventh graders 31-8. They forced several turnovers in the first half, and spread the scoring around. Big man Rudy Cunningham had 10 points off the bench. The seventh grade is now just two wins away from a District title.
The eighth graders then took to the court for the evening’s main event. Mendoza’s older brother Sean, who will be a high school freshman in the fall, also directs the offense for his team.
Confident shots from Jace Canaba and others gave Alpine a 10-0 lead after one quarter. Kermit awoke in the second, however, and in a few minutes they had their first lead of the game. The teams were tied 16-16 during a brief halftime period.
Alpine took control in the third period, and led by six after Canaba hit three free throws in a row. Yet Kermit battled back, and the lead changed hands three times in the closing minutes.
A Miguel Busey free throw tied the game 33-33, but a Yellow Jacket hit the winning jumper with 23 seconds left in the game. The Bucks couldn’t convert before the buzzer, and lost a heartbreaker 35-33.
Everyone had their heads down back in the locker room before they dressed and departed. Yet Sean Mendoza was still confident his team would turn the page, and be ready for a trip to Presidio next week.
“We’re just like that,” he stated. “We’ll make our shots.”
When asked what Kobe Bryant taught him and his teammates, he responded, “To never give up. Just keep pushing. His motivation was up there.”