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'It was one of those moments that makes your spirit ripple' | Local athlete shares his special connection to Kobe Bryant

"He scans the gym and finally he locks eyes with me. It gives me goosebumps thinking of it and he looks at me and goes, 'I'm watching you.'"

Kobe Bryant spent his entire NBA career in Los Angeles starring for one of the premier sports franchises in the entire world. He won championships, set records and inspired a generation. But along the way, he made his mark on St. Louisans as well.

From St. Louis natives Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum, who were inspired to become pros from watching him play, to admiration from Blues goalie Jordan Binnington who only knew him from afar and an emotional remembrance by SLU basketball coach Travis Ford, the St. Louis area wanted to share their Kobe stories after news of his death in a helicopter crash broke Sunday.

Freeburg, Illinois, native and Harris Stowe State University baseball pitcher Will Berger wanted to share his story, too. His just happens to be more special than most.

As a high school freshman, Will visited one of Bryant's camps in Santa Barbara, California. The camp was eating, sleeping and breathing basketball all day long. I'll let Will take it from there.

"When I first met Kobe he was passing by and I've never been scared to say hello to someone, let alone Kobe. So I stuck out my hand and said, 'Hey Mr. Bryant it's good to meet you sir, my name is Will.' He took a liking to me for some reason. I don't know if it was because I didn't run up just going 'Kobe, Kobe, Kobe'. I think he appreciated the respect of calling him sir and Mr. Bryant, I guess that set me apart," Will said. "So we had a five-minute conversation... about where I was from, what's my game like, stuff like that. It was great. So I said goodbye."

But the Bryant/Berger relationship was just beginning.

"That night we had a pretty big game. It was like Friday night lights or whatever. The whole camp with like 1,000 people was there watching us. I had just subbed out, so I'm going to the sideline standing up... and in comes this 50-person entourage and you felt the whole energy in the building change," Berger said. "In my heart I knew there was only one human being in the area that could do that. It was Kobe. So he walks in, and he's a head taller than everyone... He scans the gym and finally, he locks eyes with me. It gives me goosebumps thinking of it. And he looks at me and goes, 'I'm watching you'. It was one of those moments that just makes your whole spirit ripple. It's something I'll never forget."

Watch: Travis Ford emotioally remembers Kobe Bryant

Berger said he went on to have a pretty good game, and afterward, the 'Black Mamba' made sure to recognize his game.

"He pulled me in to demonstrate shooting drills with everyone and just kind of took me under his wing," Berger said.

Pretty cool story, right? The thing is, it gets even better.

Next year, Berger attended Kobe's camp again. And sure enough, the future Hall of Famer remembered the curly-haired high schooler.

"He put me and a couple of other guys on the line to run 'seventeens'. A seventeen is when you have to run sideline to sideline 17 times in less than a minute. My feet are slower than LA traffic. It's bad. I've got slow feet," Berger said. "So me doing those line drills I missed the line by just this much. I had never done that but I didn't want to let these little quick kids show me up so I figured if I could pull a fast one on the Mamba, I'd be alright. It didn't work out. He caught me and called me 'Pau'. Not only did I have long, floppy curly hair, Pau (Gasol) did that a lot in practice."

Watch: One St. Louisan remembers his special connection to Kobe

In just two meetings, Kobe Bryant had a profound impact on Will Berger's life. It's a story being echoed by people all over the world in the wake of his death.

"I've met the guy a handful of occasions... But if it weren't for the 'Mamba mentality' and what that means to me... Basically it's just self-actualization. It's allowed me to bridge the gap between so many different tragedies in my life and different things I'm going through," Berger said. "Kobe was the living embodiment of that idea to me. He inspired me to do a whole lot of other things and be the greatest me I can possibly be. As corny as that sounds it's the best way I can put it."

Watch: Rene Knott's son interviews Kobe Bryant

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