For four Wilton teens, meeting–and now mourning–Kobe Bryant is life-changing.

Ben Wiener, Chase Autore, Alex Cocoros and Jimmy McKiernan were 7th graders when they got the chance to meet Bryant, coming face-to-face with the basketball great during the Boston stop on Bryant’s farewell tour in 2015. Cocoros’ father works for the NBA, and he was able to get the four-on-one time for the boys behind the scenes at TD Arena that night.

At the time, the four longtime friends were travel basketball players for Wilton Hoops. They loved–and still love–everything about the game; McKiernan, Wiener and Cocoros play for Wilton High School Warrior Basketball now as juniors.

All four of them say that meeting Kobe was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What was most memorable was how he treated them with respect beyond their years.

“It was something so insignificant in his life, but the way he engaged in the conversation and the way he showed he was sincere and cared about what we were saying showed that he was such a genuine person,” Autore recalled. “He was such a sincere guy and so down to earth.”

Ever the role model, Bryant put the boys at ease.

“Us being just middle school kids, you’re definitely nervous before you’re about to meet like a major icon like Kobe. But the second the conversations started, all those nerves went away. It was that down to earth feel where you can just talk to him really about anything, a genuine conversation,” Wiener said.

Even for Cocoros, whose father knew Bryant well, the impact of being around the basketball great had tremendous meaning.

“He’s such a huge icon, and you could just tell when you see him in the room, it was just a different level of greatness. Even as ‘Kobe Bryant,’ he still was interested in our conversation. But he was also a family man. You saw his relationship with his daughter–he really cared about her career and how she was going to continue basketball. And I think that just reflected how he was as a person really,” he said, adding, “Kobe’s legacy is going to continue forever.”

That quality made Bryant larger than life, which made the news of his death that much more unbelievable for McKiernan.

“Kobe’s legacy was bigger than basketball because he connected with so many people and he inspired motivation for people–not even just in basketball, he inspired everyone. I thought the news was fake at first–that’s what you want to believe. You think guys like that are immortal. Stuff doesn’t happen like that. But it just goes to show how to take every day–nothing’s a given,” he said.

The news was especially tough for the Cocoros family.

“I didn’t really want to believe it,” Alex said. “My dad had a relationship with him; the past couple of days he was sending pictures throughout the years of them, especially from when he won the championships. We had the best relationship with him. When I met him, you could just see that he was such a great person. It’s bigger than basketball.”

These boys grew up idolizing Bryant and his peers. To them, he was immortal, which made the shock even greater.

(L-R) Longtime friends, WHS juniors Ben Wiener, Chase Autore, Alex Cocoros and Jimmy McKiernan

“I remember growing up thinking players like LeBron, Kobe, all the greats are invincible. You thought they were going to live forever,” Wiener said.

He learned about Kobe’s death with his Wilton teammates. “We were actually at basketball practice when this happened and you could see in everyone’s eyes. It took a little confirmation at first, to make sure the news was real. It was just crazy and everyone was shook by it. All of us didn’t have a personal relationship with Kobe–but you just felt like you had a relationship because of our shared love of basketball.”

Having had the chance to meet Kobe Bryant is something that will forever have a different significance for the four friends, now knowing he’s gone.

“It’s just not real, experiencing how the figure that we’ve all looked up to our entire lives, someone who a lot of us model our game after every day, is gone,” Wiener added. “It’s just an unreal experience. We were all very grateful that we had the opportunity to meet him.”