IMHO: The questions of a friend’s life lost

  • Tim DiFrancesco, head strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, before a game with the Boston Celtics on Dec. 5, 2014. (Channing Johnson photograph) Channing Johnson photograph

  • Tim DiFrancesco, who grew up in Thetford, is the head strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. Photo taken at TD Garden on Dec. 5, 2014 in Boston, Mass before a morning shootaround. (Channing Johnson photograph) Channing Johnson photograph

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 2/1/2020 9:50:20 PM
Modified: 2/1/2020 9:55:17 PM

Tim DiFrancesco ran a 5K road race last Sunday in Newburyport, Mass. With his phone off somewhere else, DiFrancesco blissfully trotted out the 27th Frigid Fiver with more than 200 other runners, breaking the 24-minute mark and finishing just outside the top 30 overall before grabbing some lunch.

His phone had already started blowing up by then.

“I came back to over 40 text messages, which was alarming in itself,” DiFrancesco detailed in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I scrolled through the first few and they were all sort of the same: ‘Sorry to hear about Kobe.’ ”

Reality has been settling in ever since.

The 38-year-old DiFrancesco, a 1999 Thetford Academy graduate, served as the Los Angeles Lakers’ strength and conditioning coach for six seasons before returning to New England in 2017 to start his own athlete training business. Conditioning coaches on professional sports teams spend their work days — and sometimes more than that — around athletes who are either endeavoring to improve their performance or return from injury. Bonds form.

DiFrancesco got to know them all, including one Kobe Bean Bryant.

DiFrancesco’s tenure in L.A. coincided with the end of Bryant’s playing career in 2016. Over his time out west, DiFrancesco connected with Bryant over many things, through a grueling rehabilitation from Achilles tendon surgery in 2013 and their respective families, both growing with the addition of baby girls.

So when Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people perished in a helicopter crash in southern California last week, as much as it hit the sporting world hard, it also all but floored DiFrancesco, who considered Bryant a friend.

“Once you see something like that,” DiFrancesco said of the barrage of texts from friends, “I was initially very scared and confused because that usually doesn’t mean anything other than one thing.

“Like anybody else, I tried to scramble, find some valid information on the internet. Initially, I was getting the fact that he was being reported as not surviving the crash; shortly after that, I was just trying to process that. While I was driving home, my wife surfaced the next part, that others were involved, including his daughter. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I don’t understand.’ ”

The trainer-athlete connection starts as a business partnership. The athlete counts on the trainer’s expertise to achieve whatever the target goal happens to be. With success comes trust. With trust comes friendship.

DiFrancesco’s relationship with Bryant began with a sincere smile and a handshake.

“I tend to be somebody that doesn’t have trouble being starstruck; taking the position with the Lakers wasn’t an issue because of that,” he said. “But I also knew what I would have to do would kind of feel different than meeting other guys. That was him.

“I remember seeing him coming from the locker room for the first time. We met halfway, he extended his hand and professionally introduced himself. I remember he then slapped my hand out of the way and said, ‘I know you got to get to work.’ He was excited to do that and laughing when he said that.”

Top-end professional athletes also want their trainers close by when the moment requires it.

Bryant ruptured his left Achilles tendon in a game against Golden State on April 13, 2013. Such an injury usually requires nine to 12 months for a full recovery. Initially angered by the situation, Bryant gradually accepted rehabilitation as a new challenge. DiFrancesco was part of it, right down to traveling with Bryant’s family all over the world that summer.

“He just didn’t want to miss a single workout or training or rehab session,” DiFrancesco recalled. “Therefore, he took myself and another member of our sports medicine staff with him.

“We went to Italy, France, spent a lot of time that summer in different parts of Asia with his Nike promotional tours, that kind of thing. It was a busy summer. Incredible.”

When you work as closely with someone as DiFrancesco did with the Laker players, it’s impossible not to form attachments.

“There’s time outside the weight room, time together on the road,” he said. “He would ask me to find a specific style of whirlpool that he liked to sit in when we got to a new city on the road and he was working on his recovery. That would sometimes be an hour away from the hotel we were in, but we’d drive together. He would sit in the tub, I would sit outside and we’d talk about stuff like that. There was ample time together that was outside of me prescribing exercise.”

Contact decreased after Bryant retired from the Lakers and DiFrancesco returned to Massachusetts to build TD Athletes Edge, an athletic training business in Salem, Mass., where he now lives with his wife, Jennie, and their two daughters, 3½-year-old Averie and 9-month-old Olivia.

“The times that you would see his face light up or his fierce and focused mentality be sloughed off was when he was with his kids or other kids,” DiFrancesco said. “That was when you saw the real human side of him.”

As the tributes decrease, as life stumbles forward, DiFrancesco will be most challenged by the question of why. The answer may come in rationalization or religion, but it’s inevitably one that can only be secured within yourself in the manner with which you are most comfortable.

It will take time.

“What I’m trying to do personally is highlight for people that as good as a basketball player he was, he always wanted to be the best at everything he did: playing cards, playing basketball or being a father,” DiFrancesco said. “He was an incredible father and husband. He poured himself into whatever he did; his girls were everything to him.

“For me, it’s the feeling of just loss, of having lost a dear friend. Anytime you do something at a very high, intense level and really care about everything for a lengthy period of time, with somebody also doing that, it’s a bond that gets created. To not have that person in the world suddenly, it just feels like a terrible loss. Like it’s not right.”

DiFrancesco thinks he’s found his inspiration in that loss, in the same way Bryant did in the face of injury.

“My challenge to myself is to try to really take the examples that he left us with and never take for granted what we have in front of us and around us,” DiFrancesco said. “I’ll have a hard time finding another individual — in my lifetime, anyway — who inspired the number of people he did inside and outside of sports or the game of basketball. So I think it’s a very unique person who has the ability to inspire the way to live your life.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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