Los Angeles—The NBA grappled with the sudden death of league great Kobe Bryant on Sunday, players saying they felt sick to their stomach taking to the court without having ample time to absorb the shocking news.
A haunting moment of silence preceded the Houston Rockets’ game against the Nuggets in Denver, which tipped off just hours after the helicopter crash in suburban Los Angeles in which Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine who perished.
In San Antonio, where the Spurs hosted the reigning champions Toronto Raptors, both teams took 24-second shot-clock violations on their first possessions of the game in honor of Bryant —who wore the number 24 in the later years of his career.
And in a move that other NBA teams are also expected to adopt, the Dallas Mavericks announced that they were retiring the number 24 jersey.
Several NBA stars said they were reluctant to step on the court after learning the news.
“I don’t even know how we are supposed to play this game tonight,” said Portland’s Damian Lillard said before scoring 50 points in a 139-129 win over Indiana. “It makes you sick to your stomach. It is disturbing.
“It is bigger than just our heroes and the people we look up to dying. It goes deeper than that.”
Newly-retired Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade described Sunday as “one of the saddest days of my lifetime,” adding that he couldn’t believe Bryant was gone and that his family had been sharing Kobe stories all day.
“It seems like a bad dream that you just want to wake up from. It is a nightmare,” he said.
“It is not going to go away soon. We will weep forever.”
‘We should honor him’
Eight NBA games were on tap Sunday, and the prevailing mood in every arena was sadness and shock.
Lillard said their coach Terry Stotts told them to go out and honor Bryant by not holding back.
“It was on all of our minds. In the time outs... it hurt all of us in our hearts. I look up to him. He’s our hero. It is sad man, real sad day.”
Reigning NBA finals MVP Kawhi Leonard said all of Los Angeles was feeling the loss.
“No words can explain the impact he had on the floor,” said Los Angeles Clippers Leonard. “We are a team from Los Angeles so we know the LA history with him. It is just sad.”
New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson was preparing to start just his third career NBA contest against Boston when he was floored by news of the death.
“I couldn’t focus at first when I heard the news,” said Williamson, who was born the year Bryant won his first NBA championship in 2000. “It was tough getting out there. I just hate to see it happen like that to him and his daughter.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers spoke to reporters before his team took on the Magic in Orlando.
“We’re all Lakers right now,” Rivers said, calling himself “lucky” to have had a chance to coach against Bryant— who won five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“He was such a great opponent,” Rivers said. “It’s what you want in sports. He had that DNA that very few athletes can ever have—the Tiger Woodses and Michael Jordans.
“Looking at my young players and seeing how devastated they are,” Rivers said as he lost his battle to hold back his tears.
‘Killed in car smash’
One of the most moving tributes came from former Laker Brian Shaw who played four seasons with Bryant.
In 1993, Shaw’s parents and sister were killed in a car smash in Nevada and he wanted to share his coping skills with the fans of the NBA star affectionately known as the ‘Black Mamba’.
“I want to try to help some of those who feel like I feel right now,” said Shaw using a tissue to wipe away the tears. “I am 53 and I’ve dealt with a lot of death in my time.
“My family died in a car accident. One of things that kept me going was while they were here, we lived, and we made a lot of memories together. And now that they are gone that’s all that you have.
“For those Kobe fans out there feeling like I feel right now, just think of all the joy he brought to you.
“Those are the memories you are going to have to rely on going forward..”
Atlanta Hawks rising star Trae Young wore No. 8—another of Bryant’s former jersey numbers—to honor the star in the warmup before the Hawks beat Washington 152-133. Young said he was just getting to know Bryant and his basketball-playing daughter.
“This is a crazy day to play basketball,” Young said. “I talked to him a couple of times.
“He’s only been to three games this year and two of them were ours. His daughter was a big fan of mine.”
Bryant was one of the best closers the NBA has ever seen. Throughout his career, he would baffle his coach Phil Jackson with his penchant to start games slowly before assuming total command in the fourth quarter.
Former German all-star Dirk Nowitzki referred to Bryant’s finishing skills in a heart-tugging written tribute.
“I remember coming home after games so I could watch you dominate in the fourth quarter! You will always be loved. Rest in Peace with your angel Gigi,” said Nowitzki.
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