Rest in peace, Kobe | Raptors also beat the Spurs in SA
This hit me hard. Pop consoling DeMar DeRozan before the game tonight. pic.twitter.com/rd9NVHTC4Y
— Evan Closky (@EvanClosky) January 26, 2020
Basketball is a refuge from real life, so what do you do when that’s what pains you? For two hours on Sportsnet it was more a funeral than a broadcast, and yet I couldn’t flip the channel. The Raptors and Spurs traded runs in a game that was objectively thrilling down to the final play, but there was no emotion on the faces of the players. Life was impossible to ignore, as the sport of basketball lost an icon.
Statements rolled in from NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the Raptors organization, various coaches, and countless players. They didn’t focus on the five championships, the 18 all-star game appearances, the two gold medals, the 81-point game, nor the 60-point walk-off. It was about what Kobe meant to basketball, and how his singular drive to master the sport inspired those across all walks of life.
The scene in San Antonio said it all. Bryant eliminated the Spurs four times in his career. In at least three of those seasons, they were favorites to win the NBA Finals. The Lakers are bitter enemies of San Antonio, and once, celebrating Bryant would have been unthinkable. But tonight, it was the Spurs fans who sparked a “Kobe” chant prior to tip-off. That’s the type of respect Bryant garnered as a competitor.
That’s the legacy that he passed on, and why he is so beloved. Bryant wrung everything he could out of the game and we are all his inheritors. He was treated to a farewell tour in his 20th and final season because he was owed that respect. Bryant trained countless players, from the likes of Kyrie Irving to Kawhi Leonard, and launched an entire training academy. In his retirement, Bryant poured his love of the game into his daughters, became a dedicated advocate for women’s sports, and was routinely seen at WNBA games alongside his late daughter Gianna, who followed in her father’s footsteps until the very end.
The game goes on, but Kobe is not forgotten, nor will he ever be. Through every Raptor and Spur that played through a heavy heart, the spirit of Kobe lives on. Life can always be taken away at a moment’s notice, and there may not be any justice at all. It’s what you do with the time we have that counts.
The Spurs kept on fighting, however, and eventually took the lead themselves early on in the fourth quarter. Eventually, they had pushed the lead to eight before VanVleet had a smooth pass to Gasol in the paint who finished it with a dunk despite a foul.
From there, Gasol singlehandedly brought the Raptors all the back by way of a couple of shots from the line and a three-pointer, tying the game at 97 with just under eight minutes to play. The Raptors then built a six-point lead, but it was quickly swallowed; DeRozan goaded the Raptors into a few fouls and then scored a short J with a minute to play to tie it at 105.
On the ensuing play, Lowry walked the ball up the floor then passed to Siakam who drove into the lane and kicked it out to an open Fred VanVleet, who buried a three-pointer to take a 108-105 lead.
After Lonnie Walker IV went 1-for-2 at the line, Siakam again drove to the rim and kicked out to VanVleet — but this time, VanVleet was off the mark. But — guess who? — Kyle Lowry didn’t give up on the play, fought for the rebound, and knocked it out of bounds off of Dejounte Murray. The Spurs then had to foul to regain possession, but VanVleet calmly hit both free throws to take a four-point lead and seal the 110-106 win.
Pascal Siakam finished the game with 35 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. Lowry and VanVleet chipped in 16 and 13, respectively. The Spurs, meanwhile, had seven players score in double-figures, but it ended up not being enough to overcome the Raptors.
Despite the outcome, however, the tragic news of Kobe Bryant’s death overshadowed the basketball. With him and the other deaths in the crash, it was a reminder of how precious and fickle life can be. Kobe was an intense competitor and balletic player with moves that were emulated among anyone who picked up a basketball. Even throwing away a crumpled up piece of paper in the back of a classroom was suddenly an event of its own as people across the world emphatically yelled “KOBE!” to mimic the “Black Mamba.”
In the years since he retired, he had been an active father and even an Oscar winner. Perhaps what is so incredibly heartbreaking is trying to imagine his family going on without him, especially since the finally had more time sans basketball. Truly, the loss is immensely devastating to his family and close friends.
Both teams struggled to begin the game, with every player and coach’s mind not on the game but on the friend they lost. Toronto raced out to a 29-12 lead but San Antonio responded by rallying in the second half, outscoring the Raptors 34-23 in the third quarter.
Pascal Siakam scored 35 points, including 25 in the first quarter. Kyle Lowry added 16 points and Fred VanFleet chipped in 13 for the Raptors, who earned the season series split with San Antonio with the win.
DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White led the Spurs with 14 points. DeRozan added six rebounds and seven assists. Bryn Forbes and Dejounte Murray each chipped in 13 points apiece for San Antonio, who suffered their second straight loss.
Prior to the game, the media was not allowed in the locker room. On the bench, assistant coaches Tim Duncan and Becky Hammon could be seen wiping away tears. DeRozan and Popovich shared a moment on the bench before tipoff and both teams shared hugs following the game.
“Words can’t explain it,” DeRozan said. “For myself, learning everything I’ve learned basketball-wise from Kobe. “Everything, everything. Everything I learned came from Kobe, everything.”
Unfortunately, as it has been the case all too often this season, the Spurs spent all their energy and good fortune climbing their way out of a hole they had dug for themselves earlier. The Raptors eventually steadied themselves thanks to the play of their veterans and regained control of the game. San Antonio was still in it late, but the usual issues with execution emerged to halt the comeback. DeMar DeRozan managed to tie things up with a minute to go but a bad defensive possession, a missed free throw on the other end and an untimely turnover caused by Kyle Lowry allowed Toronto to escape with a victory.
It’s impossible to be too heartbroken about this loss, mostly because the entire NBA world got a dose of perspective in the most brutal way possible on Sunday, but also because the Spurs’ young guns shined even in defeat on the night in which Pop finally made the decision to trust them. No game in which White and Murray share the floor for long stretches and Walker gets meaningful minutes is a wasted one.
As sad as it was to watch Spurs-Raptors for reasons that had nothing to do with basketball, maybe this is actually the day in which the youth movement really kicks into gear. If it is, at least something good will come out of a game no one enjoyed at the time and will always be painful to look back on.
Nurse said it took him eight or nine minutes to block out the tragedy and focus on the game. Neither Fred VanVleet nor Norman Powell felt like they ever got to that point.
“Just to try to focus on something that we really didn’t care about at the moment,” VanVleet said of the approach to the day. “I don’t think anybody was that interested in the game. But we’ve got a job to do. I think both teams did a good job going out there and performing. You know, we were able to get the win, so move on, and we’ll console each other and be together as a family. I think the world is kind of dealing with this one, together.”
It made for some very uneven basketball.
Once again, the Raptors fell back on their amazing ability to be resilient and handle whatever the game throws at them to get through this thing.
And like just about every time it was enough to get them through even if an early 19-point lead that somehow didn’t stand up.
Nurse said before the game, almost prophetically, big leads in the NBA these days just don’t last like they once did.
Nurse has seen far too many both for and against his team fall by the wayside to believe that at some very basic level the game has changed in this way.
“I think the one thing everyone has to get their head around a little more in this league is those 15-,18-, 20-point leads are just going away quickly,” Nurse said hours before he watched his own team cough up another big one.
“It’s just the way basketball has changed with so many more possessions and the three ball and all that stuff. It’s happening. You don’t want it to happen, but it’s maybe not as much as a catastrophe when its happening every night in the league. Just one of those things you have to get used to.”
But runs go both ways and the energy the Spurs expended reeling the Raptors back in came at a cost. They didn’t manage to tie the game until it reached 73. They failed to take a lead, but got back on even terms again at 82 before Marco Belineilli gave San Antonio its first lead since the first bucket of the game, with three freebies from the line.
Shortly before tipoff and following a moment of silence, VanVleet, DeRozan, Powell and Lowry shared the type of moment VanVleet spoke about. DeRozan’s relationship with Bryant runs deep. Growing up in Los Angeles, DeRozan idolized Bryant. As a pro, he tried to carry on his legacy stylistically (on the court and with Nike) and eventually as a peer and friend. Powell also grew up in California admiring Bryant. DeRozan later became Powell’s teammate and mentor. His “Understand the Grind” ethos is a subgenre of the so-called “Mamba Mentality” approach to work. Powell dons the jersey No. 24 because of Bryant, who is said to have made the midcareer change from No. 8 to No. 24 in part as a reminder that it takes that many hours each day to be great.
“He meant everything,” Powell explained. “I mean, I modelled my whole mentality of being an ultimate competitor, grinding and working day in and day out, sacrificing a lot of things to get to where you want to be. I tried to implement that in my game, just the way I go about basketball, life, competing, working to be the best. Maximizing my God-given abilities just like he did.”
Bryant’s impact on DeRozan may run even deeper.
“Everything. Everything. Everything I learned came from Kobe. Everything,” DeRozan said. “Take Kobe away and I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have love, I wouldn’t have passion and the drive. Everything. Everything came from him.
“Words can’t explain it. For myself, learning everything I’ve learned basketball-wise from Kobe, what he meant to the game, the inspiration that he brought to the world. Not just that. His daughter. I’m a father. I can’t imagine something like that happening. It’s a sad, sad, very sad, sad day.”
The tragedy seemed to touch everyone in the Raptors locker room in some way. Lowry, like Bryant, was born in Philadelphia. Bryant and Marc Gasol had become increasingly close in recent years through their many years playing against one another and through Marc’s brother Pau, who had fostered a close relationship with Bryant while they were Lakers teammates. A stoic OG Anunoby and an emotional Stanley Johnson attended Bryant’s invite-only minicamp this past summer. Raptors vice president of player health and performance Alex McKechnie won five championships with Bryant as a member of the Lakers.
Bryant’s remarkable career spanned from 1996 to 2016, meaning just about every active NBA player would have been raised during some era of Bryant’s superstardom. His overall legacy, on the court and especially off of it, is complicated, but to this generation of players, he is untouchable in this regard: one of an era’s greatest players, its largest personalities and its most accomplished heroes.
“My very first image of basketball was 2001 (NBA) Finals,” VanVleet said. “So if you imagine starting my basketball life watching him, he was, like, I don’t know. I know what Michael Jordan means to people that came before me, so that’s what he was to me. He was Basketball Jesus. If there’s a better term than that, I can’t think of one. Really, everything I do and think about the game — obviously I have nothing in common with him physically — I admired him so much.
“I’ve never been a fan of anybody in my life other than Kobe. Like, that’s the only person I’ve ever looked up to as an idol. You can ask anybody that knows me, that’s my one guy that I put up on a pedestal. Everybody has their guy and he was mine and I never really spoke about it, but it sucks to have to speak about it in past tense. There’s not a higher pedestal that I could have put someone on than the one he was on for me.”
To the outside world, there is another kind of grief. Kobe Bryant was a legend—not just so famous as to seem larger than life, but so revered to the point of actual mythology. There are tales that Kobe would only sleep for a few hours at a time. A run of air balls against Utah became a Campbellian trial. His story took on a life of its own: the five rings, the late-game daggers, the persistence through injury, the ruthlessness on the court, the 81-point game, the fabled work ethic, the mechanical brilliance, the Mamba Mentality™, the torn Achilles, and the 60-point farewell. A player who did everything he could to fashion himself after Michael Jordan managed to capture his most ineffable quality. It is impossible to even have a conversation about Bryant without first pushing through the aura that surrounds him.
An entire generation of players and fans grew up in the light of that aura. Bryant’s influence on today’s NBA is staggering. After Kyrie Irving hit the biggest shot of his life, he went back to the Cavs’ locker room and called Kobe, champagne still streaming in the background. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George grew up watching Bryant, played against him for years, and then went to pick his brain when Kobe hosted a group of NBA players last summer. On Sunday, a procession of former teammates and friends came to comfort DeMar DeRozan, a Compton native who built his own game after Kobe’s, as Kobe did Jordan’s. Some who took the court on Sunday did so in tears. Not only had they lost a friend and mentor, but the player whose poster hung on the wall of their childhood bedroom.
There is an acute pain that comes with the death of a loved one, the kind that can hollow out a person and leave them to drift aimlessly for weeks and months and ages. For many, the death of a public figure, like Bryant, registers differently. The vast majority of those who felt Sunday’s loss didn’t know Kobe. They just knew that he had always been there and what he had given them along the way. Sports are predicated on a commitment to something larger than ourselves, whether a striving team, a civic identity, or the simple magic of shared experience. Kobe was that: a religion unto himself, through which friends, families, communities, message board posters, reluctant admirers, AAU players, and legions of fans across the world could find comfort together. Perhaps now they can find catharsis, too.
This is the kind of loss you cannot escape.
When the NBA All-Star game was in Toronto in 2016 he was the keynote speaker at the annual technology summit. He turned out in a blazer and dark turtleneck, looking every inch a Silicon Valley mogul. It was there he wowed a conference hall full of businessmen and entrepreneurs. The message: He was just getting started.
He had left everything he had on the basketball court. At age 34, and playing his 78th game of the 2012-13 season, Bryant tore his Achilles tendon and then knocked down two free throws to tie a must-win game. Season-ending injuries to his knee and his shoulder followed the next two years and still Bryant refused to leave on anything but his own terms.
At age 37, in 2015-16, Bryant suited up for 66 games and was mostly a shadow of himself, but fans in arenas around the NBA got to celebrate him one last time. And if they didn’t get there in person, he had a documentary crew following him to preserve the moment. In the final game of his career he scored 60 points while taking a career-high 50 shots.
His Hollywood endings were just beginning, and as with his playing days, little was left to chance. His first project was an animated short film, Dear Basketball, an adaptation of the poem of the same title he wrote for the Players’ Tribune announcing his retirement. Bryant teamed with legendary Disney artist Glen Keane and John Williams, an Academy Award-winning composer. Not surprisingly the Hollywood rookie won an Oscar.
As his two older daughters got old enough to pick up sports (his younger girls are three years old and seven months, respectively) Bryant became the doting, if outsized, sports dad. His older daughter, Natalia, played volleyball and Bryant would attend her tournaments, security in tow, trying to keep a low profile as scores of teenaged girls and their parents would casually wander over to confirm for themselves: ‘Yep, that’s Kobe Bryant.’
His younger daughter Gianna chose basketball and Bryant founded and coached a travel team – Team Mamba.
And while any parent who has had kids in competitive sports has at times wished they could make it better, most limit themselves to volunteering. Bryant, however, had the resources to actually do something about it.
I didn’t know Kobe, but as someone who grew up a die-hard fan of his, it was surreal to cover bits and pieces of his farewell season on the team, something I will never forget. To have him nearly knock me over my first time in the locker room, because of course he was going to take the most direct path to the training room. Never a wasted movement with that guy, and it makes me laugh to remember what he must have thought of the nervous, skinny white kid profusely apologizing to him for being in the way that day.
Even in retirement, Bryant’s fire never faded. From drawing criticism for what some saw as him trashing middle-schoolers online for not being committed to basketball enough, to dunking on me on Twitter for making a joke about one of the videos he made for ESPN. I will never forget the day that a representative of Bryant’s somehow found the direct number for the student paper I worked at in college to get me on the line, saying his client was threatening to wage “the World War 3 of litigation” if we didn’t take down a post with video of his later Oscar-winning short, “Dear Basketball.”
But that was the thing about Kobe: He never claimed to be a perfect person, or even always a nice one. Lord knows he wasn’t. He just wanted to be the best at everything he ever did, to beat everyone at everything, and maybe that open acknowledgement of his flaws, that admittance that he’d made tons of mistakes and would make more, and that you can still be great in spite of them is what made him resonate so much with this city, with this fanbase, and even worldwide. Maybe it’s the lasting lesson he’d want us to take away from a life cut tragically short.
Typing through rapidly welling tears from watching NBA teams playing today take 24 and 8-second violations in tribute to you and your daughter. From watching grown men, gladiators of the game break down as they’re told what happened to you. Kobe, I can’t believe I’m already writing this when you were just 41, and your daughter only 13, but from all of Los Angeles who you made feel like the kid in your video, I just wanted to say Mamba Out, one final time.
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
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