There was an NBA game in Toronto on Tuesday night, but it hardly felt like business as usual.
Two days after the tragic deaths of Kobe Bryant and his basketball-loving daughter Gianna, along with the seven other passengers in the helicopter that crashed into a southern California hillside, the Raptors and visiting Atlanta Hawks were still dealing with their grief.
The Raptors won 130-114, headlined by 24 points apiece from Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka, while Kyle Lowry became the club’s all-time assists leader as he recorded 12 points and 11 assists. Still, sorrow for the late Lakers great and his 13-year-old daughter permeated the evening.
Before the game, there was a video tribute to Bryant, the five-time NBA champion and 18-time all-star, as the Toronto crowd chanted “Kobe,” before observing 24 seconds of silence in darkness.
“The biggest thing is his family – his kids won’t be able to say ‘Dad can you pick me up’ and stuff. That’s the stuff that hurts me,” said Lowry of Bryant, who is survived by wife Vanessa and three other daughters. “Honouring him before the game, it takes you back. Every time you look at something, it takes you back,and it’s going to take a while for people to even stop talking about it.”
The reverence was on display all over, from yellow-and-purple Bryant jerseys in the crowd, to hand-scrawled messages on players’ sneakers. Norman Powell arrived to the arena in a Kobe-and-Gigi-themed hoodie. Even the Raptor mascot slid on a Kobe jersey for some of his acrobatics.
The retired Lakers icon was at the heart of every pregame interview, and anecdotes flowed freely.
Alex McKechnie shared his recollections about Bryant to a group of reporters. The Raptors’ vice-president of player health and performance is the guru of the ‘load management’ methods that helped keep Kawhi Leonard fresh and healthy for Toronto’s NBA championship run last June. McKechnie rarely does interviews, but reminisced Tuesday about time spent with Bryant during his lengthy stint as the Lakers’ athletic performance co-ordinator.
McKechnie remembered Bryant challenging himself to play all 82 games of an NBA season, his love of reading and penchant for languages. He had a knack for remembering the names of every spouse and child of the Lakers’ players and staff. McKechnie said Bryant would flip open a DVD player on the postgame flight just as soon as he sat down, to begin studying his next opponent. Bryant and McKechnie, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, shared a passion for soccer.
“He was always amazed by soccer players who’d hit the ball with their left and right [feet], head it from the left side, right side. He’d get out and work with his left hand, like it had to be as good as his right,” McKechnie said. “That, in itself, really personifies Kobe. It was just a drive for excellence every single day, and it was pretty special to be around that.”
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said he was in a fog for much of the game his team played on Sunday, right after hearing the news. He recalled huddling them up before that game and being at a loss for words. He told them he would understand if any player felt he couldn’t play. Every one of them toughed it out. Nurse thought back to the day after Princess Diana had died, and he had to coach a team in Europe. But this felt so very different. His players were still reeling two days later.
Bryant’s death on Sunday coincided with Vince Carter’s 43rd birthday. Like the Raptors, Carter’s Hawks played a difficult game that day just hours after being blindsided by the tragic news. In preparation for Tuesday’s game against the Raptors, the Hawks watched video highlights of Bryant and chatted about pouring everything into your craft. They took Monday off, returned to the court Tuesday in Toronto, and concluded morning shootaround by singing Happy Birthday to Carter.
Carter is uniquely qualified to speak on Bryant – they were friends and competitors over 18 NBA seasons and teammates on an AAU club as teens in New Jersey.
“You hated to play against him,” Carter said. “We’ve had finger-pointing moments in L.A. I remember we were about to go at, and we’ve had moments where we were just laughing and joking. It was a friendly battle but you knew he was still going to bring it.”
He shook his head when asked how the NBA should pay tribute to Bryant.
“Everything that you think of is probably a good idea. And he’s earned that right,” Carter said. “We can all come up with an idea and it’s probably a darn good one, so I’m sure all-star weekend will be special.”
Carter scored 10 points and enjoyed a video tribute of his own Tuesday as he winds down his final NBA season. John Collins led Atlanta with 28 points while young NBA all-star starter Trae Young was held to 18 points.
Lowry recorded his 3,771th assist in the game, passing Jose Calderon as Toronto’s career assist leader. He fell just shy of a triple-double Tuesday, adding eight assists.
“Yeah it was awesome to be able to get it here tonight, in front of the home crowd, in front of Vince,” said Lowry afterward. “The longevity that I’ve been here, and to pass a guy like Jose, one of the best point guards in franchise history and one of the greats in European basketball, to be able to pass him means a lot. We got a win, so that’s even better.”
Despite the lopsided score, fans stood en masse to applaud the teams when it was over.
The Raptors have a busy week, with games Thursday in Cleveland, Friday in Detroit, and back home Sunday against Chicago.