The Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs did not want to be on the court after learning Kobe Bryant had died, but they tried to honour him as best they could.
The teams collaborated on a touching tribute to Bryant at the beginning of their game Sunday, with each team dribbling out the 24-second shot clock in remembrance of the No. 24 worn by the retired NBA great, who died in a helicopter crash at age 41.
Pascal Siakam scored 35 points to lead the Raptors past the Spurs 110-106 on a day when many players’ thoughts were elsewhere.
“You think about his family and his friends and the situation they are going through,” Toronto veteran Marc Gasol said. “You just want to go home and kiss your kids and your wife. The rest is irrelevant right now.”
Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among the nine people killed when the helicopter they were riding in crashed in Calabasas, California. The teams found out about Bryant’s death about an hour before the afternoon tipoff.
“Everybody is pretty emotional about the tragedy with Kobe,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “All of us know what a great player he was, but he went beyond great playing, he was a competitor, that goes unmatched. It’s what made him as a player so attractive to everybody, that focus, that competitiveness, that will to win. And even more importantly than that, we all feel a deep sense of loss for what he meant to all of us in so many ways and so many millions of people loved him for so many different reasons. It’s just a tragic thing. There are no words that can describe how everybody feels about it. We are all thinking about the family and the process that they’re going to be going through now. That’s where all our thoughts should be.”
The Spurs had many battles with Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, especially in the playoffs. Popovich has spoken about his love for and respect of Bryant, and that admiration was apparent when the team played a tribute video during the legend’s final appearance in San Antonio.
“An assassin in the best sense of that word,” Spurs legend David Robinson said. “Someone you knew was going to get the job done. You felt like it was almost inevitable if you’re playing against him. You cannot let him get that shot. Just the work ethic and the intensity, everything you bring to a game, everything that elevates this game.”
San Antonio held a moment of silence before the game. Spurs assistant coaches Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan and guard Lonnie Walker IV were visibly upset. Hammon and Walker wiped away tears and Duncan had his hands over his face.
DeMar DeRozan, who scored 14 points, consoled Walker even as he battled his own emotions. DeRozan, who was raised in Compton, California, was a fan of Bryant growing up and became close friends with him.
“Everything. Everything,” DeRozan said when asked what Bryant meant to him. “Everything I’ve learned came from Kobe, everything. Take Kobe away, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have love, I wouldn’t have the passion, the drive. Everything came from him.”
After the moment of silence came the memorable in-game tribute.
The teams did not contest the opening tipoff. Instead, Toronto point guard Fred VanVleet held onto the ball for 24 seconds, incurring a shot-clock violation. San Antonio point guard Dejounte Murray did the same as the crowd gave a standing ovation and chanted, “Kobe! Kobe!”
Popovich was not his usual animated self on the sidelines as the Raptors raced to a 29-12 lead. But when Walker missed a defensive assignment on one of Siakam’s five 3-pointers, Popovich pulled Walker immediately from the game and had the second-year guard sit by him as he scolded him and then immediately reinserted him into the lineup.
The Spurs also returned to life, outscoring the Raptors 34-23 in the third quarter after trailing by as many as 19 points in the first half.
Gasol scored eight straight points, helping Toronto tie the game at 97. VanVleet scored the Raptors’ final five points, including a 3-pointer, to help Toronto win its seventh straight game.
“I was happy to give our team a lead there and make two free throws and try to get out of here and get home and kiss on my babies,” VanVleet said.
Robinson said one of the things that made Bryant so special was his ability to connect with fans around the world.
“He had an appeal worldwide,” Robinson said. “He was a very international player. Spoke (different) languages, played all over the world. I think he was very relatable. Obviously, he elevated the game. I come from the Magic (Johnson) and Larry Bird era, where it began to get to be an international game and Kobe was kind of the next link in that chain and did an unbelievable job.”
Bryant spoke Spanish and Italian after spending part of his youth in Europe while his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played pro basketball in Italy. Bryant used that proficiency to his advantage on the court, too, speaking in Spanish to trash-talk then Spurs rookie Manu Ginobili during his first game against the Lakers.
Raptors: Kyle Lowry, who had 16 points, did not talk to the media following the game because he was saddened about Bryant’s death. ... Toronto forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was assisted off the court and did not return after spraining his right ankle with 8:02 remaining in the third quarter.
Spurs: White also had 14 points for San Antonio. ... DeRozan was limited to 14 points on 2-for-7 shooting after scoring 20-plus points in 16 of his previous 17 games.