It would have been an understandable decision if the NBA decided to cancel all of its eight games on Sunday following the shocking loss of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash.
But the league opted not to as the players that grew up idolizing the Lakers legend made sure to pay tribute to the future Hall of Famer — whether that was by taking eight-second or 24-second violations (both of Kobe’s numbers in the pros), writing messages on their sneakers, or changing their numbers for a day.
In New York, the Knicks hosted the Nets at Madison Square Garden in a Big Apple rivalry that was obviously muted on Sunday.
One of the matchup’s biggest stars, Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, was unable to play after hearing of the news of Bryant’s death, leaving the arena ahead of the 6 p.m. scheduled tip-off. The Nets listed him out due to personal reasons.
Bryant was one of Irving’s closest mentors, the two building a relationship during Kobe’s final years in the NBA as he began to slow down and looked to impart his wisdom on the next generation of stars.
They had plenty in common. Both grew up overseas with fathers that played professional basketball — Bryant in Italy and Irving in Australia.
A relationship sparked when the two were teammates on the United States national team as Irving sought out advice over the years from Bryant whether it was about co-existing with LeBron James, handling stardom, or moving teams.
“Despite what was going on from the outside influences and what everyone else felt was best for him, he always did what was best for his career and for himself,” Irving told the Washington Post in 2018. “He figured it out. At times throughout a professional career, you’re going to be tested, and there are times where you’re going try to appease the media, you try to appease your teammates, you try to appease the coaching staff, whoever, whatever situation you are in, you try to kind of blend in. The best thing I learned from him is you don’t necessarily have to blend in. You can stand out.”
When Irving hit the game-winning shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to lift James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to an improbable victory over the 73-win Golden State Warriors, Kobe — who had Gianna alongside him — was the first person Kyrie FaceTimed.
The two kept a solid relationship after Bryant retired in 2016, most recently with Irving working out at Kobe’s Mamba Sports Academy in November.
It was that very same Mamba Academy that Kobe, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were headed to on Sunday when the helicopter went down.
Irving has had a difficult past when it comes to losing those close to him. He lost his mother at four years old and was so distraught when his grandfather died last year that it took the joy out of basketball.
“After he passed, basketball was the last thing on my mind,” Irving said. “So a lot of basketball and the joy I had from it was sucked away from me… I didn’t take the necessary steps to get counseling or therapy to deal with someone that close to me dying. I had never dealt with anything like that.”