NEW YORK — Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson fought back tears while giving a pregame statement following Kobe Bryant’s tragic death in California on Sunday morning.
Nets star Kyrie Irving was so distraught over the passing of his close friend that he left the arena immediately upon hearing the news, missing Sunday’s game against the New York Knicks.
“Honestly, I don’t think we should’ve played,” Knicks forward Marcus Morris Sr. said after his team defeated the Nets, 110-97, at Madison Square Garden.
Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. He was 41.
“It was an emotional locker room. It was a quiet locker room. No one spoke for three hours before we tipped off,” Atkinson said postgame.
“Sometimes, there are no words.”
The Nets coach needed to pause and collect himself a few times during his pregame statement.
“As an organization, we’re devastated. Our players are devastated. We have a player who was very close to Kobe,” Atkinson said, alluding to Irving, who called Bryant after hitting the title-clinching shot and winning the 2016 NBA Finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It worked. What you told me to do worked,” Irving told Bryant that night.
The atmosphere at MSG could only be described as somber and subdued, with everyone mourning the sudden death of an NBA icon.
A 24-second moment of silence highlighted the team’s pregame tribute to No. 24. Bryant’s uniform numbers — as well as the Lakers’ logo — were featured on the Garden floor during the tribute.
Both teams alternated taking 24-second shot-clock violations following the opening tip, as was done throughout the league. Fans repeatedly chanted Bryant’s name all evening long: “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!”
The venue’s iconic pinwheel ceiling and exterior featured purple and gold.
Julius Randle, Bryant’s teammate for two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Morris both honored the future Hall of Famer with written messages on their sneakers: “GOAT 24 Rest Easy Bro” and “R.I.P. Kobe 24 8,” respectively.
“Superman isn’t supposed to die,” Morris said. “And to us, he felt like Superman.”
Randle understandably left without speaking to reporters after the game.
“Our locker room had some heavy hearts in there, but they went out and played,” Knicks coach Mike Miller said. “I would say that it was a tribute to Kobe to go out there and play the game like he would play the game.”
Bryant had several unforgettable moments at The Garden, including a 61-point performance in 2009 and a 360 dunk during the All-Star Game in 1998.
Irving (Select Team) and Bryant (Team USA) started becoming close during the summer of 2012, prior to the London Olympics. After practice, Irving famously challenged Bryant to a game of one-on-one for $50,000.
“From that point on, every time we played since I was a rookie, I was just trying to earn his respect,” Irving said in 2015. “Guys that have come before me, I never forget their groundwork. Even guys that have come before Kobe, that allowed him to leave a legacy on this game that will last forever.”
The game featured no pumped-in music or noise during play, and the usually boisterous crowd was mostly quiet. At times, the only sounds that were audible was the ball bouncing and sneakers squeaking on the hardwood.
“I just don’t feel like broadcasting. I know a lot of the players don’t feel like playing,” Knicks play-by-play announcer Mike Breen said on the MSG Network. “It’s just a sad, sad day.”
Kobe and Gianna attended the Nets-Hawks game in Brooklyn on Dec. 21, 2019.
“I didn’t even think he knew my name. And then he came up and said, ‘Hey, Coach,’” Atkinson said, providing a much-needed amusing anecdote on a night filled with sadness. “I ran home after the game and told my wife.”
Bryant played in the NBA for 20 seasons, finishing with 18 All-Star selections, five NBA titles, two Olympic gold medals and one MVP award.
“Kobe Bryant is one of those guys who is in a different echelon,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “We all idolized him as a player.”
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