Only four players on the 2019-20 Boston Celtics ever got to play in a game against Kobe Bryant. Yet, on the day the Hall of Fame guard tragically passed away with his daughter and seven others in a helicopter accident, it’s hard to imagine another person in the world of basketball who had a greater impact on today’s generation of NBA talent.
Bryant was a giant figure not just in the NBA, but in the world of sports itself. From ‘Kobe’ chants breaking out in the stands at the Pro Bowl to Neymar throwing up his number ’24’ after scoring a goal, Bryant tributes poured in all over the globe. His connection with a number of these current Celtics went beyond just his play on the floor, however.
Gordon Hayward spent time training with Bryant in the summer of 2016 while with the Utah Jazz and still holds keepsakes from those lessons to this day.
“I was lucky enough to play against him,” Hayward told reporters in New Orleans. “I took a week out and went to Newport and trained with him. I still have all the emails saved. Growing up watching him, a lot of us in the NBA now watched him, idolized him.”
Bryant also reached out to Hayward on social media with a pointed message after he suffered his broken ankle two years ago.
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Be sad. Be mad. Be frustrated. Scream. Cry. Sulk. When you wake up you will think it was just a nightmare only to realize it’s all too real. You will be angry and wish for the day back, the game back THAT play back. But reality gives nothing back and nor should you. Time to move on and focus on doing everything in your power to prepare for surgery, ask all the questions to be sure you understand fully the procedure so that you may visualize it in your subconscious while being operated on and better the chance of it’s success. Then focus on the recovery process day by day by day. It’s a long journey but if you focus on the mini milestones along the way you will find beauty in the struggle of doing simple things that prior to this injury were taken for granted. This will also mean that when you return you will have a new perspective. You will be so appreciative of being able to stand, walk, run that you will train harder than you ever have. You see the belief within you grow with each mini milestone and you will come back a better player for it. Best of luck to you on this journey my brother #mambamentality always.
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“I was heartbroken,” Hayward said of hearing the news of Bryant’s death. “Heartbroken for his family. Being a father, my stomach was hurting. It still is hurting. There’s nothing that you can say to make it better, but certainly praying for him and his family. It’s just so tragic. It was tough today, It was definitely tough. I’ve had a relationship with him. He’s been nice enough to take his time, and took his time out and showed me things, to text me, the message that he sent me. So it was tough."
Jayson Tatum spent parts of the summer of 2018 working out with Bryant as well and posted an emotional tribute on Instagram before sitting on Sunday’s game with a sore groin.
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Heart broken. My Hero. My Idol. The reason I started to play this game, the reason I fell in love with this game. Growing up wanting to be just like you, to you becoming a mentor, beyond thankful for everything you’ve done for me. “I didn’t have a plan B I put all my eggs in one basket and I knew I was going to make it happen” hearing you say that stuck with me everyday of my life. You inspired me and I am forever grateful more than you know! Love you Bean 🙏🏽❤️! Sad, sad, sad day RIP Kobe and Gianna! Praying for the family!
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Jaylen Brown spoke about his interactions with Tatum after the Bryant news broke.
“I just dapped him up and put my hand on his head and I didn’t really have to say much. I know he looked up to him, he’s inspired by him, got to work out with him. I know what he was probably feeling in that moment. To me, I never got the chance to shake his hand and just tell him thank you for how much he inspired me, growing up playing the game of basketball and how much he inspired many. It’s tough for all of us. I know it’s tough for Jayson.”
That empty feeling was a constant theme throughout the C’s locker room in the wake of the 15-point defeat. Teams across the league paid tribute to Bryant with 24-second violations at the start of games but it was evident that focusing on the game itself was tough for players over the course of 48 minutes given how little it seemingly mattered at the moment.
“It wouldn’t have bothered me at all if we didn’t play. I didn’t feel like playing today,” Hayward said. "I don’t think anybody on either team would have minded if we didn’t.”
“Yeah, it was hard to play. It was tough,” Brown added. "I take a lot of the blame, a lot of responsibility, the things that I do well, the things that I do great, I didn’t do great today. It was just one of those games."
The NBA may rightfully take some flack for electing not to cancel Sunday’s games just hours after a tragedy. Some coaches around the league even called for it in the aftermath. Others believed that Bryant’s grinding and competitive mentality made the decision to play on a tragic day, an easy one in his honor.
“Two teams out there have to go out and compete and play the game that we love,” Kemba Walker said. “For me, I looked at it like, I’m pretty sure Kobe would have wanted us to play. That’s the kind of fierce competitor he was. He just had so much respect around this league, from players around the world, from fans around the world. We love Kobe.”
Walker also spoke about the impact Bryant still has on him from his high school days.
“I was blessed enough to meet Kobe at a young age when I was in high school," he said. "My high school, we were actually a Kobe team. Just to see him, his presence, had an impact on me. You just always knew how hard he worked. That was the biggest thing for me, his work ethic and his mentality about the game. That is what has inspired me the most, personally."
Marcus Smart was also happy both teams got a chance to pay tribute to a basketball legend in the midst of the game itself.
“It was great,” Smart said of the 24-second violation tributes. “What he’s brought to the game of basketball, it’s kind of hard for us to go out there and not give a tribute. We talked about the 24-second shot clock. Both teams were going to take one for him. It just shows the brotherhood and camaraderie that the NBA and the players have, and just basketball around the world, just the fans and everybody who grew up watching him do what he does best and be the best. It was good to see everybody showing him the support and respect that he deserves.”
Amid an ugly 15-point loss, there were no questions about the game to the players postgame and it seemed fitting. The result was secondary to remembering a true icon of the game.
“If people got to watch those games and watch the 24-second violations, and they got to appreciate that as fans, then I think we’re happy to do whatever we’re asked to do,” Stevens said of the decision to play. "If it brings somebody, somewhere a little bit of a distraction in an otherwise tough day, then that’s OK too.”