How Kobe Bryant's presence transcended past NBA games into life itself

How Kobe Bryant's presence transcended past NBA games into life itself

SAN FRANCISCO -- When the news filtered out that the most vigorous of earthly creatures, a man whose spirit and deeds insinuated that Superman is indeed possible, had died so suddenly in the prime of life, shock hit the NBA and the planet like a sledgehammer to the gut.

Not Kobe.

Can’t be Kobe. His first name alone had become a synonym for imperishable.

And please, no, one of his daughters, 13-year-old Gianna, too?

A helicopter crash Sunday morning, in foggy conditions near Calabasas, 45 minutes northwest of Los Angeles. There were no survivors.

Kobe Bryant was 41 years old. He was four years removed from the NBA -- and about one year into a post-career that was defrosting millions of hearts outside the cocoon that is Laker Nation, where he always was and forever will exceed mere legend.

Those of us outside Laker Nation, beyond this generation of greater LA, can’t comprehend that region’s fixation with Kobe. He was, to them, all things. The one-word summation to end to all arguments about basketball and, well, life. He was the greatest of the greats that have passed through the franchise -- and infinitely superior to the great currently and wearing the colors.

LeBron never will come close to the space occupied by Kobe.

“Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed, and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court -- and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius, and ambassador for the game he loved,” Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement.

“He will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes.”

The NBA, as a league and a business, was knocked off its feet. The Warriors were practicing at Chase Center when they were informed, and coach Steve Kerr immediately halted the workout.

“We were incredibly saddened and shocked to learn about the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, earlier today in the Los Angeles area,” a Warriors statement issued in the afternoon. “Kobe was one of the iconic players in the history of the NBA and touched fans in every market, including the Bay Area, for 20 years. His unquenchable desire and drive to be the best elevated him to a level that few have ever reached and enabled him to leave a legacy that will be celebrated for generations. "We extend our thoughts and prayers to his family, the entire Lakers organization and his legion of fans around the world.”

The San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors opened their game with each team taking a 24-second violation -- Kobe wore No. 24 for the second half of his career. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, eyes red and rolling in moisture, struggled to address the media before facing the Magic in Orlando.

There was Kobe the basketball player, an indomitable force whose ferocity was his signature. He embraced the idea of destroying opponents. He gave himself the nickname, The Black Mamba, after the ultra-poisonous snake in the movie “Kill Bill,” in which the name was code for assassin. That’s the on-court mentality Kobe possessed.

In the final game of his 20-year career, Kobe scored 60 points. That he took 50 shots was beside the point on a Lakers team that finished 17-65. It was a relentless and conclusive attack that would leave an indelible, and appropriate, memory.

Kobe entered the NBA as an 18-year-old and over the course of his career also had an 81-point game on 46 shots, a 65-point game on 39 shots, a 62-point game on 31 shots, a 61-point game on 31 shots and a 55-point game on 29 shots.

There were five NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVP awards, 18 consecutive All-Star Games, 15 All-NBA Team selections, 12 All-Defensive Team selections and, surprisingly, only one MVP award.

Yet the numbers and accolades barely graze the persona. Kobe exemplified relentless drive and irrational confidence, and a competitive nature that never rested. Though he holds a few NBA records, the one that best explores his psyche was set in, of all games, the 2011 All-Star Game.

The game was at Staples Center in Los Angeles, which by then was Kobe’s backyard. He scored 37 points, on 26 shots, in 29 minutes. The record he set, as a 6-6 guard mind you, was most offensive rebounds in an All-Star Game. He had 10.

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Raiding the offensive glass is the ultimate act of aggression, and Kobe didn’t care that it was an exhibition game. The thought of his death at such a young age, his internal drive still at full flame, is devastating.

This hurts now and will ache forever.

Kobe Bryant memorial service has Warriors prepping for emotional day

Kobe Bryant memorial service has Warriors prepping for emotional day

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Warriors exited Chase Center on Sunday after adding another defeat to their tally, this time against the New Orleans Pelicans. But Golden State, along with the remainder of the NBA, is preparing to reckon with its toughest loss in years.

The league momentarily will come to a standstill Monday, when all eyes will fixate on Staples Center in Los Angeles for the memorial service of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who died last month -- along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others -- in a helicopter crash.

Golden State pillars Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are expected to attend the service, along with general manager Bob Myers. But the other Warriors, armed with memories of their hero, will be left to reconcile his death in the confines of practice and search for closure in a familiar setting.

"It's going to be emotional," Warriors big man Marquese Chriss told NBC Sports Bay Area on Sunday. "I think it's going to bring back up a lot of emotions that everybody was feeling on the day that it happened. I think people aren't going to know how to feel. It's going to make it real."

The practice court serves as a unique reminder of Bryant's death. That's where the team received the news five weeks ago, just as it began pre-practice workouts.

An assistant coach relayed the initial message, and practice soon was stopped as Warriors players and staff gathered their thoughts.

"You could hear a pin drop in there," rookie forward Eric Paschall said. "It was stopped."

From the bowels of the billion-dollar basketball facility, Warriors assistant Jarron Collins walked through the adjoining weight room, up the steps and down a corridor to Chase Center's main court to tell Chriss the news. Chriss, then on a two-way contract and away from the team as to not burn his NBA service time, was floored when he heard it.

Chriss and Bryant once shared an agent, Rob Pelinka, who represented them both before he became the Lakers' general manager in 2017. The legendary Lakers guard even stopped by Chriss' college pro day at an LA-area high school ahead of the 2016 NBA Draft, bringing a buzz with him into the gym.

"It was dope to see his energy," Chriss said. "He walked into the gym, and the energy in the gym changed. He had a presence about him. Everybody wanted to talk to him, kind of pick his brain and be around him."

Similar stories are told throughout Golden State's locker room. Thompson -- whose father, Mychal, still calls Lakers games for the local radio affiliate -- met Bryant when he was a child, and he occasionally worked out with him at UC Irvine.

“He was obviously the best player in the world at the time," Thompson remembered after Bryant's final game at Oracle Arena in 2016. "I just remember watching him work out, how methodical [he was] and attention to detail he gave to every drill. It inspired me a lot.”

When Thompson was charged with marijuana possession during his junior year at Washington State, Bryant sent him an expletive-filled text.

“He said, 'Forget about that,' said it with a couple expletives and, 'Just go out there and kill,' " Thompson recounted.

“I have a potty mouth,” Bryant added that evening when asked about the exchange. “I just told him, 'Listen, man, we all make mistakes. You can’t worry about that stuff. Just keep your focus on basketball, and everything will work itself out.' "

While Thompson personally knew Bryant for much of his life, Green admired the five-time NBA champion from afar as a kid. Nonetheless, he still finds himself reconciling the loss of his idol.

"I think I'm still at the point where every time you see it, you're like, 'Damn.' Like is it a real thing?" Green said Sunday. "I don't know. Maybe tomorrow brings closure. Maybe it don't."

The topic of Bryant's memorial brought Green back to the first time he played against the guard at Oracle, which forced the forward out of his routine.

"I'm never really a guy to get star-struck," Green said. "There's two people that I've ever been star-struck by in this league, and that's Kobe and Grant Hill."

"I was finishing my pregame shooting, and Kobe was coming out," Green added. "And you have your stuff you have to do in the back when you're done shooting, and so I finished my shooting and Kobe was coming out, and I just sat on the end of the bench, and before I knew it, 20, 25 minutes had passed, and I was late as hell to finish my pregame prep, but that was just a moment for me where I was stuck like, 'Wow, I just saw Kobe work out.' "

When Green wasn't in awe of Bryant, he wanted counsel from him. Four years ago, following Green's suspension for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, he sought Bryant's advice in the wake of criticism during a time Green called "the lowest point" of his career. After hearing Green vent, Bryant responded with a message: "You’re chasing something so much bigger. How do you ever expect anyone to understand you?"

Green keeps the advice close to this day. 

"It helped me a lot," he said. "Because you kind of deal with things a certain way, and when you're dealing with things a certain way, you can only do what you think is best at the end of the day. But when you get reassurance from someone who's been through it at the highest level that the way you're dealing with something is like OK, it gives you that confidence to carry out whatever it is in the way you think it was right. It gives you that green light, like it's cool."

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Now, as his Warriors teammates say one last goodbye Monday, each will try to follow Green's credo in carrying on Bryant's legacy.

"The way you approach this game," Green said. "I think if there was anything he could ask for, that's what he would ask for. That he gave everything he had to it."

Watch Steph Curry impress in sharp pre-game warm-up as return nears

Watch Steph Curry impress in sharp pre-game warm-up as return nears

Steph Curry didn't take the floor during the Warriors' loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday. 

The injured Golden State star did beforehand, however, looking game-ready as he went through a pre-game workout. 

Curry hasn't played since breaking his left hand on Oct. 30. He was cleared for contact in practices Saturday, scrimmaging with his teammates for the first time since picking up the injury and subsequently undergoing two surgeries. The 31-year-old said Saturday that lingering nerve damage in his left hand has taken some getting used to, but that he is targeting a March 1 return

Former Warriors Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin dealt with the same injury during their NBA careers. Mullin had three separate hand surgeries during his, and he said Curry's biggest adjustment will come from playing with his teammates again.

"He practices at game pace," Mullin said of Curry on Sunday during Warriors Pregame Live. "He takes game shots all the time. His fitness will be there. It's (about) getting acclimated to the players around him, finding the spacing and the timing."

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Though Curry didn't injure his dominant hand, he relies on his left a lot to pass and when he finishes at the rim. He won't lose trust in his shot, but Richmond thinks the two-time MVP has to ensure  

"I went through that same injury [and so did] Mully," Richmond said Sunday. "It's all about confidence when you come back. ... I think, for him, he wants to find that confidence that it can be hit, and then he can come back from it." 

The Warriors owned the NBA's worst record after Sunday's loss, which clinched their third losing streak of six games or more. Curry's return won't lift Golden State out of the league's cellar, but it undoubtedly will lift his teammates' spirits in an otherwise dreary season.