NEW ORLEANS — Gordon Hayward had managed to keep his emotions in check for much of a somber postgame media session on Sunday night.
He admitted he was heartbroken over the news of Kobe Bryant’s death, said he wouldn’t have been bothered if the NBA had canceled all the day’s games, and reflected fondly on the week he spent training with Bryant in Newport Beach in 2016.
“I still have all the e-mails saved,” said Hayward.
But then Hayward, father of three young girls, was asked about explaining the tragedy to his daughters and tears welled.
"I don’t think my daughters probably know what happened,” Hayward said. “But that’s why every time you leave you want to say goodbye. It’s been tough, it’s been tough.”
Blinking back tears, he hustled from a media session in which he had noted, "Being a father, my stomach was hurting. It still is hurting.”
From the back of the media scrum, I stared at the text from my wife on my phone. My 10-year-old daughter, who I wasn’t even sure knew who Bryant was before today, was hysterical back home. She had questions about what happened to Bryant and his daughter, questions about why it made her so sad, questions about why I couldn’t be home with her on this day, questions about the safety of air travel.
So in a nearly empty Smoothie King Center, we FaceTimed and I did my best to provide answers. I explained how it made me sad, too. How I couldn’t fathom how some of these players did their jobs today. How I wanted nothing more to be home with her, her sister, and mom, at that very moment.
How when I hear Hayward talk about that awful feeling in his stomach, I can relate. I think we’re all dealing with it.
Flying to New Orleans on Sunday morning, there was a palpable energy about Boston’s first game against Zion Williamson. The Celtics are in the midst of a brutal stretch in which they will play 23 games in 42 days. They haven’t had more than one day off between games, all while cramming three back-to-backs this month, and it’s admittedly hard to get excited for every game in this avalanche.
But Sunday was going to be different. Williamson’s return last week made this a must-see matchup. In a dizzying January, this one would stand out. And then the TMZ story took over our Twitter feeds in the early afternoon and everything else seemed insignificant.
Just tweeting out lineup information seemed callous and unnecessary. The NBA elected to eliminate pregame access to allow players to process the day’s events and grieve, and the news was met with little protest from reporters.
As Brad Stevens tried to make sense of the day, just hours removed from the news, I couldn’t help but think about Stevens the father. The 43-year-old who enjoys nothing more than watching his teenage son play basketball or his 10-year-old daughter play soccer.
Stevens undoubtedly had the same knot in his stomach that Hayward did. He had the impossible task of trying to tell a locker room full of Kobe idolizers that they needed to focus on basketball.
“We’re not going to say anything about the game, we’ll just talk about why the game matters,” said Stevens.
The Celtics and Pelicans paid tribute to Bryant as best they could. There was a 24-second moment of silence with chants of “Kobe!” filling the arena when the shot clock on the JumboTron reached zero. Both Boston and New Orleans took 24-second violations on their first possessions as the crowd roared and again chanted his name.
For brief stretches, basketball was an OK diversion, though the energy didn’t come close to what we had envisioned on the flight down. Yes, every Williamson leap brought oohs and aahs but the day’s events lingered over everything.
Celtics players all seemed to put up a social media tribute for Bryant. Jayson Tatum, who worked out with Bryant last summer, had a particularly poignant one calling Bryant his hero and his idol. Tatum politely declined to chat with reporters after the game.
Jaylen Brown told the story after the game about how Tracy McGrady had been his favorite player growing up but, when it came time to ask his mother for tickets to a game, he demanded it be a Bryant game.
"Mentality, his thirst to win, all of that stuff that you saw and felt when he was out there. How he carried himself like a champion in everything he did, and that mindset is still going to remain forever, that Mamba Mentality is going to be around forever,” said Brown.
Added Brown: "He inspired so much and I’m just so sad that I never got to shake his hand. That’s what kills me the most. I was looking forward to that day. I never got to meet Kobe Bryant, never got to play against him, but extremely inspired and honored to just be able to play and be able to celebrate his name.”
Inside the Celtics’ locker room, Marcus Smart sat at his chair long after the game. Asked about Kobe’s passing, Smart said glumly that it still didn’t seem real.
“Still in shock and non-belief about the situation,” said Smart. "I mean, just what Kobe meant to this game of basketball, the things he did to open up passageways for guys, and just the hard work that he’s put in, the dedication that he’s given over the years, his life to the game. This is a tough one. It’s a tough one for anybody that grew up watching him, who’s a fan, who has a loved one, it’s tough.”
In the face of tragedy, we often hear how the basketball court is a sanctuary for many. But it just didn’t feel like it on Sunday.
As Hayward noted, "It was different today. I think being a father too, my heart is just broken, for his wife, his other daughters. I think everyone that’s a father understands that, or a mother, so it was difficult.”
My daughter proved that you didn’t even really need to know Bryant to be impacted by the tragedy. It’s a reminder to everyone to cherish the moments you have and understand the fragility of it all.
Sunday reminded us, yet again, that there are things that are just so much bigger than the next big game.
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