With the United Center honoring Kobe Bryant on the outside, the Bulls and John Paxson continued to pay tribute to the late Lakers star on the inside.
“First of all, obviously this is a really tough time for our game given what happened (Sunday),” Paxson said, referencing the helicopter crash that claimed Bryant, his daughter and seven others. “I think it goes without saying that Kobe Bryant was one of the great players in the history of our game. So much of our thoughts last 24-plus hours have been about his family, the other families, what they all must be going through.
“Events like this show how connected people in sport can be, with not only the fan base but those of us in the game. You didn’t have to have the greatest type of connection, but just the game itself means so much to people and the respect that the great ones have, you don’t see it very often. So you appreciate it. So it’s a really sad day and a really sad time for the league. And I know just seeing some of our young kids in (the locker room) and some of the guys who have been so influenced by him over the years, you can tell they’re shaken up. You’ve seen that all around the league the last 24 hours and it’s been really powerful.”
The Bulls planned a video tribute to Bryant and 24 seconds of silence. Signage of him is most everywhere outside and inside the building, including on the scoreboard. Coach Jim Boylen and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich agreed on 8- and 24-second violations to open the game, honoring the two numbers he wore.
In 2004, Paxson and Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf flew to Newport Beach, Calif., to meet with Bryant and his then-agent Rob Pelinka to pitch him in free agency. Pelinka, now the Lakers president of basketball operations, is a Lake Forest native.
“We were fortunate that we were given that opportunity. I could tell he had an enormous amount of respect for Jerry and Jerry’s relationship with Michael (Jordan) and the brand that the Bulls are,” Paxson said. “The things that always stand out to me after that were first of all how smart of a person he was---we knew how smart of a player he was---and how mature he was even at that time.
“And the other thing was, in talking about coming to Chicago, it was six years after Michael left. Most guys didn’t want to follow that or have to try to live up to it. What he expressed to us was he wanted to embrace that if it happened. He wanted that challenge.
“I’ve said this many, many times about Michael. I had an opportunity to be around him for such a long time and seeing that rare competitiveness. The closest I’ve seen---and I obviously wasn’t involved in it---but you could just tell that Kobe Bryant had that same thing. It’s some gene in you that is rare. And it’s why there are a lot of really good players---you could even say great players---but there are few you could put in the greatest category. Obviously, he’s one of those.”
Paxson has two sons and spoke to the family aspect of the tragedy.
“It's just awful,” he said. “You know, anybody who has children, no matter what age, you think about that and it's just hard. Anything like this, it's just so unexpected. Before (Sunday), it's unimaginable. Families are involved, friends.
“Over the years in our business, Rob Pelinka is a guy that I've gotten to know very well. And I know that in our time, even when we went back to meeting over the years, his reverence for the person Kobe was genuine. And so it's hard to wrap your mind around stuff like this.”
At Bryant’s last United Center appearance in February 2016, he was spotted in a pregame hallway.
“He was coming from working out or lifting before the game and I caught his eye and said hello to him. And he came over and gave me a hug,” Paxson said. “He remembered our meeting. Just little things like that, I obviously didn't have much of a connection. But through people (like) Phil Jackson I did. We have a guy on our staff (director of sports performance) Chip Schaefer who spent 12 years with Kobe. I've talked to him and it's just hard for people.”
Paxson sent Jackson a text message on Sunday.
“He was one of the first people on my mind because of his relationship with Kobe,” he said. “I would never speak to the people who were there every day saw. But you can just tell that the guy worked at his game relentlessly, had that mindset. I did hear a quote about him (Monday), him speaking that said he always wanted to outwork his potential. And I think the great lesson for young players today is you can talk about work, but you have to do it. The price of success doesn't come easy. But this is more than that. This is one of the greatest players of our time. And that's hard.”
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