There have been plenty of cheers for Kobe Bryant in Portland over the years, only typically they'd be chased by boos.
The purple and gold clad Lakers faithful would pack the Rose Garden and then the Moda Center when Bryant would come to town. It wasn’t uncommon to see a quarter of the building rooting for the road team with thousands of No. 8s and No. 24s dispersed throughout the building.
Laker fans would cheer for the hero while Blazers fans would drown them out jeering a hated rival.
Make no mistake Bryant was a villain in Rip City. It was a well earned reputation that came from defeating the Blazers in 2000 Western Conference Finals, and then ushering Portland out of the playoffs in each of the next two seasons. Then there was a double overtime game-winner in Portland 2004, and the 65 points in Los Angeles in 2007.
He tormented the Blazers with brilliance and bravado. The thousands of Lakers fans that would pile into the arena in Portland only added to his aura and fueled the boos from the Rip City faithful. In his final game in this building in 2016, Bryant thanked Blazers fans for booing him wholeheartedly one last time.
Bryant died on Sunday afternoon in a helicopter accident that also took the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. It was a sudden tragedy that rocked the basketball world, and beyond.
There was an unmistakable weight in the arena, a heaviness that draped across a game that felt at best secondary to the news of day. And on Sunday likely for the first time in Portland basketball history, Kobe Bryant received cheers from the entire building.
It started early when both teams took intentional turnovers to begin the game. The Blazers holding the ball for a 24 second shot clock violation before the Pacers held the ball in the backcourt for an eight-second violation. The building erupted at the tribute, recognizing the nod to Bryant's jersey numbers and honoring him with a standing ovation.
Then in the third quarter the Blazers game operations team showed a fan on the screen holding a gold No. 24 jersey. In the past, the game ops crew would find Lakers fans filing out of the building, the only time a Kobe jersey would get cheers was if it were headed for the exits. However on Sunday, as the camera lingered on the young man displaying the last name on his Lakers jersey the entire building gave a full throated cheer for Bryant, honoring a basketball legend as the big screen flashed to handwritten signs that read “I Love No. 24” and “Kobe” adorned with hearts.
“Everybody felt the weight today. Hurt today. We had to carry on,” Damian Lillard said afterwards. “I think it was the right decision to go out and compete in his honor. I think that’s what he would’ve wanted. I think that’s what was on everybody’s mind. Obviously throughout the game you think about it ... Timeouts and just random dead moments of the game he’s on your mind just because it’s such an unfortunate, sad situation. It was just a tough game to play just as far as your energy and where your heart is, to say the least.”
While Bryant was a villain with the Blazers fan base, he is a friend if not idol to most of the players in the Blazers locker room. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza were both very close with Bryant while Lillard and CJ McCollum had forged relationships with him over their careers.
Ariza chose not to speak with reporters after the game, understandably not yet ready to publicly process the loss of a close friend just hours after it happened. Anthony was emotional as he answered questions postgame, explaining that Bryant would have wanted him to play even under difficult circumstances.
“Our friendship, relationship was deeper than basketball,” Anthony said. “It was family. It was friendship. Basketball was the last piece of connective tissue between those two.”
Lillard said the game offered him moments to escape while McCollum noted how challenging it is for those in the NBA that knew Bryant to truly mourn with games coming every other day. But they both fondly remembered Bryant for his impressive work ethic, and his willingness to offer advice to them when they were young players first entering the league.
When pressed for a memory of competing against Bryant, Lillard mentioned his NBA debut and then trailed off when a reporter noted another matchup the two had at the end Lillard’s rookie season.
“Best player I ever played against,” Lillard said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
There will be more time to reflect on Bryant the imperfect player and imperfect person in the days and months to come. Sunday was mostly about catharsis, and a city appreciating its once hated archrival.
Forever the cheers for Kobe Bryant in Portland would get swallowed up by boos and jeers until Sunday when the fans stood and the roars lingered.