If you had a pit in your stomach Sunday night watching the Trail Blazers play, you weren't alone.
Moda Center had a very different feeling as the Trail Blazers went on to defeat the Indiana Pacers 139-129 behind Damian Lillard’s electric 50-point performance.
But, before and after the game tipped off, there were many players either holding back tears or looking off into space as if searching for answers.
Why now? How could this happen to an NBA legend?
Coming to terms with its reality was a struggle. It remains a struggle. It feels unreal.
The Trail Blazers and Pacers game went on as scheduled despite the NBA mourning the death of Kobe Bryant on Sunday.
After the win, the Blazers spoke in the locker room about the man who some grew up idolizing, while other were fortunate enough to face in a game.
Throughout the day NBA players and coaches had been sharing their stories of Kobe.
His competitive nature.
His overall greatness.
Him as a teammate.
For Trail Blazers veteran Carmelo Anthony Sunday was a nightmare.
Melo and Kobe played together on Team USA for the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics.
Their relationship was special.
They kept tabs on each other via texts, phone calls, and dinners.
Playing in game just hours after learning the horrific news was more than difficult for Melo.
The 17-year veteran held back tears as he spoke to the media.
It probably was the hardest game I’ve ever had to play. Just… It was tough… Honestly knowing him, the way that I know him, he would’ve wanted me to play. – Veteran Carmelo Anthony holding back tears as he spoke on Kobe’s passing
The 35-year-old admitted that for him Sunday was not at all about basketball.
“I had to try to pull myself back in and check back in emotionally because I wasn’t there today,” Melo said.
Over the last few months, Anthony has discussed how being away from basketball for a year put a lot of things in perspective.
Now Sunday night, it was as if he had to do that all over again.
Our friendship and relationship was deeper than basketball, it was family, it was friendship… Basketball is the last connective tissue between us to. – Carmelo Anthony
Both Lillard and CJ McCollum also had relationships with the Black Mamba, but of course, it wasn’t to the extent of Melo and Kobe.
“We talked about it before the game,” Lillard said. “Coach just said that obviously, it’s a tough situation for everybody that had to play today, especially the ones that was friends with Kobe and had a real relationship with him. We’ve got two guys in our locker room who’re really close friends with him and then guys like myself and CJ who actually had a friendship with him and was familiar with him – we’re not the only ones… Everybody felt a way today, was hurt today. But we had to carry on so I think it was the right decision for us to go out there and compete in his honor.”
Lillard did just that. In Kobe’s honor, he not only put up 50 points, Lillard also dished out 13 assists and pulled down six rebounds in the win. McCollum added 28.
“It was tough, it was an emotional day,” McCollum said. "Not just for me, I really feel for my teammates. Trevor (Ariza) and the relationship he had with Kobe.”
Ariza was not made available to the media after the game.
Bryant and Ariza played together for one and a half seasons and won an NBA Championship together in 2009.
McCollum explained how growing up he was scared to meet the Lakers Legend.
“I knew Kobe, we had a decent relationship where we would talk when we see each other but I’m just thankful I was able to express the impact he had on my life, basketball, my work ethic, my approach, my brother’s approach. Our whole family, our coach, the NBA. I would always tell people he was the guy I was afraid to meet him and Michael Jordan. I knew Lebron growing up too, and although he’s like Mount Rushmore great, Kobe was the one I didn’t really know, so that was a guy I was afraid to meet. That really hurt, just to see the reception across the country, all of the lives he impacted, people that didn’t know him. It shows you how special he was outside of basketball. I pray for his wife, his family because lord knows what they’re going through,” McCollum said.
On a night where Lillard made history becoming the first ever Trail Blazer in the team’s history to score at least 40 points in three straight games, it was a night to discuss what Kobe has meant to everyone around the league.
“I didn’t think about basketball today to be honest,” Melo said. “I just knew that I had to do it. This is my job. I’m a professional. I’m sure he would’ve wanted me to play.”
Anthony said he talked with Kobe two days ago where they discussed Bryant’s plans to come to the Blazers-Lakers game next Thursday night at Staples Center.
Basketball lost a legend Sunday. Kobe Bryant will be greatly missed, but his legacy, his inspiration, will carry on for generations.