Hawks Players, Coaches, Ownership Mourn Passing Of Kobe Bryant
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Story by K.L. Chouinard
Follow K.L. on Twitter at @klchouinard
ATLANTA - Trae Young gave his mom an extra-long hug after his pregame shooting session. Lloyd Pierce remembered his late cousin. Vince Carter wiped away tears during the National Anthem.
Sunday was a difficult day to play a basketball game as NBA players and coaches, like millions around the world, mourned the loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi following a helicopter crash in California.
Vince Carter, who met 15-year-old Kobe when they were AAU teammates, took note of the reactions of his teammates, many of whom were too young to remember the first half of Kobe's career.
"Obviously, he is a hero of a lot of them," Carter said. "To see the blank stares on their faces brought a somber mood to the locker room. Very little was talked about – game-planning or basketball – because it was bigger than basketball."
In his pregame press conference, head coach Lloyd Pierce paid homage to the professional and personal sides of Kobe.
"I grew up on the West Coast. I was a Laker fan as a child. I had to denounce being a Laker fan once you get into the profession. But I've always respected his greatness, because of his detail and his passion and the intensity with which he plays. But there's nothing more than the respect I have for him as a father. Every image you see of him post-retirement is with his daughters, with his family. Everything you see online, on Twitter is about positivity. He is encouraging others. And I think it has been the biggest transformation of a competitor to a human being that I've ever seen."
The passing of an NBA legend hit a lot of people in a lot of deeply personal ways, Pierce included. “Forgive me for being emotional,” he said before sharing a story about the loss of his cousin, a Navy pilot stationed in San Diego, in a helicopter crash in 1998, Pierce's senior year of college.
“I still have a hard time looking at helicopters. There are just certain things you don’t get over. Today is that day.”
It was a somber day for so many in the building.
Collins met Kobe personally this summer for the first time at a special summer training session for select NBA players. He said it was an inspiration that he will never forget.
“I almost didn’t want to play today," John Collins said. "I’ve got a Fathead of him on my wall, I’ve got jerseys of his, pictures, I could go on for days. We look at him as our generation’s (Michael) Jordan, at least for me. I'm praying for his family, his loved ones and everything surrounding the situation.”
Bruno Fernando, who lost his mother this month and who wears jersey #24, started at center. He set career highs in both points (14) and rebounds (12), and he notched his first career double-double.
Owners Tony Ressler and Jami Gertz started their family in Los Angeles before they purchased the Hawks.
"Our family was (Lakers) season-ticket holders for 28 years," Gertz said before the game. "Watching Kobe play was one of the biggest reasons that we wanted to buy an NBA franchise. He made us love basketball."
The one person in the arena with perhaps the biggest burden to shoulder was Trae Young. Trae idolized Kobe, but Gigi idolized Trae. Two of the small handful of games that the Bryants attended this season were Hawks games. Gigi wanted to see Trae play. Trae met with them after both games.
"His daughter was a big fan of mine, and he was always trying to figure out new ways to help his kids learn," Trae said. "He found out that I worked with my trainer, Alex Bazzell, so he got in contact with him. Gigi started working out with Alex Bazzell. That's how me and Kobe got introduced – it was through my trainer."
At the start of the game, Trae took off his warmups to reveal jersey #8. The Hawks and Wizards took intentional 8-second and 24-second violations at the start of game to pay tribute to the two jersey numbers that Kobe wore over the duration of his NBA career. The Hawks called timeout, and Trae switched back into his usual jersey #11.
In a fitting tribute to Kobe, a player who saved his best shows for the biggest stages, Trae played an electric game. He scored 45 points. He handed out 14 assists to his teammates, many of which either started as no-look passes or ended as thunderous alley-oops.
If there was any doubt that something special was happening, Trae stole a full-court pass with two seconds left in the first half, calmly stepped in the direction of the basket and dropped in a heave from beyond half court. Trae tapped his chest and pointed to the sky.
Trae described the play after the game.
"I said, 'Kobe was with me.'"
Gigi was certainly there, too.
Carter, the Hawk who knew Kobe best and certainly the one who knew Kobe the longest, took solace in what he saw from Kobe on the sidelines of games in recent years and what he heard when he spoke with him.
"It wasn't the Mamba competing against whoever. It was Dad teaching his daughter the ins and outs of the game, and how he sees it, and how she can learn to break the game down. That's what I saw and I think that is what a lot of people could see and I think that's what catches the basketball world off guard more than anything because we all saw it."
"For those of us who played against him and knew him, that was what was gut-wrenching more than anything because of his happiness, because of that conversation I had with him. He was telling me, 'I'm at peace. I'm happy. I'm at my happiest.' All these championships that he won, MVPs, 81 (points) – he was at his happiest in retirement."
Rest in peace, Kobe, and be at your happiest.