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'An overwhelming sense of loss'—Utah Jazz players, fans pay tribute to the late Kobe Bryant
Ed Davis left the practice facility in shock. When the Utah Jazz center arrived at his home Sunday afternoon, he hugged his wife and children. He turned on the television, saw the footage of a wreckage in the Los Angeles hills, saw the tearful tributes to a basketball legend.
Then Davis typed his friend’s name into his phone and started scrolling through old text messages. He found one from the summer of 2014 when Davis had joined a Los Angeles Lakers team everyone knew was lottery-bound.
Kobe Bryant’s message stood in stark contrast.
“He was talking about winning championships,” Davis said. “He was probably the only one in the world who thought that team could win a championship. We were a 20-win team at best. That showed how much he thought of himself, how he really thought we could win.
“His mindset was on another level. I’ve played with a lot of superstars, guys who are going to be in the Hall of Fame, First Team All-NBA guys—but Kobe separated himself.”
Bryant “showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with absolute devotion to winning,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. Throughout a 20-year career, Bryant’s unwavering self-belief and dedication to the game turned him into one of basketball’s all-time greats and one of the world’s biggest stars. And when that star tragically went out, killed Sunday in a helicopter crash in Southern California, it created an unfillable void in the NBA.
“He touched so many people’s lives in so many different ways,” said Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, who spent a season with Bryant and the Lakers as an assistant in 2011-12. “I think everybody is grieving. There’s just an overwhelming sense of loss.”
The death of Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna, 13, hung heavy over the league’s proceedings Sunday, as players fought through tears and offered small tributes, writing the Bryants’ names on their shoes, taking a backcourt violation in honor of the 8 Kobe wore on his back at the start of his career, and letting the shot clock expire in honor of the 24 the legendary guard wore at the end.
The Miller family and the Utah Jazz's statement on the passing of Kobe Bryant: pic.twitter.com/P4vsZMwoiO
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) January 26, 2020
That grief was palpable in Salt Lake City, too, where Bryant had waged so many memorable battles on the court over his 20-year career.
As an 18-year-old, Bryant famously air-balled four shots late in a 1997 Western Conference semifinal game in Utah. The guard’s failings that night fueled a Hall of Fame career.
"I think it was an early turning point for me being able to deal with adversity, being able to deal with public scrutiny and self-doubt and things of that sort," Bryant said in 2016. "… It helped shape me. A lot of times as a young player, you really don't see how something like that, a situation like that can pay off in the end. But if you use it to drive you, use it to motivate you, then you can kind of stand where I'm standing now and look back with a lot of fond memories."
Over the next two decades, Bryant would become a five-time champion, the league’s third-leading scorer, a thorn in the side of every Jazz coach, player, and fan. He dropped at least 30 points on the Jazz more than 20 times in his career. He knocked the Jazz out of the playoffs in three straight seasons from 2008-10—including an unforgettable 60-point performance against the Jazz in the final game of Bryant’s career.
In Utah, Jazz fans recognized Bryant’s greatness—and showed him that in a way only a true competitor like Bryant would appreciate.
"They were really, really tough on me, man. More so than the other crowds," he said before his final game in Utah in March of 2016. "They were tough."
The thought of those heckles brought a smile to Bryant’s face.
"It pissed me off so much," he said. "It was like '08 in the playoffs where I just kind of erupted after a play and just started talking back to the crowd because they just kept driving me. So that being said, it's fond memories. Truly. Because that's what sports should be, I think, is that kind of bantering, that kind of competition, whatever. I've always loved playing here because of that."
Words are tough to find right now. Truly heart broken and praying for each family involved. It was an honor to compete against you. pic.twitter.com/aYF5UNlZzy
— Mike Conley (@MCONLEY10) January 26, 2020
On Sunday, an old rivalry was set aside, jeers replaced by tears. Outside of Vivint Smart Home Arena, fans paid tribute to the basketball legend. They brought flowers, candles and jerseys, and laid them on the plaza's J-Note.
“TAUGHT ME THE MAMBA MENTALITY,” someone had scrawled on one of Bryant’s jerseys.
A basketball dusted with snow bore Bryant’s name and the name of his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, who was also killed in Sunday’s crash.
“Utah Jazz fans will so miss you, Kobe,” a handwritten note read.
The Jazz started their morning shootaround Monday with a moment of reflection. Davis and guard Jordan Clarkson had played with Bryant in L.A. Snyder had coached him. And every other man on the roster had idolized him, respected him, emulated him.
“Kobe inspired all of us as young kids,” said Jazz center Rudy Gobert. “Everyone looked up to Kobe. … His competitiveness. His will to win. His drive. His work ethic. Whatever you do in life, you want to be at your best and give everything you’ve got. Kobe was one of the guys who gave everything he had every single night.”
“The man transcended basketball,” guard Donovan Mitchell added.
Mitchell still remembers the thrill he got as a rookie when Bryant broke down his game during an episode of ESPN’s “Detail” series.
“I was just in shock that he was talking about me,” Mitchell said. “He knew my name. He knew my game. That was one of the wildest things to [happen] to me.”
Mitchell said he and his teammates would discuss ways to pay tribute to Bryant on Monday night, the team’s first game since his death. It was not in question, though, whether the game would go on.
“It’s honestly how Kobe would have wanted it,” Mitchell said of playing through the pain. “If you know Kobe, he would have gone out there and tried to score 100 and win by 30.”