Magic, Clippers Mourn Passing of Kobe Bryant

by John Denton

ORLANDO – With news breaking on Sunday afternoon of the death of former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in California, coaches who competed against Bryant and a legion of players from the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Clippers – many of whom undoubtedly were inspired by the five-time NBA champion – were understandably shocked by the loss of a basketball legend.

Bryant, 41, was on a helicopter with four other passengers, and according to several news reports, no one on board survived the flight that crashed near Calabasas, Calif. Bryant’s oldest daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, was also reportedly killed in the helicopter crash.

``Sometimes things don’t make sense and there are times when you should feel, just, just feel sad, and this is one of them,’’ Clippers coach Doc Rivers said prior to his team facing off against the Orlando Magic on Sunday. ``You know you have to get through it, and we will, we all will. We have to be strong. We laughed and joked about the `Mamba Mentality,’ and we’re all going to need it right now.

Bryant was a five-time NBA champion, an 18-time all-star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist during his 20-year NBA career – all with the Los Angeles Lakers. His fourth of five NBA titles came in 2009 against the Magic and it ended in Orlando.

Magic head coach Steve Clifford was a part of the Orlando squad that lost to the Lakers and Bryant in the 2009 NBA Finals. Clifford worked with Bryant for one year as an assistant coach with the Lakers, and of that season he said, ``I learned so much that year.’’ The two recently spoke, Clifford said, and he marveled at Bryant’s intelligence and passion for basketball – even in retirement.

``Well, I mean, obviously, it’s shocking and it’s tragic,’’ Clifford said prior to his Magic facing the Los Angeles Clippers at the Amway Center. ``I just had a conversation with him about, maybe 3 to 3 ½ weeks ago, and … he was an incredibly brilliant man and he was incredibly passionate about our game, driven. Really, an honor to have the chance to have been around him.’’

Rivers, whose Boston team toppled Bryant’s Lakers in 2008 for the NBA crown and lost to them in the 2010 NBA Finals, had to battle back tears and waves of emotion as he spoke about Bryant prior to tipoff on Sunday.
``He meant a lot of good for our league, especially the competitive part,’’ Rivers said. ``I think everybody right now is a Lakers fan. We’re all Lakers today. You feel for that (Lakers’) community, for (Lakers’ owner) Jeanie (Buss) and everyone else.’’

Bryant, often considered the NBA bridge between the end of Michael Jordan’s career and the league’s current generation of superstars, was in the news a day earlier when Los Angeles Lakers’ forward LeBron James passed him for No. 3 on the all-time NBA scoring list. Even on a franchise as star-studded and successful as the Lakers, Bryant ranked first in franchise history in scoring (33.643), 3-pointers (1,827), steals (1,944) and games (1,346) and finished second in assists (6,306).

``I’m lucky that I got to coach and compete against him, but I just feel for so many people, obviously his family,’’ said Rivers, who said he spent time with Bryant a few weeks ago at a charity function in Los Angeles. ``(Clippers forward) Lou (Williams), (Clippers assistant coach) Ty Lue played with him, (Clifford) coached him and Kawhi was very, very close with him, as was Paul George.’’

Magic guard Evan Fournier, who has worn Bryant-modeled Nikes for several seasons, took to Twitter on Sunday afternoon to express his emotions over the loss of an NBA legend.

``Nah man this can’t be true,’’ Fournier posted. ``Man its going to be hard tonight.’’

Added Magic center Nikola Vucevic, via Twitter: ``Praying for the Bryant family! Can’t imagine what they are going through now … Rest in Peace Kobe and Gigi.’’

Clifford admitted that it was difficult to stop thinking about Bryant and his family and prepare for an NBA game. Clifford’s Magic play the Clippers at the Amway Center and then will fly to Miami to square off against the Heat on Monday night.

``It’s going to be a totally different environment out there, and for the players too.’’

Like Orlando’s Clifford, Rivers said he recently had an extended conversation with Bryant while the two of them were together at a function in Los Angeles. Rivers marveled at how Bryant was nearly as driven in retirement as he was as a competitor on the basketball floor and was ``never happier.’’ The saddest part of all about Bryant’s death, Rivers said, is that he had ``so much more left to do and he was starting to do it.’’

``We were at a function three or four weeks ago and we sat and talked for probably 45 minutes. We always liked to reminisce, and we’d always laugh at our versions of our losses,’’ Rivers said. ``When we beat them in 2008, he had his version of it and when we beat them in 2010, I had my version. Then, we’d laugh at how different we looked at the games.

``It’s just a great loss for the league. I thought he had so much more left to do and he was starting to do it. I’ve never seen him happier.’’

Rivers said he had no idea how he’d go about trying to get his team ready to play when his every thought was consumed by Bryant’s shocking death.

``He was such a great opponent and that’s what you want in sports,’’ he said. ``He had that DNA that very few athletes ever have – the Tiger Woods and the Michael Jordans,’’ Rivers said. ``I was getting to know him more since he retired. Yeah, this is a tough one (to explain). We have to go play, but the news is just devastating for (wife) Vanessa and his family. It’s just so many people that he touched. And looking at my young players and seeing how emotional they are, and they didn’t even know him. It just tells you how far his reach was. It’s just shocking news for all of us. I have to go talk to a team and tell them to play and I can’t.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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