Kobe Bryant's Praise Meant Everything to Spencer Dinwiddie

Spencer Dinwiddie and Kenny Atkinson are experienced professionals, accomplished at their craft, but such was the significance of Kobe Bryant in the game they love that a nod of acknowledgement earlier this season made them feel like kids all over again.

“He was at the Barclays Center, and I didn’t even think he knew my name and he came up, ‘Hey, coach,’ and gave me a hug,” said Atkinson. “That’s like, I think we’re all, wow, he even knows my name? I ran right home after the game and told my wife, Kobe gave me a little hug there, so that’s pretty cool.”

This was at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, as the Nets navigated what Atkinson described as a “surreal” experience, dealing with the news that Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, had been killed earlier in the day in a helicopter crash in California.

It was just a month ago, a few days before Christmas, when Kobe and Gianna sat courtside to see the Nets play the Hawks in Brooklyn. You’ve seen the video by now of the dad, who happened to be one of the great players of all time, breaking down the game with his basketball-crazy daughter as they watched.

Not that long ago, Dinwiddie was that basketball-crazy kid, growing up during the peak of the Bryant era at the center of it all in Los Angeles.

“He was everything to a lot of kids,” said Dinwiddie, “and I was one of them.”

So when Dinwiddie went for 39 points that night against Atlanta with Bryant on hand, it wasn’t just another big game. He was giddy in the locker room afterwards, smile as wide as could be, as he talked about the chance to meet Bryant, who told him he was “playing like an All-Star.”

After Sunday’s game, Dinwiddie recalled the night from a far different perspective, coming to tears at the end.

“I met Kobe several times, exchange pleasantries and text messages and things and, maybe this is a little bit over exaggerated,” said Dinwiddie, “but I felt like this was the first time he was looking at me as the basketball player Spencer, you know what I mean? Briefly, told you guys how much he meant to all the people where I’m from and for him to tell me that in his book I’m an All-Star and stuff like that, talk about a popularity contest before and you don’t win things like that when you’re me, so for him to say that, I didn’t need to be selected any more, because I was an All-Star, you feel me, it’s not just like my family, it was the guy.”

Two days later, the Nets were back to work with a practice session on Tuesday at HSS Training Center, where more Nets echoed the scope and meaning of Bryant’s impact on the game, and on themselves.

“Kobe was so great that we all had our own personal relationship with him no matter if we were close with him or far away as a kid growing up in Maryland and watching the Lakers so much, I felt like I knew him close my whole life,” said Kevin Durant. “We’ve seen him grow up. We’ve seen him retire and go into the second phase of life. It’s just so many people that are sad about this. It hurts to even just think about it.”

Nets center DeAndre Jordan came into the league a year after Durant, drafted by a team that allowed him a unique perspective on Bryant. Unlike 28 other NBA teams, Jordan’s Clippers shared a city and a home arena with Kobe and the Lakers.

“It was good, man. We had a lot of battles playing against those guys and him individually,” said Jordan. “It was fun. As a kid, you grow up, you know, ‘Damn, want to play against that guy.’ To have the opportunity was great. The talks that he would have with you, never will forget that stuff, regardless of the situation that is at hand now. That stuff, you remember for the rest of your life. I’m lucky to have been able to compete against him and be able to talk to him on and off the floor. That was big for us.”

Jordan was a 20-year-old rookie when he had the moment Dinwiddie and Atkinson experienced earlier this year. The Lakers were on the way to an NBA championship, Bryant’s fourth. Jordan was just starting to find his way in the league after one college season at Texas A&M.

“I didn’t really play a lot,” said Jordan. “We played against the Lakers and I had a pretty good game. I dunked a lot. He came over to me after the game, he was like, ‘Hey young fella, you’re gonna be a helluva player. Keep working. I love what you’re doing.’ I was like, ‘Damn.’ I told my brothers, ‘Kobe talked to me after the game.’ That was big for me. He would check on you throughout the season and when you played against those guys obviously. He was locked in, but I took all of that stuff to heart.”