Denver Nuggets mourn Kobe Bryant after tragic helicopter crash

When Will Barton III reflects on the impact Kobe Bryant had on him, he recalls his first start in the NBA. Then a Trail Blazer, Barton III was a largely unheralded second-round rookie in the 2012-13 season, trying to fight to make a name for himself on a struggling 33-47 team. On the other end of the court was the Lakers and Bryant, a five-time NBA champion who is largely considered to be one of the greatest players to grace the game. Following the matchup, a 111-107 loss for Portland on April 10, 2013, Barton III was surprised to see Bryant was waiting for him at STAPLES Center.  “He talked to me for about an hour about things he saw in my game” Barton III said. “[He said] that he respects my game and thought I was good. [He told me] some things he wanted me to work on for me to reach my potential. It really helped shaped my career.” Like many around the world, the Nuggets locker room was stunned and devastated by the news of Bryant’s tragic death Sunday afternoon. When the word came out before the game against the Rockets about the helicopter crash that took the Lakers’ legend life along with his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers, the Pepsi Center immediately fell into a melancholy state with thousands checking their phones in disbelief. Prior to tip-off, there was a touching tribute to Bryant which was followed by a sold-out crowd chanting “KOBE” several times.

To the credit of the Nuggets and Rockets, the two teams played a highly-competitive contest with Denver edging Houston 117-110. After the game, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone acknowledged the game was a difficult one for all involved due to Bryant’s impact and lasting legacy on the NBA. “I think it affected us. I think it affected them [the Rockets] as well, the impact he has had, the greatness, his legacy, everything he leaves behind,” Malone said. “A tough loss for everybody, the NBA, the basketball world, especially his family. I just challenge our guys to go out there, and if you want to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant, play the game the right way, play it hard, the way he approached every single game through his illustrious career.”  Although the Nuggets secured a significant victory that could be pivotal for their playoff seeding, thoughts immediately shifted to Bryant and his family following the game. Malik Beasley was almost motionless as he sat at his locker, at times covering his face and emotions with his hands, before heading to the showers. Beasley and Jamal Murray spent the summer learning from Bryant at his Mamba Sports Academy basketball camp in August. Beasley called it the highlight of his offseason and told the Denver Post he learned from the 18-time NBA All-Star.  “It was a good experience because I learned how to prepare for games, how to take care of opponents,” Beasley told the newspaper in October. When Beasley reemerged to do his media availability, he admitted he was still coming to terms with losing someone he idolized. “It was tough to go out there and play, especially when it's your idol, someone you look up to,” Beasley said.

Beasley said he spoke with Bryant just two weeks ago,  41-year-old checked in on him and offered advice. ‘Control what you can control,’ was the message. Despite Bryant’s status within the game, several Nuggets praised the guard for his approachability and willingness to offer valuable insight. “You hear a lot of stories about how he’s not approachable and he was cocky and arrogant but he was the complete opposite,” Barton III said. “He gave out advice to anyone that sought knowledge. A real personable guy and he was a good person anytime I ran into him.” Rookie Michael Porter Jr. added: “I met him back in the day at the Nike camp and he was just very encouraging to me. “He's been an idol of mine ever since I was little. His mentality, his work ethic. Everybody in my position, everybody in the league, he's a legend to us. We all look up to him and I didn't think it was real."   Although Nikola Jokić’s formative years in basketball were spent in Serbia, he also acknowledged the impact Bryant had on him growing up.   “He is a legend across the world,” Jokić said. “The world lost a really huge person, a role model and an idol. It’s a huge loss for everyone.”   Jokić was the catalyst behind the Nuggets’ win over the Rockets, putting up his ninth triple-double with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. He admitted he used Bryant as inspiration to help him power his way through an emotional game.   “When you think about Kobe, it’s no excuses,” Jokić said. “Nothing can take your mind off what you love to do.”   He then added with a grin, “It’s Mamba Mentality.”