CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Knicks finished off their morning shootaround Tuesday at the Spectrum Center there were the usual sounds of laughter and trash talk as players competed in shooting games and finished their workout.
But when it was over the Knicks were on to what would be another somber memorial of Kobe Bryant later that night when they took on the Charlotte Hornets. Before the game the Hornets dimmed the lights and held a moment of silence for Bryant and when the game began the Hornets took a 24-second violation and the Knicks countered with a eight-second violation, holding the ball to honor the two numbers that Bryant wore in his playing days.
It was clear that time had not yet healed the wounds. Wayne Ellington, who played with Bryant in Los Angeles, wasn’t yet ready to talk about it. Allonzo Trier, who spent part of the summer in a camp Bryant organized for NBA players, politely declined to speak on his relationship with him.
Julius Randle, who had a long and enduring relationship with Bryant, did talk, two days after he was unable to summon the words. And he tried his best to explain all of the feelings he was living through. When the interview was over he dropped his head and just sat in the front row of the stands alone, left to his thoughts.
When they took the floor Randle scored 24 points, but he — and the Knicks — cooled down and dropped a 97-92 decision to the Hornets, who had lost eight straight games and were playing their first game after a Paris trip.
It was clear that it will take more time for these players to process the loss of Bryant, who perished along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash Sunday morning.
“Yeah, I don’t know when I’ll be able to come to peace with it,” Randle said. “Right now I’m not. It’s still not really reality for me. It’s not about me, man. It’s about those families. I feel bad for those families. That’s really what it is for me.”
Randle spent the first two seasons of his NBA career in Los Angeles with Bryant, who was in the final years of his 20-year career with the Lakers. That rookie season ended for Randle just 14 minutes into his first game when he suffered a season-ending leg injury.
“For me, man, he was everything, bro,” Randle said. “That was my childhood hero growing up. So it’s a very unfortunate situation for me, but I can’t imagine what his family is going through, all the families that are involved. My prayers are with them. He’s a mamba, so it’s everything.
“That [relationship] meant everything to me. Just to know that anytime I could text him or call him, he’ll pick up the phone. He’s like a big brother for me. For me, like I said, it was everything because I grew up idolizing him. You can’t say anything bad about him. I worship the ground that he walked on. To be able to be in L.A. and establish a relationship with him was amazing for me.”
But the lessons didn’t end when his rookie season did, Bryant providing spiritual boosts to the then 20-year-old Randle, lifting him through that harsh start to his career. Lessons continued in the gym in his second season. And then when they went different ways, Bryant continued to be a sounding board on work, on family, on life.
“I’ve got so many stories I could tell, so many things I learned from him,” Randle said. “You grow up idolizing somebody you don’t really know what to expect when you first meet him. It was everything I expected and more. It’s crazy. The GM here [with the Hornets], Mitch Kupchak, was my GM in L.A.. He always used to tell me, watch everything that he does. That’s exactly what I did. I watched his every move. I could go on forever what I can take from him and learn from him. For me, I’m just going to — just pray for his family. It’s not about me. He has three beautiful daughters that he has, a lovely caring wife. There are a bunch of families involved for such a tragic tragic thing.”
Randle played Sunday just after learning of Bryant’s passing, considering sitting out but instead taking the floor and scoring 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds to lead the Knicks to a win over the Nets. Kyrie Irving, who has had a long relationship with Bryant, could not go on and left the arena before the game. Randle wasn’t sure how he got through it.
“I don’t know, man. It was tough for me, honestly, dealing with it,” he said. “You know, honestly, it’s been a rough month, my grandmother [passing earlier this month] and this. It’s been tough, tough to honestly find the motivation to play. Honestly, everything I did was because of him. He really set the bar for me. It’s been a tough go, for sure.”