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Knicks' veterans show their off-court value in wake of Kobe Bryant's death

Kobe Bryant is remembered prior to the start

Kobe Bryant is remembered prior to the start of a game between the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

With little more than a week to go until the NBA trade deadline, some of the Knicks’ veterans may be shipped to new teams.

The movable contracts the Knicks signed them to can be traded for assets to improve the team.

And with a 13-34 record, moving those contracts certainly would make sense as the Knicks try to stockpile draft picks and young players while focusing on player development.

But on days like Sunday, the value of that veteran presence was on display.

The players were on their way to Madison Square Garden for a game against the Nets when the group text they share began to flicker to life with the news of the helicopter crash that took the life of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.

As they walked in, they asked Knicks staffers if it was true. Then they had to sort through the odd scene, attempting to prepare for a game the way they had so many times, but in a dreamlike state that ensured it would be like no other game.

Players traded questions and sifted through rumors, wondering if the game would be played and, if it was, just how were they supposed to do this?

And as the Knicks, with the NBA’s fifth-youngest roster, sorted through this, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris, all with at least nine seasons of NBA experience, were available to discuss it.

“It was tough,” Gibson said. “It was almost time to play and guys were still figuring out what they were going to do. We didn’t know if we were going to play. We didn’t know how the game was going to go, if they were going to postpone the game.

“There were a lot of emotions. A lot of guys, if you knew Kobe, the time he was here, he showed you love. He talked your head off. He encouraged you and he just loved competing. It was a tough pill to swallow, man. It’s going to be a tough one for a couple of days, for a while. We feel like we lost a superhero, man.”

The Knicks have dealt with these emotions more often than they would like this season, comforting Dennis Smith Jr. when he lost his stepmother early in the season and Reggie Bullock when his sister was murdered, the second time that violence had struck his family.

While those situations struck close to home, they involved one man who needed the comfort and consoling. This one hit the entire team because Bryant was an icon to nearly all of the players and because he was one of them. It put their own mortality on an all-too-real display.

The Knicks have five players who are 22 or younger, and days like Sunday point out the reality that despite their stardom and salaries, they are barely adults.

“I was on my way here, in my car,” said Frank Ntilikina, 21. “Actually we had a group text. People didn’t stop calling me and then it was all over the news and I couldn’t believe it. [In the locker room it was] quiet, quiet, really, really quiet. Everybody’s hurting. And it was tough to play this game. We did, but it’s tough.”

While it is hard to argue that the Knicks would benefit from providing more playing time to their younger players and collecting assets in exchange for some of the veterans, it is the off-the-court times when the value of players such as Gibson and Ellington this season, or Lance Thomas in recent years, shows.

The Knicks got ready Sunday and took the court. They did the job they had to do. “We didn’t really look at it as a challenge,” coach Mike Miller said. “As we go through this, real-life things are going on. Our locker room had some heavy hearts in there. They went out and played. I would say that it was a tribute to Kobe, to go out and play the game as he would play the game.”

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