In the wake of the tragic death of NBA great Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in suburban Los Angeles on Sunday, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson delivered an emotional pregame statement in which he said one player on the team was particularly close to Bryant and was deeply affected by the tragedy. Moments later, the team announced that point guard Kyrie Irving would not play against the Knicks for personal reasons and had left Madison Square Garden.
A grim-looking Atkinson stood in front of a group of reporters and began by saying, “I’m just going to make a brief statement on behalf of the Nets’ organization. We’d like to express our sincerest condolences to the Bryant family and everybody affected by the tragedy.”
Pausing to keep his emotions in check, Atkinson took a deep breath and said, “As an organization, we’re devastated, our players are devastated. We have a player that was very close to Kobe. Our thoughts and prayers are with him also. It’s just a tough time for the NBA with all this. That’s really all I have to say.”
In the past, Irving has cited Bryant as a role model for him as a point guard, and Bryant had acted as something of a mentor to Irving in their off-court relationship. After the Nets’ 110-97 loss to the Knicks, Atkinson was asked what he said to Irving before the game. “I was with him [when Irving got the sad news],” Atkinson said. “I’ll keep that private. They were very close. Tough, tough times.”
When Bryant attended a Nets game against the Hawks on Dec. 21 at Barclays Center, he sat courtside with his daughter Gianna, who also died in the crash. He took pictures after the game with Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie, who grew up in Los Angeles as a Lakers fan idolizing Bryant, whose original No. 8 is the one Dinwiddie wears for the Nets.
Dinwiddie posted that picture on his Instagram account and wrote: “Proudest moment of my life. RIP.”
After the game, Dinwiddie described what it was like to grow up in Los Angeles when Bryant was in his prime. “I was born in ’93 and he was drafted in ’96,” he said. “I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He was everything to my generation. There’s a whole generation of L.A. kids, that was our childhood, you know what I mean?
“The lesson of hard work, and as cliché as it might sound, the ‘Mamba mentality,’ right? That’s part of the reason I am who I am today, the mentality of consistent work and pushing through boundaries and playing through injuries and never giving up, never falling, just continuing to push through . . . He was everything to a lot of kids, and I was one of them.”
Asked how the terrible news of Bryant’s death affected him emotionally, especially after having seen him so recently at Barclays Center, Dinwiddie said, “I met Kobe several times, exchanged pleasantries and text messages and things. Maybe this is a little bit over-exaggerating, but I felt it was the first time he was looking at me as like the basketball player Spencer, you know what I mean?”
Having played well enough to generate some All-Star buzz from coaches around the NBA this season, Dinwiddie teared up while relating a story about hearing much the same thing from Bryant that special night at Barclays Center.
“For him to tell me that in his book, I’m an All-Star . . . I talked about [All-Star voting being] a popularity contest before. You don’t win stuff like that when you’re me. So for him to say that, I didn’t need to be selected anymore because I was an All-Star to him. Not just like my family, it’s the guy.”