On the somber day when former Lakers star and future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna lost their lives in a tragic helicopter crash near their Los Angeles-area home, NBA business continued with a game between the Knicks and Nets that felt more like a memorial than a bitter local rivalry Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Nets struggled to generate much offense without Kyrie Irving, who missed the game for personal reasons to grieve the death of his friend and mentor. The Knicks used their size advantage to dominate the interior and led by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter on their way to a 110-97 victory.
As the clock wound down in the final three minutes, the fans chanted Bryant’s name much as they had before the game.
News of the tragedy broke approximately three hours before game time when the Nets were just arriving at the Garden. “It was an emotional locker room, it was a quiet locker room,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “No one spoke for three hours before we tipped off. Sometimes there are no words, and I didn’t have any words to console them. But emotional night for all of us.”
Before the national anthem was played, Bryant’s picture appeared on the video board as the Knicks honored his memory with a moment of silence while the 24-second clock counted down. When it ended, a chant of “KO-BE! KO-BE!” rose up from the crowd.
After the opening tip, both teams took turns running out the 24-second clock, a gesture that was carried out league-wide in honor of the fact that Bryant wore No. 24 at the end of his career after switching from the No. 8 he wore earlier.
The Knicks’ Marcus Morris praised the legacy Bryant leaves behind. “The way he approached the game, the way he approached life, his mentality,” he said, listing Bryant’s competitive attributes. “I’ve never watched anybody impose their will on the game like that . . . It’s a tough loss for everybody.”
Some wondered beforehand if the NBA might postpone all games. “Everybody was in a daze,” said the Nets’ Garrett Temple, who is a vice president in the NBA Players Association. “I know I was in a daze. You try to listen to the game plan, but obviously, you’ve got something else weighing on your mind . . . Kenny was emotional before the game. Everybody was emotional. It was very different.”
Asked if he was surprised to play, Temple said, “I’ve been a part of this league long enough to know the business side and how it goes. The type of person he was and what he meant to this game, what he meant to this league, it would be very understandable if the games had gotten canceled.”
The game went on, and the Knicks (13-34) shot 53.3% from the field, outrebounded the Nets 48-34 and outscored them 62-38 in the paint. Julius Randle had 22 points and 15 rebounds and Morris added 21 points for the Knicks.
The Nets (19-26), who lost for the 13th time in 16 games, got 23 points from Spencer Dinwiddie, 14 from Taurean Prince and 12 from Rodions Kurucs.
In the end, the loss faded quickly and players clung to their memories of Bryant, who attended a Nets game in December with Gianna.
“Obviously, our leader Ky wasn’t able to play. My thoughts go out to him as well as to the Bryant family and the other families in the helicopter, the pilot,” Temple said. “I know he was Spence’s idol. When I first heard about it, those are the two guys on the team I thought about most. We saw [Bryant] and his daughter just last month. It’s tough, man.”