The Nets had a day off on Monday, which was a good thing because they were affected more deeply than most NBA teams by the sudden death of Kobe Bryant because of the personal relationships many of their players, especially Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie, enjoyed with Bryant.
That’s why Irving was unable to play in the Nets’ loss to the Knicks Sunday at Madison Square Garden shortly after hearing news of the helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other victims. Dinwiddie’s emotion regarding his childhood hero was evident in his tearful postgame remarks.
Describing the difficulty of playing in the aftermath of such a tragedy, Joe Harris said, “Mentally, it was a bit of a fog. Everybody was feeling sick.
“Ky, some of these guys, have a different relationship with him, where they were very close friends. But a lot of us on the outside looking in were still just sick.”
The outcome was inconsequential to the Nets, and Harris described coach Kenny Atkinson’s postgame message to his players. “We came back in here,” Harris said, “and Kenny reiterated to us, ‘Make sure you go home and spend time mentally recuperating, reach out to the people that you love. Those are the things that are important.’”
The Nets provided no update on Irving’s status and whether he is expected to practice on Tuesday or play against the Pistons on Wednesday night at Barclays Center. But Irving admitted during the preseason that the death of his grandfather early last season had a lasting effect on him when he was with the Celtics, and given his close relationship with Bryant, the effect of this tragedy might be equally profound.
Irving has indicated Bryant was his idol as a point guard growing up, and they became friends after he was drafted by the Cavaliers. After Irving hit the shot that clinched the 2016 NBA title for the Cavs, Irving FaceTimed with Bryant amid the postgame locker room celebration.
Irving and Bryant also were teammates on the U.S. National team, and Irving sought advice from Bryant when his name came up in trade talks prior to being dealt to Boston. Later, Bryant offered his views to Irving on the key to leading the young Celtics last season. Last August, Irving trained with Bryant at the Mamba Sports Academy in Los Angeles.
So, for Irving and for Dinwiddie, who visited with Bryant and his daughter Gianna after they attended a Nets game on Dec. 21 at Barclays Center, the emotions are deeply personal. But as Atkinson said on Sunday, the sadness attending such a horrible event “reverberates throughout the fabric of the league.”
Brightening for a moment on Sunday, Atkinson recalled a personal exchange he enjoyed with Bryant when he last visited Barclays Center. “I didn’t even think he knew my name,” Atkinson said. “He came up and said, ‘Hey, coach,’ and gave me a hug. You think, ‘Wow. He knows my name.’ I ran right home after the game and told my wife. Kobe gave me a little hug there. It was pretty cool.”
Cherish the moment.