Two empty seats, so many broken hearts.
All were painfully on display Wednesday night at Barclays Center as the Nets played their first home game since NBA great Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash Sunday.
As a tribute, the Nets left vacant the courtside seats where the father and daughter had sat at a Dec. 21 game here against the Hawks. They also held a 24-second moment of silence before the game to honor Bryant. It was almost too much to bear for Nets point guard Kyrie Irving who could be seen tearing up during the national anthem.
Irving, a close friend of Bryant’s, was back on the court Wednesday after not playing on the day Bryant died. He scored 20 points to help lead the Nets to a 125-115 win over the Detroit Pistons. He was at the Garden on Sunday as the Nets were preparing to play the Knicks when he heard of the horrific accident. He was so grief-stricken that the team let him leave the arena before the game.
He and his Nets teammates played with heavy hearts on Wednesday night.
“I’m not the only one who's hurting,” Irving said after the win. “We all shared something really, really strong with him as a bond just watching him, studying him and getting to ask him questions. We all showed something and it’s beautiful we’re all connected through one person.”
Irving and Bryant first developed a relationship after Irving’s rookie season when he was a member of the select team, helping prepare the national team for the London Olympics. One day after a practice session, Irving challenged Bryant to a $50,000 game of one-on-one.
The two never ended up playing the high-stakes game, but Bryant apparently appreciated Irving’s swagger. A bond was forged with Irving repeatedly calling the older player for pointers and advice.
The bond grew stronger after Bryant retired. This past summer Irving traveled to Bryant’s Mamba Academy to work on this game. Bryant and his daughter had been flying to a game at the Mamba Academy when their helicopter crashed on Sunday morning.
Irving said he just couldn’t play on Sunday.
“I couldn’t even come up with it,” Irving said. “I wanted to play that game, but it was so heartbreaking. It still is. But I’m doing my best.”
The Nets placed a simple bouquet of flowers on each of the seats for the game Fans chanted both Kobe and Gigi, which was Gianna’s nickname, throughout the game. Atkinson said he thinks the ceremony was all a part of the healing process.
“I think it helped to be home,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “To hear the crowd chanting and then the seats, it felt we could touch it a little more because we were home.”
Said Pistons coach Dwane Casey: “Guys process grief in different ways. For our players, Kobe Bryant was the Michael Jordan of their time. Those guys, they grew up idolizing Kobe and then playing against Kobe at a later stage . . . It’s been hard.”
The grieving Wednesday at Barclays Center was not limited to those who had played with Kobe or knew him well.
One usher, who was wearing a photo sticker of Kobe on his vest, said that he and other employees were crying when they got to the arena. Ushers aren’t supposed to give interviews, so I won’t tell you his name. But I will tell you his story.
When he was 6 years old, he moved to the United States from Haiti. He recalled how on the day he arrived in his new country, his father turned on the TV and there was Bryant in a bright yellow uniform and Afro.
“He instantly became my favorite,” the usher said. “I felt like I had found a friend.”
Now, he and so many others feel like they have lost one.