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Shock of Kobe Bryant's death makes playing a tough call

Fans in Memphis share their sadness during the

Fans in Memphis share their sadness during the Grizzlies-Suns game Sunday night shortly after the news of Kobe Bryant's death.   Credit: AP/Brandon Dill

Should NBA games have been played on Sunday in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash?

It was evident from talking to coaches and players at Madison Square Garden that most of them thought not.

“I’d rather keep my opinion on that to myself, what I think about that,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said, speaking volumes without speaking about it at all.

MSG Network’s Mike Breen grew emotional on the air as he recalled a famous Bill Gallo cartoon in the aftermath of Thurman Munson’s death in 1979, in which one of his characters says, “I just don’t feel like playin’ ball today.”

Said Breen: “That’s the way I think a lot of us feel here tonight: just don’t feel like broadcasting. I know a lot of players don’t feel like playing. It’s just a sad, sad day.”

All true, and an understandable emotion for those who knew Bryant well, including the Nets’ Kyrie Irving, who decided not to play against the Knicks.

But the more tributes rolled in from the eight NBA arenas in play — from intentional 24-second violations to fans chanting Bryant’s name to teary-eyed interviews — the clearer it became that playing on served a purpose.

It allowed for public mourning of an extremely public figure, with fans and players sharing the experience.

And is there any doubt that Bryant himself — the guy who in 2013 made two free throws after tearing an Achilles tendon — would have insisted that the games go on?

The Knicks’ Taj Gibson said Bryant would have wanted everyone “to go out there and lay it on the line. That’s one thing about him all through the years when I was playing against him: He always loved to compete.”

The outpouring also was an education for those of us older than, say, their mid-40s.

For old-timers, beyond the obvious human toll of losing Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other souls, this seemed like another celebrity death, a huge, tragic story but one that echoed others through the decades.

It did not take long, though, to appreciate the generational impact this had on 20 years’ worth of fans and players who grew up idolizing Bryant — and who in many cases are too young to have experienced a loss of this sort before.

Their dominant emotion was disbelief that this could happen to someone so full of life, and so much a part of their lives.

The Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie noted that he was a 3-year-old in Los Angeles when Bryant was drafted, and that he felt validated when Bryant recently told him that although Dinwiddie had not been named an NBA All-Star, Bryant considered him one.

Dinwiddie called the process a “popularity contest,” then said: “You don’t win things like that when you’re me. So for him to say that, I didn’t need to be selected — you know what I mean? — anymore. Because I was an All-Star. It’s not just, like, family [saying it]. It was ‘The Guy.’  ”

It was not the first time the Garden had experienced a strange night tied to breaking news from Southern California about an iconic retired athlete.

But that other one — the O.J. Simpson car chase during Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals — felt like a circus.

This one felt like a funeral. The arena was full, but players and fans seemed detached.

Would everyone have been better off just staying home? Maybe, but there also was something to be said for the shared experience.

There was a natural tendency to try to put Bryant’s death in historical perspective, but ranking tragedies seems disrespectful.

Let’s just say that given his age and level of global celebrity, sports death shockers do not get bigger than this.

When someone such as Kobe Bryant dies young, he takes with him a piece of his fans’ youth, which is what millions of people are mourning, along with mourning Bryant himself.

Before the game, the biggest basketball star of my childhood, Walt Frazier, sat not 15 feet away in the press room, looking sharp at 74 and available for conversations and memories.

That is how the young adults of today should have encountered Kobe in 2053 — looking sharp at 74 and telling tall tales reminiscent of happier times.

Now that is lost.

New York Sports