Warriors

Warriors’ First Game After Kobe Bryant’s Death Doesn’t Ease Their Pain

NBA games in January typically come armed with enough mid-season monotony to garner "dog days" comparisons. The hour leading up to the Warriors' 115-109 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday mirrored that of a precession without a casket. 

Two days removed from Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant's sudden death, his hometown team honored him with familiar memories. Pregame introductions and hype videos were replaced by darkness. Both teams stood side by side during the national anthem, while the Sixers wore No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys as light shined on Bryant's No. 33 Lower Merion High School jersey midcourt.  

By the end of the evening, the night's most valuable player didn't don a jersey nor did he have a life left to live, leaving the players to reconcile a future without their hero.  

"Beginning of the game was tough," Warriors forward Draymond Green told reporters in Philadelphia following the loss. "We all want to honor Kobe, and then you go into a basketball game. That's a switch you can't flip. Those are real emotions." 

Green's emotions, like the rest of the league, originated Sunday morning, when news trickled out that Bryant, along with his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers, were killed in a helicopter crash while flying to a basketball tournament at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Bryant's death reverberated throughout the league, including in Los Angeles, where crowds flooded the streets around Staples Center -- a building Bryant arguably built -- in remembrance.

In response, the league postponed Tuesday's scheduled matchup between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. 

The Warriors got the news before Sunday's practice, prompting its cancellation ahead of the team's longest road trip of the season. By Tuesday morning, the team finally gathered enough strength to talk about Bryant.

In a team meeting, Warriors coach Steve Kerr spoke and Steph Curry followed, beginning a roundtable discussion. 

"Today was the first day I could really reflect a little bit and talk about it," Kerr told reporters. "But the last two days, I don't think anybody could even begin to reflect, just because of the pain of what just happened and the pain we know so many people are dealing with."

By game time, Bryant's influence was recognized throughout the arena. Perhaps no one on Golden State's active roster was affected more than Green. 

Nearly four years ago, the Bryant gave Green his game-worn pair of sneakers, writing "make history" along the toebox following Bryant's last game at Oracle Arena. Months later, Green's Warriors won a league-record 73 regular-season games.  

When Green was suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, he sought Bryant's advice in the wake of criticism that became “probably the lowest point of my NBA career.” Bryant responded with a poignant message.

"Draymond, 99 percent of the world is OK with mediocrity -- or worse," Green recalled Bryant telling him in a conversation with reporters Monday night. "But, at best, mediocrity. You’re chasing something so much bigger. How do you ever expect anyone to understand you?" 

"That meant the world to me because Kobe said f--- everybody, so f--- everybody," Green said. "I was able to hold onto that and rally and keep going and build on it.”

The biggest sign of Bryant's importance to Green was seen pregame, on the forward's feet. Since 2016, Green has made a point not to wear the signature shoes of other players. The protest began after Green -- who wore LeBron James' signature Nike shoe -- faced James in The Finals.

On Tuesday, he broke the protest, donning Bryant's first signature sneaker with Nike, displaying the sentiment his peers throughout the league share. 

"There's an era in this league right now or an age group that Kobe was Michael Jordan," Green said Tuesday. "Some guys aren't old enough to remember Jordan, but they remember Kobe. That was our Jordan."

While Green admired Bryant as an opponent, Warriors guard D'Angelo Russell came into the league under Bryant's tutelage. As a Lakers rookie, Russell's first season in the league in 2015-16 coincided with Bryant's last, bringing Russell a unique perspective.

When Russell scored 23 points in a loss, including nine of his team's last 11 points in regulation, Bryant told the rookie 'you got this', providing a push in his young career. When Bryant scored 60 points in the final game of his career, Russell was among the players to congratulate the Lakers great, providing a surreal experience for the 23-year old. 

"I was just thrown into the movie almost. I got to see how people treated him," Russell said. "The power that he had around this league. I've seen conversations with my idols and how they would talk to him, it was almost like they were looking up to him. It was weird. It was something you always wanted and then being right next to him, you felt like if you touched him or tried to shake his hand, your hand would go through him. He wasn't a real person almost. But it was cool. I cherished every moment." 

Across the court, Bryant's influence exhibited in Sixers big man Joel Embiid. Ten years ago, Embiid -- who wore Bryant's No. 24 on Tuesday night -- watched Bryant's performance in the 2010 NBA Finals from his native Cameroon. Bryant won his fifth title, inspiring Embiid along the way. 

"If it weren't for Kobe, I would probably be playing volleyball somewhere, or be a doctor," Embiid told reporters in Philadelphia. "I wanted to be the president of my country. But if it weren't for Kobe, I wouldn't be here."

But it was Bryant's actions post-retirement that elicited the most praise from Green postgame. Since leaving the game, Bryant immersed himself into his children, coaching his 13-year old Gianna's AAU team. On Sunday, his helicopter was en route to Thousand Oaks for the Mamba Cup -- a tournament his daughter's team was playing in. Following Tuesday's game, Green said Bryant's presence in the crash left an indelible mark. 

"I think about Kobe," Green said." Like in that situation, especially the man that Kobe was, like Kobe will try to build a mountain, and there's no one in the world that will tell them that he can't lift that mountain up. And you think about him in this situation, which is extremely graphic to think about, he's right there with his daughter. And he's probably telling her that everything is OK and in his mind, he knows it's not. So for me, I just think of that and believing in my heart that, no, I was nowhere near that helicopter, but I know how he went out."

By the end of the night, the Warriors and 76ers reconciled a new world without an NBA pillar, one that Golden State still is adjusting to. 

"It just doesn't seem real," Kerr said. "But it is real. And it's always going to feel just shocking." 

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