I’ll never forget the look of shock and disbelief on Jamal Murray’s face.
Forty-five minutes before the Nuggets tipped off against the Houston Rockets, he learned that Kobe Bryant was among nine people killed Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Nuggets director of player development John Beckett approached Murray, who didn’t play Sunday but was going through his customary warmup on the Pepsi Center floor, cell phone in hand, and broke the news to him that stunned the basketball world.
“What?” Murray shouted, attempting to grasp the enormity of the situation.
He was as dazed as the rest of us. Bryant was a larger than life figure, an indestructible force on the court and off it. He was immortal. It didn’t seem possible.
But it was. Murray quickly ended his warmup and went back to the Nuggets’ locker room where his teammates were already grieving Bryant’s death. It was a quiet, somber scene, according to players who were present.
“Created steps for others to climb. The definition of greatness. I’m in shock, man. I just saw you this last summer, and we said we couldn’t wait to do it again,” Murray wrote on Instagram. “Rest in peace. Gone too soon.”
Coping with Bryant’s death and refocusing on a basketball game was an impossible task. Impossible for the players involved, impossible for me, and impossible for many of the fans in attendance Sunday.
Yet, around 30 minutes later, it was business as usual, except it wasn’t. There was no thought of canceling or postponing the game, according to team officials, and players went through their regular layup lines, but it seemed like most of them were just going through the motions. Pepsi Center public address announcer Kyle Speller read off Bryant’s career accomplishments before the arena held a moment of silence. Afterward, the crowd broke into “Ko-be! Ko-be!” chants, another surreal moment on a surreal day.
Bryant was a villain in Denver throughout most of his career, for both his off-the-court drama and 2003 court case in Eagle, Colorado, and on-court dominance. He eliminated the Nuggets from the playoffs on two occasions during the 10-straight seasons that Denver made the postseason from 2004-13, most notably in the 2009 Western Conference Finals. But the Pepsi Center crowd sang his praises this time.
To say the pregame tribute and opening few minutes of the first quarter were emotional would be an understatement. Jerami Grant and P.J. Tucker cried. Tyson Chandler struggled to hold back his emotions on the Rockets’ bench once the game began. Somehow both teams managed to turn their focus to basketball.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone challenged his players before they took the floor to find a way to get past the catastrophe and do their job.
“I think it affected us. I think it affected them as well, the impact he has had, the greatness, his legacy, everything he leaves behind,” Malone said after the Nuggets’ win. “A tough loss for everybody, the NBA, the basketball world, especially his family. I just challenge our guys to go out there, and if you want to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant, play the game the right way, play it hard, the way he approached every single game through his illustrious career.”
But basketball was secondary Sunday, and the next two and a half hours were a blur. It was difficult to concentrate on the game as news kept breaking. In the second quarter, TMZ reported that Bryant’s daughter, Gianna, also died in the crash. In the second half, news filtered out that nine total people had perished. It was a whirlwind.
The Nuggets beat the Rockets 117-110 behind Nikola Jokic’s ninth triple-double of the season. Jokic finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. Jerami Grant added a season-high 25 points and shot 8 of 12 from the field and a perfect 3 of 3 from three-point range. Monte Morris tallied 17 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. Michael Porter Jr. chipped in 17 points and nine rebounds as the Nuggets tied the season series with the Rockets 2-2.
Fighting back tears in the locker room, Porter, who met Bryant at a Nike camp years ago, tried to put into words what the Laker icon meant to him.
“It was tough for sure because I love Kobe,” Porter said. “He’s a legend to me. I’ve looked up to him my whole life. Watch his highlights all the time. It was tough, but we had to go out there and do what we had to do.”
“I think everybody in here when we heard it, we didn’t really feel like playing basketball, but you know it’s our job, and we had to go out there and play. But I just feel for his family, and I mean it was heartbreaking. The whole first half, I wasn’t even thinking about basketball. My head was somewhere else.”
Malik Beasley, who, along with Murray, attended Bryant’s Mamba Academy this summer, reflected on what he learned from the future Hall-of-Famer during his mini-camp.
“Control what I can control, that was the main thing,” Beasley said. “I just talked to him two weeks ago, which makes it even more crazy. I don’t really know what to say.”
“You’ve got to be thankful for the people you love. I texted to all my family members, from my son all the way down to my great-great grandparents that, ‘I just love you.’ You’ve got to be thankful for that. People don’t realize when you throw a trash ball at a trash can you’re yelling, ‘Kobe!’ It’s just crazy how things change.”
Nuggets rookie P.J. Dozier met Bryant at camp in high school.
“He gave his whole life to the game. I think he would want guys to go out there and play on his behalf and honor him that way. So that’s what we tried to do,” Dozier told DNVR. “He was, I don’t want to say a God, but someone who I really looked up to.”
Will Barton said he watches highlights of Bryant before every game to get his mind right. The first conversation Barton had with Bryant was during his rookie season after his first start. Despite Bryant’s intimidating persona, Barton said he was always approachable and would give out advice to anyone who asked for it.
“He talked to me for about an hour about things he saw in my game and that he respects my game, that he thought I was good, and the things he wanted me to work on to reach my potential,” Barton said. “It really helped shape my career and got me to where I am today.”
Morris reminisced in the Nuggets’ locker room about the first time he held an extended conversation with Bryant as well. He bumped into him in the bowels of Staples Center, where Bryant was talking to Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka.
Bryant, who Morris said he’ll remember for his approach to the game, work ethic, how he always shouldered the blame in losses and also for the passion he had for coaching his daughter, told him to have a good game.
“It was big-time,” Morris said. “I told my mom about it.”
Bryant carried an aura with him like few did. He was looked up to like few are. His impact on the game of basketball is so deep-seated that the world will mourn his loss forever.
“To be honest, I couldn’t believe it,” Jokic said. “I had to google it, like for real? Is this happening?”
Malone compared receiving the news of Bryant’s death to remembering where you were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated or when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. It was an apt analogy. Somehow he and his players managed to turn their attention to a game, the game that they grew up watching Bryant play.
They were able to, in part, because it was what Kobe would have wanted.
“When you think about Kobe, it’s no excuse,” Jokic said. “Nothing can put your mind off what you love to do. It’s the Mamba Mentality.”