Instead of a flurry of movement after Sunday’s opening tipoff, there was stillness.
Clippers guard Landry Shamet collected the tip won by teammate Ivica Zubac and, standing inside halfcourt, dribbled out a 24-second shot-clock violation. On the next possession, Magic guard Markelle Fultz intentionally failed to move the ball past halfcourt, drawing an eight-second backcourt violation.
Quickly, inside Amway Center, fans, coaches and players stood from their seats, recognizing the gestures as tributes to Kobe Bryant, the former Lakers great who wore No. 24 and No. 8 during his 20-year Lakers career, and was one of nine people who died Sunday in a helicopter crash in California. Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue, a Lakers teammate of Bryant’s from 1998 to 2001, clapped from the sideline, his eyes red from tears.
Honoring Bryant by using his numbers had been devised 90 minutes earlier, inside the visitors’ locker room. There, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who coached against Bryant during a pair of NBA Finals with Boston, huddled with Magic coach Steve Clifford, who coached Bryant as a Lakers assistant in 2013. But in truth, Rivers said, any ideas about how to handle a day he called “devastating,” and Clifford called “shocking,” ended there.
“I told our guys before the game, I don’t know how you handle this, it’s such a shock,” Rivers said. “Some of you may not feel anything right now. It may come out during the game. We’re not prepared, nobody is for tragedies like this. Nobody is.”
The Clippers would eventually end their five-city trip with a 112-97 victory over Orlando. In some ways, the matchup played out like any other on the NBA calendar. Forward Kawhi Leonard imposed his will on the game once again, finishing with 31 points — his eighth consecutive game with at least 30 — 14 rebounds and seven assists. Orlando held in-game promotions. Fans ripped officials. Clippers center Montrezl Harrell switched sneakers at halftime, as is his custom.
Warmups, though, were solemn. The rowdy atmosphere that accompanies pregame introductions was replaced instead by 60 seconds of silence as Bryant’s picture illuminated the arena’s video board. By the end, a spontaneous chant of “Kobe!” echoed through the arena. And those sneakers Harrell wore were Bryant’s Nike models. On one, he used a pen to inscribe tributes to Bryant and Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who also died in the crash.
“Everybody’s sad, you know what I mean? Words can’t explain his impact he had on this floor,” Leonard said in a postgame interview with Fox Sports. Players requested the locker room be closed to media after the game, Rivers said.
“The emotional impact he had on everybody, you know what I mean? We’re a team from L.A., so we know L.A.'s history with him. And it’s just sad.”
The Clippers (33-14) are scheduled to next play Tuesday against the Lakers at Staples Center. It would be the Lakers’ first game since Bryant’s death.
Orlando (21-26) forward Aaron Gordon, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds, watched Bryant while growing up in San Jose. Gordon grew to know the five-time champion and 18-time All-Star as their careers overlapped.
“When something like that happens it makes you want to just quit, not do anything,” Gordon said. “But the fierce competitor that he is, I know he would want us to go out and play.”
Rivers had no idea what to expect from his team, let alone that they would lead by as many as 19 points despite committing 17 turnovers.
“I didn’t know if our guys could get through it to be honest,” Rivers said. “Sometimes the stage is the best place to get away from reality.
“I look over at Ty [Lue] during the game and he’s bawling. A lot of emotion tonight, it really was a tough night.”
Before tipoff, tears ran down Rivers’ cheeks as he discussed Bryant’s “devastating” death at 41. The coach occasionally stopped talking to collect himself, saying he’d never seen Bryant happier than during their last visit, only weeks before, when they reminisced about the Celtics’ NBA championship over the Lakers in 2008, and the Lakers’ revenge two years later.
“He just means a lot to me, obviously,” Rivers said. “He was such a great opponent. It’s what you want in sports. He had that DNA that very few athletes can ever have. The Tiger Woods, the Michael Jordans.
“I think everybody right now is a Laker fan. We’re all Lakers today. You feel for that community and Jeanie [Buss] and everyone else. I think people think because you compete against people sometime that you don’t have a relationship with them and don’t like, and I think it’s probably the exact opposite. I think sometime the more you compete the more respect you have for the opponent. I would say that’s the way I felt with Kobe.”
Doc Rivers remembers Kobe Bryant. pic.twitter.com/q6LcIA4ghT— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) January 26, 2020
In a statement, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer called Bryant an “icon and institution in this city and this sport” while praising Bryant’s singular competitiveness and drive.
Bryant nearly joined the Clippers as a free agent in 2004 before ultimately re-signing with the Lakers. Clippers officials from the time called his consideration of switching sides in the Los Angeles rivalry a what-if moment in franchise history.
Bryant heard a pitch from the Clippers that summer at a luxury hotel near his Newport Beach home and as he exited the meeting, then-team owner Donald Sterling asked Bryant whether he would commit, said Ralph Lawler, the team’s longtime play-by-play voice, last summer. Lawler was not present for the meeting but said he discussed what transpired with multiple officials who were.
“Kobe turned to him and — this is an exact quote that I’ve had repeated to me by multiple people — he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a Clipper.’ So he walked out the door and [the Clippers] are all high-fiving each other thinking, ‘By God, we’ve done it.’”
Bryant rejoined the Lakers days later on a seven-year contract. Though he never became a Clipper, Bryant’s influence was felt on the organization. Leonard was “very, very close” to Bryant, Rivers said, as was forward Paul George, who idolized Bryant growing up in Palmdale. Bryant hosted both last summer during a retreat at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
“Just knowing him personally, I know he would’ve wanted me to come out here and try to ball and still just be great,” Leonard said. “So that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
Reserve guard Lou Williams was a Laker during Bryant’s final season in 2015-16, and witnessed Bryant’s 60-point game in his career finale.
“I remember your last game you sat in the training room and patiently signed autographs and took pictures for any and everybody that wanted something signed,” Williams wrote on Instagram.
“At least a few thousand items and you did it with a smile on your face. RIP 2-4 I’m hurt for your family and the millions of young hoopers like myself you gave a bar to reach for.”
Of course, as an iconic player of his generation, Bryant’s career shaped more than his L.A. rival. As Rivers surveyed an emotional locker room before the game, he saw not only Leonard, Williams and George among the affected, but young players who “didn’t even know him. It just tells you how far his reach was.”
Locker rooms after games are typically a hive of activity as players hurriedly come and go. Sunday, Orlando’s was hushed. Players stood frozen at their lockers. The voice of Magic guard Evan Fournier barely pierced the quiet.
“I’m not sure you can put into words what he meant for all of us,” Fournier said. “There’s not much to say.”