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Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard says Kobe Bryant’s death ‘doesn’t seem real’

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant goes to work against San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard on Jan. 22, 2016.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant goes to work against San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard on Jan. 22, 2016.
(Paul Buck / European Pressphoto Agency)

Fans grieving Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash turned the plaza around Staples Center into an impromptu memorial this week.

To the arena where the banners from Bryant’s five Lakers championships hang, they came carrying his jerseys, shoes, flowers and basketballs. They wrote their memories of Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, who were among nine who died in the crash Sunday in Calabasas, on paper murals the height of a house’s walls.

Some sang. Others cried. But everyone mourned — and that included Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, who watched as the crowds grew from his penthouse high above L.A. Live.

“To see the gathering, the candles, the flowers, kids, grown-ups, dogs, all different type of animals, it ’s crazy,” Leonard said Wednesday.

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The more time Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna spent at the Vanguard University gym in Costa Mesa, the more they became part of its tight-knit community.

For Leonard and Clippers teammates Paul George and Lou Williams, Bryant had transformed from an inspiration, to a mentor, to a sounding board as their careers progressed and intertwined. Bryant was one of the first people Leonard spoke with immediately after leading Toronto to an NBA championship last June. En route to the title, Leonard said he thought of Bryant every game.

Bryant was also one of the first to call George after he suffered a devastating leg injury in 2014. George didn’t want to show emotion after the gruesome injury because, the previous year, he’d seen Bryant’s steely resolve after suffering an Achilles tendon injury.

“He got me through that,” George said.

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Those relationships fulfilled the Clippers who knew Bryant best. They are also why they were left emotionally gutted by his stunning death at 41.

“It’s sad every day,” Leonard said. “You know, you kind of feel like life isn’t real once you start seeing these little monuments or the pictures that people are putting up with his face and the year he was born and the year he died.

“It doesn’t seem real. It just seems like you’re in a movie or something. And you know, you just want to wake up. So it’s still surreal to me. It’s not all come together yet.”

George grew up in Palmdale rooting for the Clippers but idolizing Bryant, wearing a No. 24 jersey early in his NBA career as a tribute. They later became close on a personal level, as George sought insights into how Bryant approached practices, games, nutrition and weight-lifting.

During their last visit together, this summer at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy, they discussed fatherhood. Bryant had four daughters, and George two.

Kobe Bryant had a strong pre-draft workout for the Clippers in 1996. But coach Bill Fitch told Bryant they didn’t want to subject him to the organization’s woes.

“He was my Michael Jordan,” George said. “Growing up as a SoCal kid he was what everybody, every kid wanted to be here. I started playing basketball because of Kobe.

“I put it into my kids’ perspectives, not being there for them. It just touches and hits me at all angles from idolizing him as a kid to developing friendship and brotherhood to now having conversations with him this summer at his Mamba Academy and talking about fatherhood. It’s just some … you can’t get over.”

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The Clippers are expected to honor Bryant during their game Thursday at Staples Center against Sacramento, though subtle tributes have already begun across the league.

The scoreboard inside the Clippers’ facility Wednesday featured two numbers: eight and 24, the numbers Bryant wore during his 20-year career. Clippers forward Maurice Harkless on Tuesday became the latest player to switch his jersey number in order to leave Bryant’s vacant — Harkless will now wear No. 11, instead of No. 8.

Players and coach Doc Rivers applauded the NBA for postponing Tuesday’s scheduled game against the Lakers. A makeup date has yet to be announced.

“I thought it would’ve been a horrendous game,” Rivers said. “I wasn’t ready for it, the players weren’t ready for it. I can’t imagine the Lakers as an organization, forget their players, just the organization, there’s no way they would’ve been ready for it. And then the Lakers players, there’s no way they would’ve been ready for it.”

Leonard’s relationship with Bryant began nearly seven years ago, as Leonard established himself as one of the league’s best all-around players. After signing with the Clippers as a free agent in July, Leonard asked for advice about the logistics of playing in Los Angeles.

That led Leonard to often commute from his home north of San Diego using the same helicopter pilot, Ara Zobayan, who flew Bryant to and from his home in Newport Beach. Zobayan piloted the helicopter Sunday and died in the crash.

“Same pilot, everything, the whole situation, this whole program, the setup,” Leonard said. “How he was traveling back and forth was the same way I was getting here from San Diego.”

He called Zobayan “one of the best pilots. That is a guy who you ask for to fly you from city to city. It’s just surreal still.”

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NBA players, Leonard said, were drawn to Bryant because of a ruthless competitiveness embodied by the jaw he jutted in clutch moments. Though his Boston Celtics led the Lakers by more than 30 points late in the fourth quarter of their championship-clinching Game 6 victory in the 2008 Finals, Rivers said he refused to relax until coach Phil Jackson removed Bryant from the game. He was convinced Bryant could mount a comeback.

Williams witnessed that relentless side in 2016 while playing for the Lakers during Bryant’s final season. After a blowout loss against Portland, Bryant stormed into the locker room.

“I don’t think he liked how we played,” Williams said. “He said, ‘From now on out, when we play, I touch the ball every time down the court. Y’all are gonna learn what it’s like to play with Kobe Bean Bryant.’ And I kind of looked at him and I was like, ‘Damn, he’s dead serious.’ So we looked around and said, ‘Make sure this man touches the ball every time down the floor.’ ”

But Williams said he cried himself to sleep Tuesday because he also knew another side.

“I told him once, we had a conversation and I said, ‘You, I’m on to you,’ ” Williams said. “He’s like, ‘What you mean?’ I said, ‘You want people to think you’re a jerk. But you’re one of the nicest guys in the world. That’s how you want to be remembered when you’re done playing, like you want everyone to think you was this hard-ass competitor and just a jerk to everybody.’ But I said, ‘That’s not your nature, that’s not your natural nature.’ ”

The NBA has postponed the Lakers-Clippers game scheduled for Tuesday in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death. No makeup date has been announced.

Players saw evidence of that in the way Bryant shared his basketball knowledge, saying he hoped to grow the game. He was continuing to do so since his 2016 retirement. Bryant was flying Sunday to his academy in Thousand Oaksto coach his 13-year-old daughter in a club game.

“My daughter’s getting into basketball,” Williams said. “She found a way to love the game on her own, it wasn’t something that I really put into her hands, and seeing how much [Bryant] was involved in his daughter’s [game] and being an influence on her and teaching her the things you know being her coach, it means a lot to me.

“I’ve made it a point to tell both of my girls that I love them every day since he’s passed.”

UP NEXT

VS. SACRAMENTO

When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570.

Update: Clippers guard Patrick Beverley and George each is listed as probable to play. Beverley has missed three games because of a groin injury and George has sat out nine consecutive games because of a strained hamstring.


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