It was a tough day for the NBA yesterday. The league mourned the death of one of its greats, Kobe Bryant, as well as his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash just outside Los Angeles that morning.
Bryant, 41, retired from basketball in 2015, recently enough that many active players had faced him on the court and knew him personally off it. He was also a giant figure in the sport. Regarded as one of the best to ever play the game, he had a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers that concluded with him as the league’s third-highest point scorer of all time. (LeBron James just recently surpassed him, and Bryant’s last tweet congratulated James on the achievement.) Throughout the day, current and former players found ways to pay tribute.
At the afternoon match-up between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs, Toronto’s Fred VanVleet won the opening tip off and casually dribbled into Spurs territory, where he stopped and held the ball until the 24-second shot clock ran out. It was to honor Bryant, who had worn numbers 24 and 8 in his career. Fans cheered and chanted “Kobe.” When the Spurs got the ball, they also let the clock run out for 24 seconds.
Other teams similarly started their games with shot-clock violations to remember Bryant.
Several players wore their tributes scrawled on their sneakers, many of them wearing shoes from Bryant’s signature line with Nike, his sponsor since 2003. Lonzo Ball, a guard for the Pelicans, had “RIP Kobe” and “RIP Gianna” written on his Nike shoes, and teammate Josh Hart sported Nike’s with a memoriam to Bryant printed on the sole. Others including Montrezl Harrell of the Los Angeles Clippers and Austin Rivers of the Houston Rockets also had tribute messages on their feet.
Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks wrote Bryant’s name on his shoes and swapped his usual number 11 to wear Bryant’s 8 at the start of his team’s game against the Washington Wizards. Bryant had mentored Young, who had 45 points and 14 assists in the victory.
Several former players also released statements or video messages describing what Bryant meant to them, including Dwyane Wade, who was emotional in his Instagram story talking about his friend. “Today is one of the saddest days of my lifetime,” he said. On Twitter, Kareem Abdul Jabbar spoke of meeting Bryant when he was 11 or 12 years old and knowing Bryant’s father, who had also been a professional basketball player. Bill Russell tweeted his shock and heartbreak, saying “@kobebryant you were my biggest fan, but I was yours.”
The remembrances of Bryant weren’t restricted to basketball. Last night’s Grammy awards also honored his memory, and at the Australian Open for tennis today, Nick Kyrgios was reportedly near tears when he took the court against Rafael Nadal wearing a Lakers jersey with Bryant’s name and number.
Bryant left a huge, at times complicated, legacy. He even won an Oscar for an animated short film he co-created based on the poem he wrote when he retired from the NBA in 2015. It described his passion for basketball from the time he was a child, and ended with the words, “Love you always, Kobe.” The game loved him back.