With a half hour to go before tipoff at the AT&T Center on Sunday afternoon, the best indication that an NBA game was still to be played, despite rumors of the contrary, was the sheer normalcy of it all. Ushers and other arena employees were still shuffling about; fans, staring at their phones a bit more than usual, continued to file into their seats; at halfcourt an elementary school choir performed their sound check.
People and institutions move on from shared tragedy all the time, but there’s something unique to watching it transpire not only in the context of professional sports but in an American arena, in the company of fans who each had their own distanced relationship with a figure and in proximity to players and coaches touched by him on a personal level. While you and, presumably, others reconcile a few thoughts and feelings, the game goes on; the PA announcer barks and whoops players’ names, the sound system blares out the usual playlist of songs, movie sound bytes, and other in-between-the-action fare.
Given there was so little time between the news breaking and their scheduled game, the Spurs and Raptors did what they could to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant, who died along with his daughter and 7 others on Sunday. A moment of silence was observed as the Jumbotron showed the player’s face and the years of his life, followed by both sides dribbling out the 24-second clock in the game’s opening possessions, a gesture agreed upon before the game between Gregg Popovich and Nick Nurse. Later in the afternoon, the Coyote wore a Lakers jersey with an 8 on the front and 24 on the back as he shot T-shirts in to the crowd.
The beats more or less make sense through the lens of NBA spectacle, but that doesn’t make it any more natural a setting to be alone with your thoughts. Like many in the arena, I grew up as both a fan of the game and of Kobe Bryant, a figure that took on a number of layers through his career and after, whose singular impact on other players and coaches will be covered in the weeks ahead, and whose good and bad are impossible to parse while being subjected to a wall of lights and sound.
For those on the court who knew and competed with Kobe, the experience must have been all the more surreal. Beginning with an uncontested jump ball, it took a while for the state of competition as we knew it to settle in, and it’s remarkable that the final quarter was climactic enough to feel like any other game in San Antonio. While a valid question was raised by many on if playing at all is the correct move, it’s also fair to wonder if an NBA game, in all its weird pageantry, exertion and drama, can be its own form of catharsis.
Appearing afterwards, Gregg Popovich gave a single, somber statement and took no questions:
“Good game, tough loss, who cares,” he said. “Most importantly, appreciate you all letting the locker room be tonight. Everybody is pretty emotional about the tragedy with Kobe. All of us know what a great player he was, but he went beyond great playing. He was a competitor that goes unmatched and it is what made him, as a player, so attractive to everybody. That focus, that competitiveness, and that will to win. And even more importantly than that, we all feel a deep sense of loss for what he meant to all of us in so many ways. So many millions of people loved him for so many different reasons. It’s just a tragic thing. There are no words that can describe how everybody feels about it. We all think about the family and the process that they are going to be going through now. That’s where all our thoughts should be.”
“Man, no words,” said DeMar DeRozan, a southern California native. “Words can’t explain it. For myself, everything that I’ve learned basketball-wise is from Kobe. The inspiration that he brought to the world. Not just that — his daughter. I’m a father. I can’t imagine something like that, you know, happening. It’s a sad, sad day.”