The NBA on TNT honored Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant at Staples Center during an hour-long special Tuesday night.
The special opened with Bryant’s voice, over a photo montage of his memorable basketball moments, saying: “I started playing basketball since I was two and I haven’t put it down since. Just handling the ball, bouncing it against the hardwood, the sound that it makes when it goes through the net. I just loved everything about it.”
The music from Beyonce’s song Heaven played in the background, and the lyrics “Heaven couldn’t wait for you” began.
Inside the NBA host Ernie Johnson spoke in a solemn voice, paying tribute to the nine people, including Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, who lost their lives in a helicopter crash Sunday.
He sat next to Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Dwyane Wade inside an empty Staples Center where the Lakers were supposed to play the Clippers on Tuesday. The game was postponed, and Johnson said there’s “silence inside the walls and an emptiness which mirrors what we all continue to feel.”
Johnson also said: “I’ll be honest – this will be a hard show.”
And it was.
The tribute came on the 23rd anniversary of Bryant’s first NBA start in his rookie season against Dallas. Bryant had 12 points.
O’Neal had tears from the start, relaying he lost his sister, Ayesha Harrison-Jex, in October, telling viewers it’s been a difficult time. “I haven’t been sleeping, haven’t been doing the things I normally do,” O’Neal said.
When told on Sunday that Bryant had died, O’Neal didn’t want to believe it.
“Haven’t felt a pain that sharp in a while,” he said.
And through their ups and downs, Bryant and O’Neal reconciled, with O’Neal encouraging anyone who wanted to listen to pick up the phone and rekindle relationships and make memories. “Those are things you can’t get back,” he said.
Hall of Famer and former Lakers executive Jerry West made an appearance, and he couldn’t hold back tears, either. West, who has been through a lot in his life despite all his success, called Bryant’s death the “saddest day of my life. … I don’t know if I can get over this. I really don’t.”
West even shared a story about Bryant telling him he was considering signing with the Los Angeles Clippers. West, who was working for Memphis at the time, told him he couldn’t do that.
“You can’t play for that owner,” West recalled telling Bryant, referring to former Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Wade said he looked up to Bryant and said his three favorite players are Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Bryant.
After watching Bryant play so many times, Wade finally had to guard him 10 games into his rookie season. Knowing what moves he might make, Wade said he guessed right and stole the ball from Bryant and went down the court for a basket. Afterward Wade said, “I’m calling all my boys back at the crib.”
He told a story about the 2016 All-Star Game, at a dinner party for Bryant, hosted by Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.
“It was one person I wanted the respect from … It was Kobe Bryant,” Wade said.
Barkley and Johnson wanted to make sure the other seven people on board were also remembered, and TNT displayed photos of all nine victims.
Smith appreciated Bryant’s post-basketball career. Kobe the basketball player might not be relatable to everyone, but Kobe the parent hugging and coaching his daughters is relatable to so many more.
And Reggie Miller, who acknowledged the two had a contentious relationship on the court, wanted to honor Bryant’s Mamba mentality by continuing to work hard and celebrate his life.
At halftime, WNBA star Candace Parker said she appreciated how Bryant embraced the WNBA by attending games with his daughters. Bryant, Parker said, once told her, while looking at his daughters, “One day, they’re going to break all your records.”
Hall of Famer Steve Nash was in Bryant’s draft and said, “We could not have been more different – he’s the brashest, most electrifying 18-year-old I’ve ever seen in my life. I was nervous, insecure, anxious trying to make a name for myself.”
After Nash’s Phoenix Suns beat Bryant’s Lakers in the 2006 playoffs, Nash said Bryant asked him that summer, “How do you trust your teammates?”
Nash didn’t say what he said, but told viewers, “Inside, that’s a sign of respect, and I thought to myself with a smile, I have to trust my teammates because I wasn’t anywhere near the player you are. But when I walked away from the conversation, I have to admit, was he Jedi mind-tricking me or was he telling me just so we’re clear on the ledger, you had the better team?
“I love that about Kobe.”
Johnson directed the conversation like the pro that he is, making sure the show had the right tone and asking the questions that provided compelling answers.
This has had an emotional impact on the NBA community – and beyond – but it has been particularly crushing for O’Neal and West, who knew Bryant the best among the guests on the show. It was difficult for them to talk about Bryant and what happened.
But Johnson also noted it may be therapeutic for everyone.
TNT had planned to televise the Lakers-Clippers game later in the evening but the NBA postponed the game “out of respect for the Lakers organization, which is deeply grieving the tragic loss of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other people in a helicopter crash on Sunday,” the league said in a statement Monday.
TNT televised the Boston-Miami game at 8 p.m., and paid tribute to Bryant during halftime and after the game.
This story will be updated
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