Andrew Wiggins took the tip-off from Karl-Anthony Towns, placed the ball at the free-throw line, and took an eight-second backcourt violation to begin Monday’s game against the Sacramento Kings.
Kobe Bryant never played for the Timberwolves, nor was he teammates with any of their current players, but his death Sunday in a helicopter crash has reverberated throughout the organization as it has the rest of the NBA.
These players watched him, imitated him, idolized him, wanted to be him when they grew up. This generation on the court was too young to experience Michael Jordan in his prime, but they had Kobe. As Towns said, Bryant “was my childhood,” and the Wolves and Kings paid their respects to one of their heroes Monday night.
That ball at the free-throw line was in honor of Bryant passing Jordan for third on the all-time scoring list, which he did on a free throw during a game at Target Center on Dec. 14, 2014. The Wolves came out to a playlist of songs that featured Bryant prominently in the lyrics, and after the Wolves took the eight-second violation, in honor of No. 8, which Bryant wore in the first part of his career, the Kings took a 24-second violation in honor of the No. 24, Bryant’s other number. Kings guard De’Aaron Fox then placed the ball back at the free-throw line as the crowd stood and clapped.
Towns wore No. 24 in pregame introductions while forward Robert Covington wore No. 8, and there was a video tribute and moment of silence before the game, all to honor a basketball legend who touched many of the players and coaches, even if it was just one interaction or one game played against them.
Towns, who spoke to the crowd before the game, said he would mimic Bryant’s moves growing up and remembered watching one specific game with one of his best friends. He was awed as Bryant hit a tough fadeaway shot late against the Miami Heat.
“It was real difficult for me to be [watching] ESPN, CNN and see those dates,” Towns said, referring to the years Bryant was born and died. “Those dates really add some finality to it. It wasn’t real … it’s Kobe — he’s untouchable, he’s invincible. It was surreal.”
Kings coach Luke Walton had probably the closest connection to Bryant of anyone in Target Center. Walton was Bryant’s teammate for parts of nine seasons in Los Angeles. He said that Sunday and Monday were “one of the harder times of my life.”
“He expected a lot out of us,” Walton said. “But he also had a very soft, loving, fun side, and when you got to know him made you willing to do anything to be on his side. I don’t know if I’ve fully accepted it. It’s really hard to think that we don’t have him with us anymore.”
Wolves coach Ryan Saunders is only 33 and didn’t have a chance to interact with Bryant all that much, but one moment meant a lot to him, a moment Saunders won’t soon forget.
Saunders had to fight back tears during his media session at shootaround as he discussed the first game of the 2015-16 season. The Wolves were playing Bryant and the Lakers in Los Angeles following the death of Ryan’s father, Flip.
“I remember just seeing him at the free-throw line during the national anthem wearing a Flip shirt and him paying tribute,” Saunders said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around right now with everything. We tried to be as business as usual, because as competitors and the competitor that Kobe was, that’s what he’d say. You got to compete. But it affects all of us greatly.”
Covington said he got to face off against Bryant one time when he was with Philadelphia, a moment he shared in a post on Instagram Sunday. For him, a conversation he had with Bryant after that game served as validation for his career. It was something Covington appreciated hearing since his path to the 76ers was unconventional and involved a lot of time knocking around the G-League and the fringes of the NBA. Despite Bryant hitting a few shots early in the game on him and Covington thinking, “I don’t know how this is going to go tonight,” it turned into one of the most memorable nights of Covington’s career.
“We had that moment where we got to talking at center court and he told me within those moments that I had the opportunity to be a very good player in this game,” Covington said. “He said, ‘I like your work ethic. I like your hustle. I like how you carry yourself.’ I took [that as] a big change in my life. … He was like, stick with it. You got an opportunity to be someone great in this league. You can be someone that can really change the game. Just stay with it and just keep going.”
For Gersson Rosas, a lot of his career before becoming Wolves president was spent trying to figure out how to knock off the Lakers in the playoffs. Rosas spent 17 years with the Houston Rockets and with teams that featured the likes Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the Rockets twice fell to Bryant’s Lakers in the playoffs, including a seven-game series in 2009.
“You couldn’t stand the guy. But you couldn’t stand him because he was so great, and he won so much …” Rosas said. “His greatness was just unbelievable. Not only was he talented but his drive, his motivation, his championship will was special. But he was one of those rare players that doesn’t come along often.”
The arena video boards were illuminated in purple and gold font while the corner video monitors has “24” on them before tip-off. The ceremonies might have ended after that Kings 24-second violation, but guard Buddy Hield did his best to honor Bryant with a 42-point night.
Before the game, Covington said it was going to be “very hard” to play.”
“It’s going to be a lot of mixed emotions,” Covington said. “A lot of thoughts that are going to go on. … You had a lot of emotional guys. You don’t know how it’s going to hit you until you’re actually in that moment. Just coming in today like seeing how everyone is and the mood has kind of shifted. That first moment where you picked up a basketball, that’s the first thought process that goes through your head. So, it’s definitely going to be a different thing.”
Just the first step in a grieving process sure to last a while for the league as a whole.