MINNEAPOLIS - Emotions were still very raw and the atmosphere felt uncertain as the Minnesota Timberwolves held shoot-around Monday morning at Mayo Clinic Square, less than 24 hours after the sudden and shocking death of Kobe Bryant.
The Timberwolves are set to host the Sacramento Kings Monday night at Target Center, which almost seems secondary after the NBA lost one of its legendary players over the weekend. Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people killed when a helicopter crashed in California late Sunday morning.
Bryant was taking his daughter to a basketball game when the crash happened. He had a helicopter to avoid California traffic, and be able to do his job more efficiently to spend more time with his family.
Wolves star Karl-Anthony Towns was with teammate Andrew Wiggins on Sunday when they got the news. Towns posted on social media "I'm numb" in his immediate reaction to Bryant's passing.
“He was my childhood. Watching him, seeing him make his moves, I wanted to take those last second shots because of him in that moment, the pressure moments. It was surreal yesterday to see the news,” Towns said.
Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders called it a moment, whether you’re a basketball fan or not, that you’ll remember where you are when you got the news that Bryant had died. One of the last times Saunders saw Bryant was in October 2015, just days after Flip Saunders died of cancer. Bryant and the Lakers were the opponent, and he stood at the free throw line at Target Center, watching a tribute for the former Wolves coach with a Flip shirt on.
Ryan Saunders, fighting tears Monday, was still trying to process that Bryant is gone. That, and they still have a game to play Monday night.
“I remember seeing him at the free throw line during the national anthem wearing a Flip shirt. "Him paying tribute, it’s hard to wrap my head around with everything,” Saunders said. “I know with these guys, we try to be as business as usual because as competitors, as the competitor that Kobe was, that’s what he’d say. You’ve got to compete. But it affects all of us greatly.”
Bryant has a laundry list of NBA accomplishments. He won five NBA titles, went to the All-Star Game 18 of his 20 seasons in the league and up until Saturday, was No. 3 in the NBA in career scoring. LeBron James, now with the Lakers, passed him this weekend. Bryant spent his entire 20-year career with the Lakers.
Bryant has two Olympic gold medals. He scored 40 or more points in a game 121 times. He scored 81 points in one game, and in his final NBA game, went off for 60 points. A dozen times, Bryant was named to the NBA's All-Defensive Team. He wouldn’t let anything get in the way of winning.
Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton, while trying to get his team ready to face the Wolves Monday night, was riding an emotional rollercoaster in the 24 hours that's followed since tragey involving Bryant, his daughter and seven others unfolded.
“Shock, denial, all those things that we use to deal with really sad news. Been one of the harder times in my life, the last 24 hours. Kobe was a friend, a teammate, most importantly a father. That’s what was most important to him, the love he had for his family and his daughters,” Walton said. “It’s heartbreaking and it’s tough to deal with. The basketball world, we lost one of our greats and I don’t just mean that by what he did on the court. Just the way he lived his life. Every day, he got the most out of it.”
Wolves forward Robert Covington said he was sleeping Sunday and woke up to an alert on his phone from Bleacher Report about Bryant’s death. He thought he was having a bad dream, still trying to wake up, when his life changed forever.
“It was just one of those things like hold on, wait a minute, what? As you’re seeing all the stuff that’s going on, you don’t know what to feel. One of the icons that changed the game forever, being taken out of this world so early, it’s very heartbreaking,” Covington said. “It changed my whole mood. I couldn’t find the energy to do anything. I didn’t want to believe, I still don’t, but it’s a thing.”
Despite one of the more tragic days in NBA history, eight games went on as scheduled. Every game featured a tribute of some sort to Bryant.
Some teams traded off 24-second violations to start their games, honoring Bryant’s No. 24 jersey. Others sat with the ball in the backcourt, committing an eight second violation to honor his No. 8. Austin Rivers couldn’t hold back tears in game, while Trae Young made a half-court buzzer beater, then pointed to the sky to salute Bryant.
Wolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas said the Wolves and Kings have plans to pay tribute to Bryant, though he did not get into specifics on Monday. Rosas, like players and coaches, was still visibly shaken and fighting emotions talking about Bryant’s death.
“The NBA is a family and any time you have a loss, a tragic loss of this nature, you talk about just from the human aspect of it. There’s a wife who lost her husband, lost her daughter. Three daughters who lost their father, lost their sister and that affects all of us,” Rosas said. “You become your family because you spend more time around this group than anybody. The legend that he is, what he meant to this game really leaves a hole for our NBA family.”
In the hours following Bryan’s death, basketball fans flocked to Staples Center to mourn together and put a memorial up. Towns, who is originally from the East Coast but spends time in L.A. during the off-season, said Monday Bryant is L.A. and you can’t think of the Staples Center without thinking of him.
Bryant was the ultimate competitor, and his will to win separated himself from most others if they were lucky enough to have similar skills.
“His legacy now will live on now, not just because of the five rings, the 18 All-Stars, two Olympic gold medals, that’s something that I know he takes a lot of pride in. But I know that his legacy will be felt because of all of us who, Kobe did the one thing that all of us as athletes hope our legacy does. He made us all feel a certain way when he was on the court, when his presence was in the room or in the building. His presence, he made you feel it,” Towns said. “I think that’s what his legacy is going to be, he made us all feel that anything was possible. That’s why he’s going to be forever a legend.”
Emotions will be flowing when the Kings and Wolves take the floor at Target Center Monday night. An NBA legend is gone, and way too soon, but the game must go on.
“He would want us out here playing, he’d want us out here competing at the highest level. That’s to me the best way we can honor him, to play and leave it all out there on the court like he did every single day,” Walton said.