Sunday’s game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns started with two turnovers, two standing ovations and immeasurable grief at the shocking news of NBA icon Kobe Bryant’s sudden death in a helicopter crash Sunday.
After the Grizzlies won the opening tip, Ja Morant dribbled until the shot clock expired – 24 seconds, in honor of Bryant, who wore No. 24 in the second half of his career. The crowd roared at the unforced turnover. Phoenix ball.
Phoenix threw the ball into the backcourt, but never advanced it – forcing an 8-second violation, to honor the No. 8 that “The Black Mamba” wore as a younger player. The crowd roars again. Grizzlies ball.
With news breaking literally hours before an early 5 p.m. tipoff at FedExForum, the world was still shocked at the news of the fatal crash, which also tragically claimed four other lives including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
Both teams were sluggish to start, but as the game wore on, it paid tribute to Bryant in the best way possible – a high-scoring, highly competitive, down-to-the-wire thriller that the Grizzlies won, 114-109.
The game itself provided a few hours respite from the grief and shock. But afterward, of course, players were not asked many questions about the game itself.
“Gutsy win by our guys, but I’m not really in the mood to talk about the game as much,” Taylor Jenkins said after the game. “Kobe stood for so many great things—greatness, competitiveness, drive, commitment, inspired generations. So many of our young guys have been touched by what he paved the way for. There’s really no words.”
Jaren Jackson Jr. said he and his teammates were able to focus enough to get the win – which would have been Bryant’s wish.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel like (playing), to keep it 100. You’ve got to be a pro,” said Jackson, who finished with 20 points. “That’s what 2-4 (Kobe Bryant) stood for and there’s no better way to go out there and honor him than to play pro basketball and do what you love, so that’s what we did today.
Solomon Hill made poignant observations about how long-lived most NBA legends are – and the shock of having one snatched in his prime.
“It’s still something that I don’t believe in a sense, because we’re not used to this,” Hill said. “I think we’re used to, especially in the NBA, the guys getting older.
“You can look on TV and see Charles Barkley, (Shaquille O’Neal), Kenny (Smith), you see Michael Jordan on the sidelines in Charlotte, you see Magic (Johnson), you see Larry (Bird), you see those guys still around, you see Bill Russell.
“So it’s different when you take somebody so young and fresh into his retirement at a moment like this.”