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No visiting player — not Michael Jordan, not Allen Iverson, not even Stephen Curry — brought the buzz to a Toronto Raptors game that Kobe Bryant did during his 20-year NBA career. When Kobe’s Lakers were in town — only 16 times in all, since he played in the other conference — the stands were always dotted with hundreds of Kobe jerseys and his every move was often cheered.
Bryant died in tragic circumstances in a helicopter crash on Sunday morning, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, herself a budding basketball star, and reportedly seven others. They were reportedly on the way to a nearby hoops practice. Bryant had famously travelled by helicopter to games and practices at Staples Center while a player for years in order to get around the notorious Los Angeles traffic.
It’s a where were you moment. Like when Princess Diana perished in 1997, or at least for Canadian sports fans, when Roy Halladay’s plane went down in 2017.
Bryant idolized and patterned himself in both game and mannerisms after Michael Jordan and then became that same type of Jordan figure to a whole new generation of players who revered him, along with countless fans.
“He was like a little brother to me,” Jordan said in a statement on Sunday.
“The sad part about today is he was the one everyone looked up to especially this generation of players,” added Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce.
“To see the way he was coming out of retirement in playing to being just a leader of people, WNBA, AAU programs, children’s books. We lost a leader.”
Bryant had spoken about youngsters looking up to him just a few years ago while in Toronto. “Been in NBA for half my life. When I first started playing the other all-stars were my kids’ age,” Bryant had said.
“Feels good to speak to them and share my knowledge and carry on the tradition of the NBA.”
The tradition of the NBA will always include a large helping of Kobe Bryant highlights. Bryant played all 20 of his seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and retired in 2016 as the NBA’s third-leading scorer and a five-time champion, winning a pair of NBA Finals MVP awards. He was an 18-time all-star and made the All-NBA first team 11 times and was one of the world’s most recognizable faces over the past two decades.
In a weird coincidence, new Lakers star LeBron James passed Bryant in scoring on Saturday night in Bryant’s native Philadelphia and went on a lengthy post-game monologue tracing his long relationship with Bryant and praising his legacy. Hours later, Bryant was gone.
Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and his other three daughters. TMZ reported a fire broke out on board and there were reports of the engine sputtering before the crash.
The son of former NBA player Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, Kobe, also known as The Black Mamba and Bean, entered the league straight from Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia and also grew up in Italy, after his father had left to play in Europe, but moved back to the U.S. in 1991. He orchestrated a trade to the Lakers, his favourite team as a child, at the 1996 draft, after Charlotte selected him 13th overall. Bryant would team with marquee free agent signing Shaquille O’Neal and turn the Lakers into a powerhouse and by the turn of the Millennium, one of the most imposing dynasties in NBA history. The Lakers won three straight titles, and then two more after Shaq left and Bryant became the team’s undisputed top player (in 2009 and 2010).
Bryant had some history with Toronto. He averaged 26.6 points — only six have averaged more — in those 16 visits, starting with an inauspicious 10 in 17 minutes as an 18-year-old playing just his fourth career game back in 1996. There was a 46-point clinic in 2008, a 40-piece in 2000 and a 27-point, 16 rebound, nine assist gem in 2010, amongst others.
Bryant also made his 18th, and final, all-star appearance at Toronto in 2016, where he shone brightest even amongst all of the NBA’s superstars. Once again, Bryant was feted like a returning king. In a bittersweet moment, Gianna rebounded for her father before the game and sat with her sisters and mother during the proceedings.
“They were sitting right behind the bench, so I was talking to them virtually the whole game,” Bryant said at the time. “They’ve enjoyed this as much as I have, coming to these arenas.”
Another of Bryant’s biggest moments also had a Toronto connection. Who could forget the day in 2006 when Bryant put a hurting on the Raptors. On that winter day, with the Lakers down big, he got as hot as just about any player ever has, finishing with 81 points in a victory. Only Wilt Chamberlain has ever scored more in a game. The historic performance was later immortalized in classic fashion in a commercial that had Bryant running into ex- Raptor Jalen Rose, who spent some time guarding him, unsuccessfully, that day. Bryant orders a martini and when asked how many olives he wanted in the drink, he deadpans: “81,” stunning Rose.
Bryant shot better against the Raptors (.471 from the field) than against any other club and the 27.2 points he managed against the team where his third-highest marks.
As a player, Bryant was immensely successful, but was also polarizing because of his one-man army style of offensive ruthlessness and his lack of efficiency.
Former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told a funny Bryant story speaking to his competitiveness and confidence after Bryant’s final game in Toronto.
In his first all-star appearance, a still teenaged Bryant waved the league’s MVP out of the post so that he could run an isolation play.
“Karl Malone yelled over to (West head coach George Karl), ‘George, get me out of here,’ some choice words. ‘I can’t play with these young guys.’ That’s how much (swagger) Kobe had at the time,” Casey, a part of Karl’s coaching staff, recalled.
“At the time. It was just the fact that he had so much confidence that even with all of these old players around, he cleared them out so he could go ISO on somebody. It wasn’t too long, after those first few years, that he gained confidence and could back it up.”
His legion of supporters would not hear of any criticism of his game though. His relationship with O’Neal was an up-and-down one at times, but Shaq mourned the loss of his “brother” and “niece” on Sunday.
Off the court, Bryant’s legacy will always be marred somewhat by whatever happened in Colorado back in 2003. He was charged with sexual assault, but the charges were eventually dropped and a civil suit was settled out of court.
Bryant would later become one of the strongest advocates for women’s sports, especially the WNBA, a supporter of many charities, a filmmaker and an author.
A complicated, unforgettable figure.
And one gone far too soon.
Everyone had something to say about Kobe Bryant over the years, including the man himself. Here are some quotes from recent years that stood out from games we covered:
Bryant in 2016 at Toronto on why he was so fundamentally sound:
“I grew up around so much structure (in Italy). I didn’t start playing pick-up basketball until I came back to the States when I was 14 years old. Everything was very structured, very fundamental. Moving without the ball, setting screens the right way. All the basics.”
On how he wanted to be remembered:
“As a person who worked extremely hard every single day, who left it all out there. That’s the most important thing. It has nothing to do with talent, it has nothing to do with the championships. It has everything to do with working hard every single day, leaving no stone unturned. If you can look yourself in the mirror and say that you’ve done that. You should be happy and be proud of yourself.”
Bryant on where his 81-point game against the Raptors ranked:
“It’s right up there. I think the moment of the game was more special, not just from a basketball standpoint but from a family standpoint. It was my grandfather’s birthday who had passed away recently. My grandmother, who doesn’t like coming to the games because it makes her so nervous, flew out to LA and watched me play. So from a personal standpoint, that game has a tremendous amount of value, aside from what took place on the court.”
Bryant on what was next for him after he retired and how to fill the void of not playing basketball:
“With my passion. That’s the hard part about it. It took me about 15 years to figure out what the next step is. But I’m very excited about it and I’m extremely passionate about it and focussed on it. That is the hard challenge for athletes, to figure out what comes next, because basketball or sports or whatever it is, comes so easy, right. You’re born and this is what you do from a young age and it’s hard to figure out what the next thing is. But I’ll be fine.”
Bryant on his style not appealing to everyone:
“I think it’s that I play with a chip on my shoulder, man. I didn’t care who was out there in front of me. My job was to make your night absolutely miserable. And that was my mindset. I came out to destroy you. With me it was going to be a very long night, physically, emotionally. I think fans could sense that, competitors could sense that and it’s notA a very likeable characteristic to have. But I found comfort it in it. I think that’s why. It’s not so much that people didn’t like it, it’s that I liked the fact that I didn’t like it.”
Ex-Raptor Terrence Ross on playing Bryant for the first time:
“It was my rookie year. We played him in L.A. I didn’t play that game but it was kind of like a front seat to the Lakers show. He killed us, he killed us bad. He hit a couple threes in clutch moments, he dunked to take it into overtime so I was like, “This is like vintage Kobe. And I remember my mom was sittingA courtside and she was looking me the whole time, like, ‘This is bad for ‘y’all’. But it was fun, IA enjoyed it.”
Ex-Raptors coach Dwane Casey on where Bryant ranked in terms of hardest players to design a defence against:
“He’s one of the tops. Just because he could score. Not only that, but you had to worry about him defensively. He was a roamer defensively. He was a one-man zone. He knew exactly what you were going to do, how he was going to impact the play. Defensively, he could do so much: he could do so much. He could play outside. He could play inside. Pick-and-roll. At the end of the game, they always go to the 52. They would trash the triangle and start going to Kobe. You knew you were in trouble then. That was kind of a hard thing to design a defence for, because he could do so many things.”
“In his younger days, when he got to the baseline, it was death.
It was death when he got down there. He and Michael (Jordan) … both of them had that killer, laser-like mode, vision, focus. Both of them brought their team up. They were so much alike it was scary, the thing with the tongue and the whole nine yards at that time.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich at all-star weekend in Toronto in 2016:
“You remember all the struggles against him and all the competitiveness and you respect him so much for bringing it night after night after night.”
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