For both Raptors and Spurs, Kobe Bryant’s influence was indelible

Matt Devlin and Leo Rautins look at the individual relationships Kobe Bryant built with players across multiple teams, countries, and generations.

Before a single shot was made, before a win or loss was in sight, both the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs played out two of their most meaningful possessions of the season.

On their first ones, Toronto dribbled out the shot clock and San Antonio did the same, a pair of 24-second violations in honour of the NBA’s greatest No. 24, the late Kobe Bryant.

Bryant died in a helicopter crash earlier today along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others whose names have not been identified at this time. They were reportedly on their way to a basketball game at the time of the crash. Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and three daughters, Natalia, Bianka and Capri.

For all the magic that exists in words, there’s no combination of them that can soften sentences like those or capture the hurt beneath them. ‘Tragic’ doesn’t scratch the surface. ‘Unbelievable’ is too obvious because, of course, no one would have believed this possible. ‘Devastating’ comes up short.

Most words do come up short, though, when considering Bryant. He was a man who spent 20 years relentlessly working to bend basketball games to his will. He was a father and a husband. He was imperfect — as we all are — and he was unfinished, as we all hope to be. He was a star who burned with enough fervour to stand out in a Los Angeles sky that is no stranger to the bright lights of greatness.

The boundless impact Bryant had, not only on Los Angeles but on the NBA as a whole, shone through in every moment of Sunday’s Spurs-Raptors game.

It was in Kyle Lowry‘s face as he took to the court for warm-ups, his eyes wearing all the weight that comes with losses like this.

It was in the heavy hugs shared between DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and Lowry shortly after a moment of silence was held in Bryant’s memory.

It was in Tim Duncan’s face, too, during the Spurs’ and Raptors’ first-possession tribute, when the oft-stoic NBA legend — who, after spending the best years of his career in playoff battles against Bryant’s Lakers, was eligible to enter the Hall of Fame alongside him in September — shed tears on San Antonio’s bench.

And it was in the on-court performances of the Spurs and Raptors themselves, playing through the pain and grief.

“You could imagine how hard it is to do your job at that point,” Marc Gasol told reporters after the game. “Because you’re not thinking about work, you’re not thinking about your profession, you’re not thinking about points or anything like that. You’re thinking about life and what’s really important, the bare necessities for you as a human being and how fragile [all that is], and how all that can be gone in a split second.”

Pascal Siakam channelled his inner Black Mamba early, looking like he was gunning for an 81-point night — dropping 20 of the Raptors’ first 26 points en route to setting a franchise record with 25 in a quarter — giving Toronto a 37-21 lead heading into the second.

That momentum slowed as the game went on, though. Derrick White raced up past half-court with the clock winding down in the half and sunk a contested buzzer-beating three, cutting Toronto’s advantage to 63-51.

Whatever focus San Antonio lacked in the first quarter, it found over halftime, going on a 20-12 run to cut the Raptors’ lead to seven with 7:31 to go in the third and eventually outscoring Toronto 34-23 in the frame, setting up a back-and-forth fourth quarter.

DeRozan was quiet offensively for most of the night, but willed San Antonio to a tie heading into the final minute, scoring eight straight points for the Spurs to knot things up 105-105.

It was VanVleet, though, whose fourth-quarter heroics best echoed what Bryant once did on the basketball court. After DeRozan’s tying bucket, VanVleet nailed a three-pointer on one possession and iced the game with a pair of free-throws shortly after.

For a night when every moment was imbued with Bryant’s memory, there could be perhaps no more fitting conclusion.

As an 18-year-old, Bryant scored his first two NBA points from the free-throw line; the final point in his 81-point performance against the Raptors came from the stripe; when his Achilles’ tendon gave out and he could barely walk, he hobbled to the line and sunk both shots, tying the game for Los Angeles; the final point he needed to become the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer was a free throw, too; and in his 60-point farewell performance during his final game, the last shot he sunk in his iconic career was, again, a free throw.

When Sunday’s game ended, the Raptors won 110-106, snapping a losing streak in San Antonio that dated back to 2007. On any other day, that achievement would bring out smiles. Sunday, of course, wasn’t simply any other day. And for the players who authored this victory, the win rang hollow given all that had been lost.

“We are all in shock, we should cherish how lucky we are sometimes,” Gasol said. “We get so deep in our jobs, in our profession, about contracts, points, minutes, all-stars, that you kind of forget what’s really important in your life. And how it can all be gone in an accident. So to me, I just want to get home and kiss my kids.”

There’s an adage for times of tragedy and trauma that urges us to let the things we love be our escape. But when the thing you love is inseparably bound to your grief, relief is surely not easy to come by.

“Words can’t explain it, man,” DeRozan told reporters after the contest. “For myself, learning everything that I’ve learned basketball-wise from Kobe, what he meant to the game, the inspiration that he brought to the world. But not just that, his daughter. I’m a father. I can’t imagine something like that happening. It’s a sad, sad, very sad day.”

For DeRozan, who grew up idolizing Bryant, No. 24 was an essential part of his own basketball origin story.

Their relationship didn’t end with Bryant being a motivating ideal, of course. They played against one another when DeRozan was in high school and during the summer, and later when they both shared NBA courts, and the Lakers legend was always quick to offer advice.

“Everything I learned came from Kobe, everything,” DeRozan said. “Take Kobe away, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have the love, the profession, the drive. Everything came from Kobe.”

In his post-career, that teacher role is one that Bryant took on with enthusiasm, even holding summer camps for other NBA players to attend. After becoming NBA Champions, OG Anunoby and Powell were invited to one such camp last summer along with starry names like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

For Powell, who wears No. 24 in honour of Bryant, the experience was transformative.

“He knows everything,” Powell told Sportsnet’s Eric Smith before the season started. “I mean, he knows the game of basketball. He knows where the refs are, he knows the things he can get away with and guard in different areas in the post, on the wings. Just his IQ of the game that way is what I took away from it. …

“Him talking about how he would go about it, the breaking down of the film, the different things he would do during the games and things like that. That’s what I took away from it.”

For a generation of players, fans and coaches Bryant’s passing will be an ‘it’ moment, the one looked back upon as a dividing line: Life before ‘it,’ and life after ‘it.’ That rings true in the tone Powell spoke to reporters after Sunday’s game.

“[He meant] everything,” Powell said. “I modelled the whole mentality of being an ultimate competitor, of grinding, working day-in and day-out, sacrificing a lot of things to get to where you want to be.

“I tried to implement that in my game, the way I go about basketball, life, competing, working to be the best, maximizing God-given abilities. Just like he did.”

The past-tense in those words throws punches. The final tweet Bryant ever shared was one congratulating LeBron James on passing him on the all-time scoring list, and telling him to “continue to move the game forward.”

It was notable, not just as a marker in a historic moment, but in the way it rhymed with what he told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne in the final year of his career.

“I enjoy passing things on,” Bryant said. “…If we’re not helping the world move forward, what are we doing?”

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