CHOKING BACK TEARS, Doc Rivers put the horrible day in perspective.
“We’re all Lakers today,” Rivers said Sunday.
His comment came hours after that cruel real world had invaded our little sports hideaway: Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, were killed in a helicopter crash.
The whole thing seemed unreal.
A day later, as this was being written, it still does.
A comparison, in terms of numbness, anyway, was something that happened four decades ago, when Thurman Munson died during the season when he crashed his own plane. Munson was huge in New York and the Yankees were in the middle of the season when they buried their catcher and captain.
Munson was NOT Kobe Bryant.
Kobe Bryant was one of those athletes whose aura was so much bigger than anyone else in his sport. He is one of two NBA players to play 20 years with one team. He won five championships, two gold medals. He scored 81 points in a game and 60 in his final game.
His presence lit up a room and he was using his post-career life — he was only 41 when he died — to do so many other things. Heck, he won an Academy Award for an animated film. He pushed the cause of girls and women in sports and Gigi was, like her dad, a sponge trying to soak up as much as she could playing the sport.
The stunning news came on a day the NBA had eight games scheduled. The league decided to play. The teams took either 24- or 8-second violations on their first possessions in a moving tribute.
I got a Facebook message from Tommy John Monday that said Yankee players voted to play because that’s the way Munson would have wanted it, that the catcher would be ticked if they didn’t. “Sounds to me like Kobe is the same,” TJ wrote.
It seemed like the world was numb. Not just sports fans. The world. Kobe was just bigger. As the great Jerry West, who brought Bryant from Charlotte to L.A. after the Hornets had drafted the 17-year-old Kobe said, Bryant’s influence wasn’t only an L.A. thing. He was one of the most influential people in the world.
I’ve always felt Muhammad Ali could walk around anywhere in the world and be recognized. Kobe Bryant was another of those special people.
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” Barack Obama said in one of the thousands of social media posts that dominated the day. “To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.”
And Yahoo’s Zach Schwartz tweeted Monday: “Bought flowers to bring to Staples Center. When the florist saw that I wanted purple and yellow she asked, ‘for Kobe?’ I nodded. When she finished I asked what I owed her. she shook her head, handed me the flowers and said ‘it’s L.A’. I almost cried. L.A.’s love for Kobe is powerful.”
Kobe was 1-1 against the Celtics in the NBA Finals. He averaged 27.2 points per game in 13 Finals games against Boston. In 31 regular season games, 27 starts, Bryant averaged 25.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game.
He was booed in Boston. He was cheered wildly leaving the floor after his final TD Garden game. He was the enemy — and opposing greatness gets booed, especially in places like New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
The Celtics worked him out and even though he was a Lakers fan, he talked about how special his workout in Boston had gone. The Celtics picked sixth and took Antoine Walker. The Hornets grabbed the teenager at No. 13.
“I was blessed enough to meet Kobe at a young age when I was in high school,” said Kemba Walker, who, like Antoine Walker, wears No. 8 — one of the two numbers Kobe has retired at Staples Center.
“My high school, we were actually a Kobe team. Just to see him, his presence, had an impact on me. You just always knew how hard he worked. That was the biggest thing for me, his work ethic and his mentality about the game. That is what has inspired me the most, personally.”
If you missed it, Kyrie Irving, who was close with Kobe, was so devastated by the news that he left Madison Square Garden shortly before the Nets game with the Knicks. In a 2017 ESPN interview, Irving said, “I have an unbelievable mentorship, friendship with him.”
Saturday night in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown, LeBron James passed Kobe and moved into third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
He received a tweet from Bryant that read “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
Saturday night, James spoke of Bryant in a post-game interview that sounded like it could have taken place AFTER the tragedy. It was almost eulogy-like.
“I’m just happy to be in any conversation with Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time greats to ever play,” said James, who had “Mamba4Life” written on his shoes as he completed his chase of Bryant.
“There’s just too much. The story is just too much,” James said. “The story doesn’t make sense. Make a long story short, now I’m here in a Lakers uniform, in Philadelphia where he’s from.”
Too much? Sunday it became too much.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban became the first to announce Bryant’s No. 24 would be retired by his team. Considering the circumstances of the death, expect more — perhaps the entire league? — to follow.
As the talk of Mookie Betts being traded (L.A.? San Diego?) seemed far less important as Sunday wore on, we learned junior college baseball coach John Altobelli, former skipper of the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod Baseball League, was killed in the crash. His son, J.J., is a Red Sox scout.
Head of baseball ops Chaim Bloom released a statement Monday that read: “The Red Sox are devastated by the news of yesterday’s tragic helicopter crash in Southern California. We are heartbroken for the victims and their families, including John Altobelli, father of Red Sox scout J.J. Altobelli, John’s wife Keri, and their daughter Alyssa. John touched so many lives in his 27 years coaching at Orange Coast College, and we join the entire baseball community in mourning him.”
The Sox and their foundation will provide financial support for the Altobelli family and the release also pointed to a GoFundMe page for others to contribute.