OKLAHOMA CITY – As he shook some talcum powder on his hands and dabbed his eyes with the sleeve of his warmup shirt, Tim Hardaway Jr. was like all the other players and coaches Monday night in the NBA.
They still were in disbelief and that Kobe Bryant is no longer with us. The basketball world will never be the same and that much was evident in the mood, especially in the early moments of the Mavericks’ first game since Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Sunday near Los Angeles.
It hit Luka Doncic as hard as anybody. He’d met with Kobe and his daughter in late December in a game in LA. It was a heartfelt meeting that left a strong impression on the 20-year-old Doncic.
And it bubbled over in the first quarter when Doncic went to the bench to rest for the first time.
““It was very emotional,” the second-year point guard said after the Mavericks beat Oklahoma City 107-97. “I broke down after the first quarter. That’s when it really hit me. It was really hard to play tonight.
“You got to appreciate every day being on the planet. No words. We’re going to miss him and Gigi. Him and LeBron, I looked up to them. Talking to him after that game a month ago, it was really special.”
The Mavericks continued to grieve in their own way on Monday. Most of them had messages on their shoes.
The game against Oklahoma City started with the Mavericks winning the tap, then taking an 8-second backcourt violation. OKC then inbounded and took a 24-second shot-clock violation. Those numbers, 8 and 24, were worn by Bryant during his NBA career.
Proprietor Mark Cuban was seated courtside before the game and was asked about the Mavericks’ decision to never have a player wear No. 24 again.
Cuban said he consulted with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and others before making the decision.
Cuban also said that decision would not impact any decision in the future about retiring the No. 24 jersey of Mark Aguirre, should the franchise ever decide to do so.
Bryant’s No. 24 will not hang in the rafters. It just won’t be worn anymore.
The players, meanwhile, had a tough time dealing with the sports world’s loss.
Hardaway, who like Doncic had a good night against the Thunder, summed up most players’ thoughts about Bryant very well.
“It was a tough one,” he said. “He was an iconic figure. That just goes to show: never take anything for granted. For it to happen to somebody like him, a role model, a father, a husband, a living legend. It’s heartbreaking, heart-wrenching. I’m just happy that people were able to compete for him.”
As for getting a little teary-eyed in the pregame tributes, Hardaway said: “Once the national anthem starts, you start thinking about things. My dad played against him. When I was older and able to pick up the game of basketball in the early 2000s, Kobe was like Michael Jordan for our generation. So there were a lot of heavy hearts. We went out and competed for him, because I know that’s what he would want.”
Rick Carlisle said he was proud of the way his team handled the emotional night and stuck together throughout.
He also said he chose to remember the moments with Bryant rather than the way his life ended so tragically.
“We competed directly with him and the Lakers on our (championship) run in 2011,” Carlisle said. “I’ve seen four or five people on the basketball court that strike fear, just by looking in their eyes. He was one of those people.
“When we got up 3-0 in that series and I saw his press conference after game 3 and he sat there and said, ‘Call me crazy, but I actually think we’re going to win this series.’ If you think I got any sleep that night, you’re crazy. Of course his teammates were pretty much cooked, but he showed up in Game 4 and played like a champion like he always did. It was just part of his drive.”
Carlisle said he and most of the Mavericks players were in the team’s meal room at their OKC hotel when news broke of the tragedy. Everybody’s cell phone seemed to buzz at once.
“Everybody simultaneously said, ‘Nah, this can’t be right. There’s no way,’ “ Carlisle said. “And then of course we found out. Yesterday was very difficult for everyone in the NBA family. It’s an unfathomable loss. You’re talking about a guy who was a cultural icon, one of the greatest athletes to ever play in any sport.”
J.J. Barea is the Mavericks’ senior player and while he was only six years younger than Bryant, he looked up to him both when he was growing up and as a player against the legen.
“It was a tough two days,” Barea said. “You think it’s never going to happen and it happens. It was tough for everybody, one of the toughest days I’ve ever had in the NBA.
“I know him pretty good. Amazing battles. The last time I saw him, he was with his daughter and he looked so happy. It’s tough.. You just got to pray for the family and then I think you got to celebrate how great he was and how good of a person he was.
“He was my favorite player, by far. It was Jordan when I was little, but when basketball got real for me, Kobe was my No. 1 favorite.”
It was that way for a lot of current NBA players and fans.