LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant often frustrated San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich with the acrobatic shots he made at his expense. Bryant often inspired Popovich with his work ethic. And Bryant often made Popovich think when they talked privately about basketball.
“He was like a superhero who was actually human,” Popovich said. “There aren’t really any superheroes that are really human. But we kind of thought of him as one of those kinds of people.”
Recently, the public has also thought of Bryant as a tragic figure. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others died last week in a helicopter crash.
“The tragedy for the Bryant family and all the other people is something we all learn to live with,” said Popovich, whose wife, Erin, died two years ago. “Everybody does the best they can to get through it. I can only wish for them that process is as peaceful as possible. It’s really, really tough.”
The Lakers have handled the grieving process in various ways.
Before playing Portland last week in what marked the team’s first game at Staples Center since Bryant’s passing – following the postponement of a game against the Clippers – the Lakers honored Bryant in different ways. Usher sang “Amazing Grace,” while Ben Hong played the cello. Following a Bryant video tribute, LeBron James spoke to the crowd about the player who helped the Lakers win five NBA championships.
Since then, the Lakers have tried to return to normalcy. Lakers, Staples Center and L.A. Live officials have collected memorial items left in honor of Bryant, which have included 1,353 basketballs as well as countless Bryant memorabilia, flowers and candles. Eventually, officials plan to give the memorabilia to the Bryant family, and will convert the flowers into mulch to place around the L.A. Live and Staples Center area. The Lakers hosted the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday with normal pre-game introductions.
Nonetheless, the Lakers plan to spotlight Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 retired jerseys for the rest of the season. They have his number displayed on the sideline. And they have worn a “KB” jersey patch.
“Everybody has their situations where even if they didn’t know him at all, they feel like they did, especially the people in Los Angeles,” Popovich said. “So we all have those thoughts that pass by when you lose somebody. They just keep coming. It’ll take a while for them to stop. The better you knew him, the more you think about the times that you did have with him and the things that you talked about. He was special to all of us in different ways.”
Bryant became special for Popovich in various ways.
Bryant was an adversary, helping the Lakers defeat the Spurs in four out of seven playoff series between 1999 and 2013. Both the Lakers and Spurs each won a combined five championships in the past two decades. During that time, Bryant once said that the Spurs “forced me to raise my game to a championship level very quickly.”
Bryant was also a friend. Whenever Popovich coached Bryant on the Western Conference All-Star teams (2005, 2011, 2013, 2016), Popovich often spoke with Bryant at the end of practices about the game and each other’s families. Before Bryant’s final All-Star game in 2016, Popovich jokingly defended Bryant physically during practice warm-ups.
Nearly four years later, Popovich has spent the past week replaying countless memories of Bryant that spanned two decades. Unlike in 2016, those memories have brought more agony than joy.
“When somebody is sick for a long time and you expect it, you deal with that,” Popovich said. “But when somebody is taken the way he and his daughter and the other people were taken, that makes it a tragedy and more painful in some ways.”