There was no way to know an emotional and symbolic week would culminate in Kobe Bryant’s death, the biggest basketball tragedy of the year, but nothing has been the same from that third full week in January 2020.
A gut punch followed by a tsunami followed by an earthquake that still hasn’t settled one year later.
The basketball world has been in mourning for quite some time since news of a helicopter crash in California that took the lives of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others on a Sunday morning.
On a train from Philadelphia to New York City, passengers murmured to themselves as news started to spread. Strangers began gazing to one another, searching for an unspoken confirmation that their texts or online stories weren’t nasty rumors, that the story was true: Kobe Bryant was gone.
It didn’t feel real, the week was already exhausting enough, and besides, Kobe Bryant smirks in the face of death and takes a fadeaway.
The NBA has always been about the story, the mythology, and this didn’t compute.
But then again, it has felt like the entire world has been in mourning since, with a merciless pandemic taking lives, threatening the normal way of life and creating new habits that have yet to be broken — or broken in.
Normal hasn’t been “normal” since that week.
Jan. 21, 2020: David Stern’s memorial
In a gathering that didn’t feel as sorrowful as much as celebratory, NBA luminaries from all around convened that Monday at Radio City Music Hall in New York City for David Stern’s memorial.
There was no thought to a crowd like that being deemed dangerous just a few weeks later, a health hazard from an airborne virus that has yet to be tackled. The NBA needed to pay rightful homage to a legendary figure. Not a soul had a clue what was around the corner.
The former commissioner died on Jan. 1 after suffering from a brain hemorrhage weeks earlier. Stern was still spry at 77 years old, having recently addressed issues of the day in interviews and giving no signs he was nearing the end of his life.
While many in attendance were still in shock, his memorial still seemed to capture all sides of a man who helped take the NBA to new heights during his 30-year run. The speakers ran the gamut, from humorous to meandering but it all seemed fitting.
It felt proper.
Stern loved to put his stars on center stage and here he was, not only taking over the heart of Manhattan but even he couldn’t have scheduled the week better. The NBA’s newest star, Zion Williamson, was to make his debut the next night in New Orleans.
A few days later, the game’s most enduring star, LeBron James, was slated to pass Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list — in Philadelphia of all places, Bryant’s hometown.
It wasn’t a straight line of succession, per se, but the three players could cover so much NBA land if they carried the same amount of longevity. Bryant played 20 years, debuting while Michael Jordan was still in the league, and James shook Stern’s hand on the draft stage months following Jordan’s final retirement.
Jan. 22, 2020: Zion’s debut
Williamson, following a long enough wait and plenty of hype, was ready to fill the shoes of a huge need for a young marketable star. Being able to connect stars who cross paths generationally was one of Stern’s visions for his league — the ability to tell stories with very little degrees of separation.
So most of the league’s attention settled in the Bayou the very next day, a national TV game featuring the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs. Williamson missed the first 44 games following preseason knee surgery, but the league and its fans were in full lather for his debut.
No player since James had been as hyped, and it’s easy to forget how much James has delivered on such promise.
Besides, the previous day had been heavy and a breath of fresh air was necessary. Magic Johnson gave a tearful eulogy of Stern, calling him “my angel," and Williamson was a needed distraction or at least return to normalcy.
A packed house in New Orleans greeted Williamson, and even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was excited. Following a slow start, Williamson gave a glimpse to what his future could look like.
In a flash, he scored 17 straight points with a barrage of 3-pointers he hasn’t replicated since, scoring 22 overall in just 19 minutes. A brief reprieve from the sadness, Williamson showed he was worth the wait.
The overall morale felt a little more positive, the NBA story started to take its usual shape.
Jan. 25, 2020: LeBron passes Kobe in Philadelphia
James was in Philadelphia for another nationally televised game, with all the requisite hoopla his presence brings, a few days later.
James and Bryant had been linked and marketed as rivals, both by the league and Nike, although they never met in the NBA Finals. The days leading to that Saturday were tinged with some competitive regret, a dream head-to-head had never been realized despite coming close a couple of times.
A driving layup in the third quarter of a blowout loss to the 76ers was what put James over the top, past the Lakers icon, and prompted a standing ovation from the usually-cantankerous Philadelphia crowd.
James seemed moved in the moment, and spoke glowingly about his admiration for Bryant afterward. He talked about meeting him as a high-schooler, and in 2002, Bryant giving him a pair of his red, white and blue Adidas to play in.
It was hard to gauge their relationship from afar, although Bryant had done his part in embracing James as the newest Laker torch-bearer, gracious in retirement. Bryant sent out a congratulatory tweet that evening, remarked that James was “continuing to move the game forward” with the hashtag “33644”—the scoring number James passed Bryant with.
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
"The story is just too much," he said. "It doesn’t make sense. Just to make a long story short, now I’m here in a Lakers uniform in Philadelphia where he’s from, where the first time I ever met him. It’s surreal. But the universe just puts things in your life, I guess, when you’re living the right way, or just giving everything to whatever you’re doing. Things happened organically, and it’s not supposed to make sense but it just happens.”
The week felt exhausting, and over.
All-Star Weekend was around the corner, and then a sprint to the postseason.
This train was always on time, never late and never interrupted.
The calendars for players, fans and media alike seemed synchronized and the steps along the way felt like historic markers for the journey, James passing Bryant on the week Williamson debuted, on the week of Stern’s wake, felt like the circle of life doing what it does.
Nobody had any idea the pall that has overtaken life since was coming.
Little did anyone know things would change for good on a Sunday afternoon with phones buzzing, eyes gazing and hands trembling.
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