Niyo: Amid collective sorrow, Kobe Bryant's unwavering commitment to excellence remembered

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit  — The silence was deafening, the way it often is in times like these, when the usual emotions get swept up in a vacuum created by tragedy.

But there’s the scripted quiet, like the moment the Pistons and Cavaliers observed before Monday night’s game at Little Caesars Arena, honoring the late Kobe Bryant, an NBA icon who perished with eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in a helicopter crash Sunday near his home in California.

For 24 seconds prior to Monday’s pregame player introductions, the building fell silent, a nod to the number Bryant wore at the end of his Lakers career. And for good measure, with the arena bathed in a purple glow, the Pistons players stood in a row wearing custom Motor City edition jerseys with Bryant’s name and number — some wore his original No. 8 and others wore No. 24 — on the back.

Pistons' Thon Maker, Andre Drummond and Louis King wear Nos. 8 and 24 jerseys in memory of Kobe Bryant, who wore those two numbers  while playing in the NBA.

The video boards replayed a clip of the pregame ovation Bryant received in December 2015 when he made his last stop at The Palace of Auburn Hills. And George Blaha, the Pistons’ longtime play-by-play announcer, offered a few words about Kobe’s career, rattling off some of his remarkable achievements.

“But it’ll be his spirit, his competitive fire, his fearsome intellectual curiosity and his graciousness with those he held closest,” Blaha told the crowd, “that’ll be admired and remembered as the lasting legacy of a life well-lived.”

When the tribute was complete, the fans -- many of them wearing purple-and-gold Bryant jerseys -- did what only seemed natural, chanting “Ko-be! Ko-be!” briefly before the national anthem. It happened again later, after the Cavs won the opening tip and intentionally dribbled out the shot clock to take what PA announcer John Mason announced as a “24-second Kobe Bryant violation.” The Pistons, in turn, took an 8-second backcourt violation on the ensuing possession, a pattern that has been repeated all across the NBA in the wake of Bryant’s death. (And one that sent a teary-eyed Larry Nance Jr., who'd spent his rookie season with the Lakers in Kobe's final season, back to the locker room briefly to regain his composure.)

“I think it’s ingenious, whoever first thought of it,” said Cavs coach John Beilein, who wore a purple tie Monday along with the rest of his staff on the visitors' bench.

And he’s right, even if this script was all wrong, the way those lives were taken and families torn apart as that helicopter fell from the fog-choked sky and shook nearly everyone on the ground.

Denial phase

Among them was Arn Tellem, the Pistons’ vice chairman for whom Bryant was like another son, the one he’d represented as an agent when the precocious teenager made the leap straight from Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High School to the NBA in 1996.

“It’s unimaginable … losing Kobe,” he told Fox Sports Detroit in an emotional on-court interview before Monday’s game.

Detroit Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem breaks into tears during a pregame interview about Kobe Bryant whom he represented when Tellem was a player agent.

He went on to talk about the immeasurable pain Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, and her three surviving daughters, will feel, along with all the other families and friends of Sunday’s victims.

“They deserve all our support and our thoughts and prayers right now,” Tellem said.

And therein lies the unscripted silence, the kind that follows grief like an accomplice. The kind that fell over this league full of giants Sunday afternoon and still hung like a pall a day later.

Reggie Jackson, the Pistons’ veteran point guard, was at the team’s practice facility when he heard about the crash Sunday. Like so many of his peers, and so many of us, frankly — as his All-Star teammate Blake Griffin put it Monday, “Everybody knows who Kobe is, you know?” — Jackson said chose not to believe it at first. Even when the truth became undeniable, he could hardly begin to process it.

“I don’t think I said anything for the next 3-4 hours,” Jackson recalled Monday, still sounding like he was in a fog. “I just went home, closed the door, turned off the TV and tried to tell myself it wasn’t real.”

But reality can be all too cruel like this, and Monday’s return to work meant stepping back into the arena for players who weren’t entirely sure they were ready. In Los Angeles, Bryant’s former team met with grief counselors, then requested and received a postponement of Tuesday’s scheduled game against the crosstown rival Clippers.

Carrying on

In Detroit, though, the plan was to play on, just as half the league had done Sunday in the immediate aftermath of the breaking news that broke so many hearts.

“One thing I know he would love for our league to do is to go on, to be strong, to continue to compete and not feel sorry for ourselves or anything like that,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said after a team meeting and shootaround. “And that was my message to the players this morning. Let’s be grateful, be humble, be thankful for everything we have in this league, what he’s done for the league, and let’s continue to compete.”

And while that's not what the Pistons' coach got in a 115-100 loss Monday night —  "God rest his soul, he would be embarrassed with our compete level tonight," Casey grumbled afterward — that’s one way Kobe will be remembered, certainly.

Still, Bryant’s legacy is far more complex than that. More complicated, too, and not just because of the sexual assault allegations — and eventual settlement of a civil suit by his accuser — that shadowed him just as his career spotlight was at its brightest. Bryant’s self-described “psychotic” pursuit of individual excellence also left behind its share of emotional scars, on and off the court, and as he once said, "You can't achieve greatness by walking a straight line."

Yet he learned to wear what he dubbed his “Mamba mentality” like a suit of armor in the latter half of his career, as Bryant won two more titles in L.A. without Shaquille O’Neal, a pair of Olympic gold medals and capped it all with a remarkable 60-point night in his NBA swan song at age 37. And if that second act cemented his standing as one of a handful of the all-time greats in the game — “He was our Michael Jordan, for our generation,” Pistons center Andre Drummond said, without hesitation — what came next was an encore many didn’t quite expect.

He dived into his daughters' lives, opened a youth sports academy, and coached girls' basketball. Sunday, they were all headed to a game where Kobe would coach Gianna's team. 

But there was so much more than basketball in his "retired" life. Bryant wrote poetry, authored children’s books and even won an Academy Award a couple years ago. (“He won an Oscar before me!” laughed Spike Lee, the filmmaker and irrepressible Knicks fan, in an ESPN interview Sunday.) It was for his part in creating the animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” which was based on the letter he’d written announcing his pending retirement at the start of the 2015-16 season.

“He had his hand in so many different things,” said Griffin, who recounted the story Monday of an accidental friendship he built with Bryant — one of his idols growing up — as an NBA rookie with the L.A. Clippers. “Business-wise, he was just stepping into (his own). I obviously looked up to him as a basketball player, but just as a human, watching him to transition to that, the way he exited the game with so much grace, it was inspirational.”

Griffin’s eyes were watering at that point, his voice catching. But he still had more he wanted to say. 

“If you inspire one person, you’ve lived a positive, successful life,” he said, tilting his head back and looking skyward. “He inspired millions.”

And yet he was a father and a husband to just a handful, and that’s where the loss truly hit home for Tellem, who also shared a moment he cherished from Bryant’s final trip to Detroit, the scene of one of his most humbling defeats in the 2004 NBA Finals. The plan was for the two to catch up after that game, but just before tipoff that night, Bryant made his way into the stands to greet Tellem with a hug and thank him again for all he’d done for his career.

The two joked about Tellem’s bold decision to leave behind his work as an agent and join an NBA front office only six months earlier, and Tellem reminded his former client it’s the sort of thing Bryant had always talked about — finding new challenges, pushing yourself and embracing change. Then he pointed out Bryant was about to do just that with his playing career nearing an end.

“He gave me a hug and a kiss and he said, ‘And the next chapter is gonna be even better for me,’” Tellem recalled. “And then he ran off …”

But as he tried to finish that story, Tellem simply couldn’t go on. He dropped his head, sobbing.

The words don't come easily right now, if at all. That's why you hear so much silence around this league.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo