CHICAGO – From the scene outside the stadium to the pregame festivities and the first possession for each club, it was obvious that Monday was far from a normal night of NBA basketball.
The memory of Kobe Bryant was on the Bulls along with the Spurs when they took the United Center court about 30 hours after the news that the NBA legend along with his daughter perished in a helicopter crash. They walked into the building to see Bryant’s picture in the windows and electronic boards outside the stadium along with messages written in chalk to Bryant on the sidewalks.
A nearly two-minute tribute, including a 24-second moment of silence, preceded the contest, then each team decided to commit a violation on their first possession that represented his numbers. The Bulls took an eight-second backcourt violation, then the Spurs took a 24-second violation immediately after that.
“I was speechless with the whole situation, for Kobe, his daughter, and everyone else that was also on that helicopter,” said Bulls guard Kris Dunn on the death of Bryant and the opening ceremonies. “It’s hard to put into words; devastating, you don’t want that to happen to nobody.”
But a game had to be played, just like around the NBA, and just like many other players it was a different feel at least at the start to the contest at the United Center. Things were a bit sluggish in the beginning for both the Bulls and the Spurs, especially the man who wore Bryant’s No. 8 jersey.
Zach LaVine was enduring one of his worst games of the new year through three quarters, scoring just nine points on 3-of-14 shooting from the floor as the Bulls trailed by ten entering the fourth quarter.
“Due to the circumstances, it was just a bit heavier. I think everybody understands why. Like I was telling the coaches and the team, I don’t think he would like anybody not to go out there and compete or mourn too much because he was the ultimate competitor,” said LaVine when asked if this game felt different due to Bryant’s death. ” So we had to settle in and get it right.”
LaVine would in the fourth when he finally found his scoring touch, hitting four-of-his eight shots in the quarter to ignite a Bulls’ rally and provide a memorable moment for himself. Fouled driving to the hoop with two seconds left, LaVine would knock down a pair of free throws, the last of which proved to be the game-winner when DeMar DeRozen missed the second of his two charity stripe shots with .2 left to go.
No. 8 getting the win on a night to honor a legend who wore the same number was certainly fitting for LaVine, who extended his 20-point game streak to 15 as he finished the night with 23.
“The reason I wear it is probably because of Kobe,” said LaVine. “I started off the game wearing some purple shoes. I didn’t even like the shoes but I had to bring out something for him, at least. But it was good. The game started off slow, but I was glad I was able to help us get a win.”
On a night where so much more than a result was on the mind of those on the court and in the stands.