"Rival." "Friend." "Inspiration." Those were some of the words used to describe late basketball great Kobe Bryant during the Celtics' tribute video before Thursday’s 119-104 win against the Golden State Warriors.
It is difficult to put into words the impact of the 20-year career and 41-year life of the former Los Angeles Laker that was cut short by a tragic helicopter crash Sunday that also killed eight others, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
If anyone can attempt to describe Bryant’s impact, though, it’s the Boston Celtics. The Celtics-Lakers rivalry, which spans six decades, handed Bryant some of his highest and lowest career moments — from the 2008 loss to the Paul Pierce-led team to his fifth and final NBA title in 2010.
While Bryant's presence was certainly felt in Boston during his career, his influence was still prevalent years after his 2016 retirement, including on the current Celtics' team, whose roster includes several players who were not yet born when Bryant was drafted to the NBA in 1996.
"I don't know if there's a right way or a wrong way to handle anything," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said before Thursday's game, Boston's first home game since the tragic crash. "Everybody was obviously, around the league, players, staff, fans, even, I guess, fans who don't follow it, they are obviously really impacted. It's a tragedy, and our guys were impacted, in large part because not only do they play the game, but they looked up to Kobe, and also in a lot of cases, had personal relationships with him, and you know, just really hard stuff all the way around."
One player in particular who has had close ties to Bryant is Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who was named an All-Star for the first time in his young career Thursday night. Tatum has made it clear that Bryant was the inspiration behind him picking up a basketball for the first time. Other than Bryant's family and former teammates, Tatum may have taken the loss the hardest.
"Everybody knows how much he meant to me," Tatum said when he spoke for the first time since Bryant's death. "He was somebody I looked up to and really was like my hero, the reason I started playing basketball, to becoming a friend and mentor, somebody I could talk to and help me out with a bunch of things on and off the court. It's been a tough couple of days."
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The new All-Star had the chance of a lifetime in 2018, when Bryant took him under his wing and worked out with him during the summer, shortly after the Celtics narrowly missed another trip to the NBA Finals.
"It was such a surreal moment for me, being in his presence and being able to work with him," he said. "Even in that moment, all I could think about was he was the reason that I started playing basketball, and to have him reach out to me and try to help and want to work with me, that's something I'll never forget."
When Bryant called it a career, he was rightfully given a farewell tour during the 2015-16 season. During that tour came his last-ever stop at TD Garden in December 2015.
The sole Celtics player currently on the roster that also played in Bryant's last game in Boston is guard Marcus Smart. What he remembers most from that night was how excited yet nervous he was to guard him.
"For me it was, 'This is Kobe!,'" Smart said of what was going through his mind that night. "The fact that I'm on the court with him, to watch him this close and even have the opportunity to guard him for a stint, I'm not [going to] lie, I was shaking in my shoes. I'm a great defender, but you can't guard that guy. It was incredible."
Following the win against the Warriors, Smart expressed what everyone has been saying to themselves since Sunday: "This is sad."
"I know myself and the NBA community is really mourning this, and it hurts," he said. "We all grew up watching Kobe, and he lit the pathway to believe in ourselves and to go out there and understand that we have a blessing, a gift and a craft, and we need to hone it and do everything we can to take full advantage of it. For us, Kobe was everything."
During the last minutes of Thursday's game, "Kobe!" chants rang out at the Garden, capping off a long, emotional week.
"We still are managing our emotions," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said, "and we will be for quite some time."