LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Clippers returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since Kobe Bryant’s death, many still numb and struggling to comprehend his sudden loss.
The scoreboard at their training facility posted Bryant’s jersey numbers with the rival Lakers — 8 and 24. There was none of the usual joking and hollering that marks the end of most practices.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Leonard said. “It seems like you’re in a movie or something. It’s still surreal to me.”
Leonard, who lives near Staples Center, has witnessed the city’s daily outpouring of affection for Bryant at the plaza across from the arena. Adults and children wearing Bryant jerseys, shoes and T-shirts, pets being toted to view the candles and handwritten tributes.
“It’s sad every day,” Leonard said.
Lou Williams said, “I cried myself to sleep last night.”
The Clippers host Sacramento on Thursday night in their second game since Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash Sunday. They won at Orlando hours after learning of the accident that also took the lives of Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.
“Near the end of the game Kawhi told the team, ‘Hey listen, Kobe was a winner. We’re not losing tonight,'” coach Doc Rivers recalled. “That kind of got us through the night.”
Getting through the last few days hasn’t been any easier. The team took Monday off and their game against the Lakers on Tuesday was postponed by the NBA. They have been grieving via text message when they aren’t together.
“It just feels like other than us and the Lakers, everyone is still doing their jobs,” River said. “We’re not and so we got to figure out how to get through this and do our job. That will be the toughest part.”
Bryant’s death has impacted Clippers superstars Leonard and Paul George differently than some others because they grew up in the Los Angeles area watching Bryant win five NBA championships while spending his entire 20-year career with the Lakers.
“He was MJ, he was our hero, he was our G.O.A.T.,” Leonard said, referring to Michael Jordan and the acronym for greatest of all time. “It’s just going to hit different for us.”
Rivers recalled one of his favorite memories of Bryant came in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals. Rivers was coaching the Boston Celtics, who had the elimination game well in hand in the fourth quarter. But Bryant was still on the floor for the Lakers, so Rivers kept his starters in.
“Clearly we were going to win, but you were scared because he was still on the floor,” Rivers said. “I shared that with Kobe and he laughed. He actually said, ‘I thought we still could have got it done.’”
The Celtics clinched the championship with a 39-point victory.
When he was in Boston, Rivers and his staff would spend hours game-planning against Bryant and the Lakers, trying to figure out Bryant’s mindset for a given game. Many nights they figured wrong.
“What I loved about him is that when you did get it right, he would tell you,” Rivers said. “He would look over at us and he would give us a nod or say, ‘You guys got me tonight, I’ll be back tomorrow night.'”
Like Bryant, Williams was drafted out of high school by Bryant’s hometown Philadelphia 76ers. He played with Bryant on the Lakers from 2015-17. They once had a conversation in which Williams called Bryant’s bluff on his reputation as a ruthless competitor.
“You want people to think you’re a jerk, but you’re one of the nicest guys in the world, like that’s how you want to be remembered when you’re done playing,” Williams told Bryant. “You want everybody to think you was this (expletive) competitor and just a jerk to everybody. But that’s not your nature. You’re forcing your mean on everybody else.”
Bryant replied with an expletive, cracking up Williams.
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