Players, fans pay tributes

Kobe Bryant
A boy with a basketball walks past a memorial wall for former Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant following his death overnight in the US, near the “House of Kobe” gym built in honor of his 2016 visit to the Philippines. The court is located in Valenzuela City.

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - NBA players paid tribute to Kobe Bryant at Monday’s games, with the Minnesota Timberwolves recalling an iconic moment in the late superstar’s legendary 20-year career.

Bryant, a five-time NBA champion in two decades with the Los Angeles Lakers, died Sunday aged 41 in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles that claimed nine lives in all, including Bryant’s daughter Gigi.

“Kobe was a trailblazer, someone I looked up to my entire childhood wanting to be like him, wanting to hit last-second shots like him,” said Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.

In pre-game introductions, Detroit Pistons players wore jerseys with only the numbers 8 and 24, but they lacked Kobe’s magic on the court, falling to visiting Cleveland 115-100.

Games began with teams exchanging 24-second shot clock violations or eight-second violations for not advancing the ball beyond the mid-court line — an homage to 24 and 8, the two jersey numbers Bryant wore for the Lakers.

At Minneapolis, the T-Wolves put a unique spin on the idea after winning an opening tip-off against Sacramento.

Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins took the ball and placed it on the free throw line upon the very spot Bryant sank two free throws on December 14, 2014, to move past Michael Jordan and become the NBA’s number three all-time scorer.

Bryant kept that spot on the NBA career points list until just hours before his death, when he was passed by current Lakers superstar LeBron James.

Sacramento defeated Minnesota 133-129 in overtime, but just as in host Chicago’s 110-109 win over San Antonio, heartache over Bryant’s death tempered the joy of victory.

“There will never be another Kobe Bryant,” Chicago’s Zach LaVine said. “There’s only one person like that ever. He made an impact on people off the court and in basketball as well.

“Kids growing up in the 1980s, they wanted to be like Mike (Jordan). We all wanted to be like Kobe.”

Dallas won 107-97 at Oklahoma City with the host Thunder playing without forward Chris Paul. He missed his first game of the season mourning the death of Bryant, his friend and teammate on the 2008 and 2012 US Olympic gold medal squads.

At Salt Lake City, the Houston Rockets had a career-high 50 points from 12th-year veteran Eric Gordon in a 126-117 victory over Utah. But he was still struggling to wrap his thoughts around Bryant’s death.

“I’m still hurting for that,” Gordon said. “I’ve known him since I was in college. It’s a tough day for everybody.”

The Rockets were without NBA scoring leader James Harden, out with a thigh bruise, and Russell Westbrook, taking a planned rest game. Gordon led the Rockets in beating a Jazz club that had won 14 of 15 prior starts and nine in a row at home.

Utah fans applauded the game-opening Bryant tribute, one waving a sign saying, “Salt Lakers feel it too.”

“He touched so many people, truly a unique human being,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, a Lakers assistant coach guiding Bryant in the 2011-12 season.