SALT LAKE CITY — "Please God don’t let this be real!!"
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell’s reaction echoed the world’s as news broke that Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna had died Sunday in a helicopter crash. It was unbelievable. It was heartbreaking. But, sadly, it was very much real.
“We are shocked and saddened to learn about today’s tragedy involving Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna," the Utah Jazz said in a statement. "From the time he entered the league, Kobe was a generational talent and one of the most competitive players in the game.
"Many athletes in the NBA today grew up emulating Kobe. The impact he has made on our sport will not be forgotten. We respect his dedication to the game and unmatched work ethic. Our thoughts and prayers are with Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, their family and those close to them.”
Bryant was someone who transcended basketball. In his time, he was the NBA's most famous and polarizing player. He was adored by legions and loathed by more. Things just felt more special when Bryant was involved — each win felt bigger, each loss a bit more heartbreaking.
And he was never done making an impact on the league.
“The coolest thing about that is I wasn’t a Kobe fan growing up,” Mitchell said during the 2018 playoffs after Bryant dissected his game on his web series "Detail." "I didn’t understand how much time, and his presence, and how hard he worked on his game. Being in my first year in the league, he’s become one of my favorite players to watch, and I think that’s the coolest thing.”
Bryant had that effect on fans everywhere. He was booed because he was great and hated because he won. He was the league’s favorite villain, creating a special buzz whenever he stepped foot in any area.
His greatness, though, eventually won out. In the end, the boos had been replaced by cheers; the hate had turned to admiration and respect. So, when Sunday’s news came, tears followed.
On March 28, 2016, before Bryant played his final game in Salt Lake City, the Jazz honored him with a video detailing the complicated relationship between him and the fans in Utah.
Bryant’s legendary career kept on crossing paths with the Jazz. From his infamous four airballs in the 1997 playoffs, to meeting in the playoffs year after year after year, to his 60-point eruption in his final game — Jazz fans got to know him well.
Some might even say too well after Bryant eliminated the Deron Williams-led Jazz in three straight postseasons.
But cheering against him brought a fan base together, and Bryant retired with some fond feelings toward the hecklers in Utah.
“They were really, really tough on me, man — more so than the other crowds,” Bryant said during his final season. “They were tough. Signs when I’m shooting a free throw to literally just yelling it in my ear taking the ball out. They pissed me off so much. It was like '08 in the playoffs where I just kind of erupted after a play, talking back to the crowd because they just kept driving me.
“With that said, it’s fond memories, truly, because it was like that’s what sports should be. That kind of bantering and that kind of competition, or whatever. I’ve always loved playing here because of that.”
During his lone season as a Lakers assistant, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder and Bryant developed a close relationship as they collaborated together dissecting schemes and plays. It was two great basketball minds sharing thoughts and coming up with ideas. Bryant used the term “basketball nerds" to describe them.
I am at a loss for words..Kobe and Gianna you will never be forgotten. What a blessing to see your impact you have had in this world, Kobe. Prayers for the Bryant family. Rest In Peace, little brother and Gigi.. pic.twitter.com/x6EkJaARDD— Karl Malone (@TheDeliverer_32) January 26, 2020
“I felt like I could learn from him and was honest about that,” Snyder said in 2017. “I also felt I knew a little bit about what was going on. He respected the fact I was hungry to learn and also understood a little bit about the game.”
Snyder would even joke with Bryant about the idea of one day coaching together, knowing full well there was never going to be an interest from the legend.
“He’s got a lot better things to do,” Snyder said in 2017.
That fact makes Sunday’s news that much more painful. Bryant wasn't content with living off of his basketball career and fame. He jumped into the world of filmmaking — winning an Oscar and starting a production company. He invested the sports energy drink, Body Armor, Epic Games, and countless other brands. He had reinvented himself as a businessman.
“He’ll approach whatever endeavor he chooses with the same passion, creativity and force that he plays basketball,” Snyder said in 2017. “That was something more than his talent that I respected and appreciated.”
Those same attributes were partially why he eventually won over fans across the NBA — especially in Utah. He was fun to hate, but he was easy to respect.
"I think it's even more special because of the rivalry, because of the battles, because of the love-hate relationship between us both,” Bryant said in his final presser in Utah. “At the end, it's hard to say goodbye to that."
It was hard for him then. It’s harder for us now.
But, sadly, it’s all real.