Lichtenstein: NBA Throws Up Air Ball In Playing Through Aftermath Of Kobe Tragedy

Silver Should've Rescheduled Sunday's Slate Of Games

Steve Lichtenstein
January 27, 2020 - 10:02 am

Instead of the nonstop, ear-splitting background noise that permeates arenas during NBA contests, the Madison Square Garden sound system was limited to select organ pieces at more muted tones during Sunday night’s game between the Knicks and the visiting Nets.

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It was the most somber affair of its kind I’ve ever seen.  Any pregame buzz over the meeting of the interborough rivals evaporated with the news of a helicopter crash in California that claimed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, 41, his daughter Gianna, 13, and all seven others on board.

A regular season basketball game was the last thing on the minds of everyone inside the World’s Most Famous Arena. And in millions of homes around the world.

For a league that relishes its reputation for its compassion on sensitive subjects in its player relations, the NBA surely threw up an air ball in its decision to play Sunday’s slate. All games should have been postponed.

A moment of silence is held for former Lakers great Kobe Bryant before the game between the Knicks and Nets at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 26, 2020.
Elsa/Getty Images

If you think that’s just the sour grapes of a Nets fan upset over a 110-97 defeat, those were the exact words of Knicks forward Marcus Morris in the winning postgame locker room.

Bryant, who played 20 seasons, all with the Lakers, and won five NBA championships before retiring following the 2015-16 season, was one of the league’s most revered icons. When you hear “Kobe” in any conversation in any walk of life, the surname isn’t needed to figure out the subject. He’s the NBA’s Oprah. 

Players and coaches were beside themselves upon learning of the tragedy. At the time, Nets guard Kyrie Irving was going through his pregame warmup routine.  Moments later, Irving, Bryant’s 2012 USA Olympic teammate, was given permission to head home to grieve over the loss of his friend. 

Many who did play, whether it was a former Lakers teammate like Knicks forward Julius Randle or an L.A.-bred, Kobe worshipper like Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, also had personal connections to the league’s fourth all-time leading scorer. They were unnecessarily forced to work on a day that should have been reserved for mourning. Afterward, Dinwiddie tearfully spoke of his recent interactions with his boyhood idol. Randle bolted MSG before reporters were allowed to enter the Knicks’ locker room.

Coaches throughout the league were also grief-stricken. Teams took equivalent 24-second violations on their opening possessions to honor one of Bryant’s uniform numbers. The Suns did one better in Memphis by committing an eight-second backcourt violation after the Grizzlies’ 24-count. Bryant wore No. 8 on his jersey during his first 10 seasons with the Lakers.

Back in New York, as the two teams were getting set for the opening tip, MSG announcer Mike Breen, fighting through tears, said, “I just don’t feel like broadcasting. I know a lot of players, excuse me, don’t feel like playing. It’s just a sad, sad day.”

Knicks forward Marcus Morris wrote a tribute on his shoes to Kobe Bryant.
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Images

What was the NBA thinking? Is it that hard to reschedule eight games over the next 2½ months? They do it all the time in Major League Baseball, an operation that has to deal with recurring weather postponements and a far more congested calendar.

We know the NBA is a business. However, none of the contests were on its largest television platforms — no make-good, lost-advertising money was riding on whether they aired in prime time that night. It wouldn’t have been onerous to move up the block of MSG Shorts reruns that was programmed for the later make-up date.

I’m not suggesting that every death that hits an NBA family should give rise to a postponement. The who matters. The how matters. Former Commissioner David Stern, who oversaw the league’s exponential growth into a multibillion dollar international enterprise, passed away on Jan. 1 at 77.  The moments of silence and last Tuesday’s memorial in New York attended by a legion of league luminaries was sufficient.

Bryant’s death, on the other hand, shook the league to its core. It’s front-page news. That Gianna, a budding basketball enthusiast who attended a Nets game versus Atlanta at Barclays Center with her father on Dec. 21, was also killed while travelling to attend her youth team practice made it even more sickening. 

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver often knows the pulse of the players. It’s what makes him way more respected than those who head other pro sports leagues.  He didn’t read it right Sunday.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.