NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 02: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers walks down the court against the New York Knicks on February 2, 2009 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The New York Knicks played the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday with heavy hearts after learning of Kobe Bryant’s death hours before tip-off.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—A rivalry game between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets was the last thing on anyone’s mind in Madison Square Garden on Sunday night. First and foremost, the NBA community was mourning the loss of an all-time great.

Kobe Bryant‘s inexplicable death took center stage while the Knicks and the Nets battled it out on the floor. Following the Knicks’ 110-97 win, the players were still trying to make sense of the situation.

“Thank you for being the G.O.A.T. Thank you for being the true definition of a superstar, for paving the way for guys like myself, and guys in the future to come in,” Taj Gibson apostrophized. “You left such a great mark. … No matter who you were, he would give you the same love. It feels like we just lost a superhero.”

Gibson’s reverence for Kobe is par for the course among NBA players. For a generation of players, he was the cold-blooded killer kids pretended to be in their driveways. Even after retirement, Bryant continued to influence the league by taking young guys under his wing and offering guidance.

“One of the last true G.O.A.T.s that was really around the game a lot,” Gibson said of Bryant’s legacy. “You see him with his daughter a lot. You see him around the game constantly. If you ask him a question, he’ll spend some time with you and make sure you understand what you needed to do to get better and be a better player.”

Much like Gibson, Marcus Morris Sr. grew up idolizing Kobe, but also had the opportunity to play against the Black Mamba. Morris will always remember Bryant for his insatiable need to improve himself on and off the court.

“The way he approached the game. The way he approached life. His mentality. I’ve never watched anybody just impose their will on the game like that, impose his will on life,” an emotional Morris said after the game. “Even after he retired, to have so much impact on the outside world and the players in the league. It’s a tough loss for everybody.”

Following the initial news of Kobe’s untimely passing, there were legitimate concerns about whether or not the league should cancel Sunday’s slate of games. Despite some concerns, the NBA forged ahead without canceling any games.

“Our locker room had some heavy hearts in there, but they went out and played. I would say that it was a tribute to Kobe to go out there and play the game like he would play the game,” Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller said.

A few Knicks mentioned that they were surprised that the game went on as scheduled. Playing with that kind of emotional baggage cannot be easy for anyone, but there was also a feeling among many players that Kobe would have ultimately wanted the games to continue.

“Understanding that he would want you to go out there and play hard. Go out there and lay it on the line. That’s the one thing about him all through the years when I was playing against him, he always loved to compete,” Gibson recalled.

Kobe’s legacy on the league, and more importantly, an entire generation of players will live on forever. His drive to outwork his opponents in every facet of the game is the stuff of legends and the Knicks honored his memory by playing their hearts out under difficult circumstances.

New York will travel south for a game against the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET). Just like Bryant did when he shot free throws after tearing his Achilles tendon, the Knicks and the rest of the NBA will forge ahead.

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