Wearing a No. 8 jersey to start Sunday’s emotion-packed game, Trae Young knelt down close to the free-throw line, hanging onto the ball as the Hawks gladly accepted an 8-second backcourt violation.
Later, Young intercepted a full-court pass in the paint, loped toward the mid-court logo and heaved a 42-footer at the halftime buzzer. He blew a kiss, patted his chest and pointed toward the sky after the shot went in.
Both times, Kobe Bryant (who wore No. 8 for the first half of his Lakers career) and his 13-year old daughter Gianna, who along with seven others died in a helicopter crash earlier Sunday, were in Young’s thoughts.
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“I said before we went out to our team, before we went out on the court, ‘We get two and a half hours to escape reality and have fun and play for him,’” Young said. “Play for that family. So we got to escape reality for a little bit, have fun, enjoy it and know that we had him looking over us and just enjoy that time with each other.”
Wins are hard to come by these days for the Hawks (12-35), so a 19-point blowout over the Wizards was welcome, sure. For Young, who had developed a relationship with Bryant and Gianna, it was far from the main takeaway.
And for many players, coaches and fans across the NBA, the loss of the larger-than-life Bryant, who won five championships with the Lakers, is a tough one to accept, with basketball taking a backseat.
“We didn’t have a lot on our mind besides Kobe and Gigi and everybody in the accident,” Young told Fox Sports Southeast’s Andre Aldridge in his postgame interview after his electric performance. “We just wanted to go out and play hard, have that mamba mentality.”
Gianna, a budding student of the game, was a big fan of Young’s, who attended some basketball camps of Bryant’s back in high school and watched him play in Oklahoma City in the later years of his career, when he wore No. 24 (the Wizards took a 24-second shot-clock violation to start Sunday’s game).
Bryant eventually got in contact with Young’s trainer, Alex Bazzell, and enlisted his help working with Gianna. She and Bryant sat courtside for two Hawks games this season: the loss in Los Angeles Nov. 17 and the loss in Brooklyn Dec. 21.
In the wake of the crash, Young tweeted about meeting Gianna for the first time after the Lakers game, posting a picture of the two of them about to embrace in a hallway in Staples Center as Bryant looked on.
“She told me how much she loved watching me play,” Young said of the encounter, a smile cracking through the sadness. “She was a big fan of mine.”
In Sunday’s win, Young posted a double-double of 45 points and 14 assists. Those 45 points came on 24 shots, and he shot 81% from the free-throw line (in 2006, Bryant famously scored 81 points against the Raptors, the second-highest point total in an NBA game).
Young found out about those numbers after the game, and considered it no coincidence.
“Kobe was with me tonight,” Young said.
In one of their last conversations, Bryant left Young with a message of inspiration.
“He was just telling me how much he’s seen my game progress and just been happy for me,” Young said, pausing and struggling to continue. “Just saying how proud he was of me and how he wants me to continue to be a role model for kids growing up and just for Gigi. And all the kids looking up to me, just continue to inspire these kids and continue to play my heart out.”
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