"It was a tough day for everyone," Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said.
The tears flowed — Hawks point guard Trae Young was seen crying in the arms of his mother on the court following pregame warmups, and Wizards guard Bradley Beal sat on the sideline, his eyes reddened, before tip-off. Then chants from the crowd cut into the silence, and the tributes replaced any sense of normalcy.
Just before the game, the arena fell dark and Bryant's image flashed across the overhead scoreboard as the public address announcer requested a moment of silence. Soon, however, shouts of "KO-BE! KO-BE! KO-BE!" echoed throughout the space as most of the players shuffled from side to side with bowed heads.
When Young walked onto the floor for the opening tip, he tore away his warmup clothing and revealed a red No. 8 jersey — the first number Bryant wore in his NBA career. As Young took his place on the court, he pulled the collar of the jersey over his mouth while he appeared to pray. Young touched his chest, pressed his hands together and looked to the ceiling.
The Hawks won the tip and Young collected the ball, but instead of taking off down the court to start the first offensive possession of the game, he remained in a squatted position. Young intentionally did not cross halfcourt so that he could take an eight-second violation, in honor of Bryant.
Next, the Wizards made their tribute. Following the Hawks' turnover, Beal inbounded the ball to Isaiah Thomas, who held on to it to take a 24-second violation. Bryant switched to the No. 24 for the 2006-07 season and wore it until he retired in 2016.
"It was really hard at the beginning," Wizards guard Troy Brown Jr. said, "especially during the tribute stuff, the eight seconds and the 24. . . . It's just one of those things that's hard, you know."
During the 24-second tribute, Beal held his hands on his hips, then crouched down. Wizards players Ian Mahinmi and Gary Payton II applauded. Several Hawks players prompted the crowd to express their love as well.
Then, the teams played, though Thomas later spoke for several players who wanted the league to go dark on this day.
"It's bigger than basketball," Thomas said. "It's hard to even talk about it. The NBA should've just canceled all the games today, for real."
Young, who was recently named an all-star for the first time, outdueled Beal, scoring 45 points and providing 14 assists to best Beal's team highs of 40 and six. Wizards forward Isaac Bonga fractured a tooth. Guard Jordan McRae hobbled toward the Washington locker room after spraining his right ankle. Atlanta lived and thrived on dunks and threes and built a 25-point lead by the third quarter. The 152 points scored by the Hawks ranked as the second-highest total in franchise history, courtesy of the Wizards' defense.
These facts of the game, however, mattered little on a day that transcended basketball.
"It's kind of like a numbing feeling — you don't want to believe it," Beal said. "We all grew up watching him, admiring him. Everybody has their own opinion about him, but he did have a change in his game. He changed the game. He had a huge impact on it, especially on me being in his position."
Brooks's eyes appeared glassy as he shared his thoughts about Bryant, his neighbor in Newport Beach, Calif., before the game.
"It's going to be difficult for everybody. We'll all do our job and honor and pay our respects," Brooks said, his voice thick with emotion.
Hawks Coach Lloyd Pierce stared blankly and wiped his eyes before launching into a six-minute opening statement about Bryant, as well as his cousin who was a Navy pilot who died in a helicopter crash in 1998.
"I've always respected his greatness because of his detail and his passion and the intensity for which he plays, but there's nothing more than the respect I have for him as a father," Pierce said. "Every image you see of him post-retirement is of his daughters and with his family."
Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among those confirmed to have died in the crash. According to reports, nine passengers were on the helicopter heading to a youth basketball game. Gianna, Bryant's second-oldest daughter, had followed in her father's footsteps and developed her own passion for the game.
"He's just — I mean, words can't describe, and it doesn't do any justice to who he is and how he impacted the sports world. It's just not basketball. The guy had a mentality that you want your team to play with, the toughness, the determination," Brooks said. "There was no injury, even when he tore his Achilles' [in 2013]. He got up there and shot a couple free throws and wanted the trainer to put it back together so he could finish up the game. Not many guys, if any, played the game better."