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‘For everybody it’s a little bit different’: Two Blazers make split decision on Kobe Bryant memorial game

It was an emotional night for both teams at Staples Center

LOS ANGELES – As Usher sang “Amazing Grace” in front of a sold-out crowd of Los Angeles Lakers fans mourning the late Kobe Bryant at Staples Center on Friday, it became too heavy for Trevor Ariza to handle. The Portland Trail Blazers forward, also a former teammate of Bryant’s, darted to the visiting locker room to gain his composure.

“I couldn’t even control it. I had to go to the back,” Ariza said. “I was a little emotional. After Usher sang, I just left. I came back right before the starting lineup.”

The Lakers were playing their first game since a helicopter crash took the lives of Bryant, his daughter Gianna; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; Sarah and Payton Chester; Christina Mauser; and Ara Zobayan in nearby Calabasas Jan. 26. The team was originally scheduled to play the LA Clippers Jan. 28, but with the pain of the former Lakers star’s death too fresh for the entire organization, the game was postponed. Next up on the schedule were the Blazers, who were the Lakers’ opponents on this emotional night at Staples that included video tributes and music performances by Usher, Boys II Men, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth.

“It was emotional,” said Damian Lillard, who scored 48 points and dished out 10 assists during a 127-119 victory over the Lakers. “The music that was playing. Just the vibe from the building. The videos. Seeing [Bryant] talk on video in the flashbacks of him, it took a while to get into the game.”

Ariza, meanwhile, had the option of sitting out the game. Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey spoke to head coach Terry Stotts about the possibility of giving Ariza and Carmelo Anthony the game off in Los Angeles because of their close relationships with Bryant, a source told The Undefeated. Stotts agreed that it was a good idea to give the two Blazers starters the option.

“It was a classy gesture and heartfelt,” said Ariza, who decided to play and was in the Blazers’ starting lineup.

Anthony took the Blazers’ offer to not play. Sources close to Anthony said he thought it would be too painful to play in an emotional game turned memorial for a friend who had “a much stronger connection to him than just the game of basketball.” Anthony didn’t return phone calls and texts from friends for two days following Bryant’s death, one source said.

Those close to Anthony said he grew close to Bryant in 2008 when they were Olympic teammates. Their wives are also close. Anthony and Bryant spoke regularly, the last time on Jan. 24, when the Lakers’ all-time scorer said he expected to come to the game Friday night.

Kobe Bryant (left) and Carmelo Anthony (right) both played for the U.S. on the men’s national team in the 2012 London Games.

Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

“For everybody it’s a little bit different,” Lillard said. “Melo and [Bryant] were really cool. [Anthony] felt a different way than I felt and other guys feel. This is bigger than basketball. Somebody lost their life. His friend of his lost his life. So, we respect him not wanting to come here.”

Said Ariza: “He has the right to make that decision. This is a tough situation right here.”

Ariza, who is a Los Angeles native, played for the Lakers during two seasons and won an NBA title with Bryant in 2009. Ariza said before the game that he was still “numb” by Bryant’s death.

“I’m definitely glad I played,” said Ariza, who played a key role on defense and limited LeBron James to 1-of-7 shooting while guarding him Friday. “It wasn’t easy to get locked in because of everything that was going on. Kobe was like a brother to me, for sure. We spent every day together as teammates on and off the floor, nonstop. All the time. The fact that he was always there for me for advice, losing him is very tough.”

Kobe Bryant (left) of the Los Angeles Lakers embraces Trevor Ariza (right) of the Houston Rockets as he presents Ariza with his 2008-2009 championship ring he won as a member of the Lakers Nov. 15, 2009, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Lillard said he was never as close with Bryant as Anthony and Ariza were, but the former Lakers star gave him some motivational words during the 2014 All-Star Game in New Orleans he has never forgotten.

“My first All-Star Game, I sat next to him almost the whole game in New Orleans,” Lillard recalled. “He just made me feel real comfortable my first All-Star Game. He told me, ‘You belong. Go out there and shoot every time. Be aggressive. Have fun. Enjoy. You’re going to be there.’ Just those comments coming from him made me feel more like, ‘All right, I’m ready.’ …

“There was a lot of dialogue that night and he gave me his number and told me to reach out if I had questions. I would reach out every once in a while. … He was always available.”

Lillard’s 45-point, 10-assist night was the first by any player at Staples Center since April 23, 2008, when Bryant had 49 points and 10 assists in the playoffs against Denver.

The Blazers stayed across the street from the Staples Center at a luxury hotel. Several members of the organization walked back to the hotel after the morning shootaround, spending time outside of the arena, where there are flowers, jerseys, candles and many other tributes honoring Bryant, Gianna Bryant and the seven other victims of the crash. Stotts, Ariza and guard Gary Trent Jr. were among the Blazers who stopped by the memorial to pay their respects.

“It was a little emotional walking by there with what he meant to me as a player and a person,” Trent Jr. said. “I spent about five to 10 minutes there after shootaround and then I had to get out of there. It’s just a testament of what he meant to the city of L.A. and how he touched thousands and millions of lives. I just wanted to pay my respect.”

Partial view of the memorial created by fans in remembrance of former NBA great Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, at LA Live Plaza on Jan. 30 in Los Angeles.

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Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.