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‘Salt Lakers feel it too’: Utah Jazz players, fans find special ways to honor Kobe Bryant

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) lets the ball bounce away as he points up to the sky as the Jazz pay tribute to Kobe Bryant by letting the 24 second clock expire at the beginning of the game against the Houston Rockets at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) lets the ball bounce away as he points up to the sky as the Jazz pay tribute to Kobe Bryant by letting the 24 second clock expire at the beginning of the game against the Houston Rockets at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The Utah Jazz will be forever linked with Kobe Bryant because of the 60-point masterpiece he delivered against them in his NBA grand finale in 2016 — and, yeah, because of the four-airball performance he suffered against them in the 1997 Western Conference semifinals that gave Jazz fans some trash-talking material but stoked his competitive fire.

But former Jazz guard Rodney Hood had a less-publicized experience with Bryant a few years ago that epitomizes the Mamba mentality that made Kobe such a legendary competitor.

SALT LAKE CITY — The house lights dimmed five minutes before tipoff Monday night, and a painful silence filled the usually loud Vivint Arena. A few fans broke the abrupt quiet by respectfully yelling, “Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!” P.A. announcer Dan Roberts then honored the late Kobe Bryant by sharing some of the impact the “brilliant and passionate player” made on the game of basketball.

Twenty splendid years. Eighteen All-Star selections. Five championships. Two Olympic gold medals. One NBA MVP. And “a relentless approach to a game he dearly loved.”

An official moment of silence was then observed on behalf of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the seven other people who lost their lives in Sunday’s helicopter accident.

The first part of Hood’s Kobe experience happened in 2015 when he scored 21 points against Bryant in a preseason game in Hawaii. There was a stretch in the game when the Jazz guard hit a 3-pointer then followed a Kobe 3 with another deep shot beyond the arc. Hood got a bit animated after trading 3s with Kobe. Bryant thought Hood was trying to show him up and gave the young player an earful.

“We had a little talk. He was just about (giving me) his resume,” Hood said, smiling. His thoughts on Kobe’s resume? “Very impressive. Very impressive.”

Not a sound was heard for a peaceful and respectful few moments prior to tipoff of the Jazz-Rockets game Monday as a photo of Bryant was displayed on the giant video screens with the words, “In Loving Memory, Kobe Bryant, 1978-2020.”

After the national anthem and introductions, Utah and Houston players paid tribute to a man who meant so much to so many. The Jazz first took a 24-second shot-clock violation as Donovan Mitchell dribbled the ball and then pointed to the heavens. Houston followed with an eight-second backcourt violation to pay respects to Bryant, who wore Nos. 24 and 8 during his tremendous two-decade career with the Lakers.

Jazz fans stood and cheered for Bryant and the tribute, which has been done by multiple other NBA teams since his death.

Another heartfelt “KO-BE!” chant filled Utah’s arena.

While scolding Hood in Hawaii, Bryant, always looking for an edge, tried to get inside the Jazz player’s head. He told him, “I can shoot it 30 times. You can shoot it 10 times. Don’t try to go there with me.” Keep in mind. This was a preseason basketball game.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who developed a tight bond with Bryant as a Lakers assistant in 2011-12, laughed about Hood getting told he didn’t have the same green light as the NBA veteran.

“Kobe’s right, probably,” Snyder said at the time. “If he isn’t, then Rodney should just tell him he’s right.”

Even though Houston was Utah’s opponent on this night, numerous spectators arrived wearing Laker gear and Kobe jerseys. Former BYU/NFL tight end Chad Lewis, a Jazz fan, wore a white Bryant jersey. Jazz season-ticket holder Josh Pierce, an avid Utah supporter and “diehard Kobe fan” from Sandy, sported a brand-new collector’s item yellow Bryant jersey, tags still intact. “I just wore it,” he said, “to show some love and appreciation.”

Brad Giles, an arena employee and lifelong Jazz fan, wore a gray Black Mamba T-shirt a friend made in honor of one of his all-time favorite players. Though many Jazz fans were in the like-to-dislike Kobe camp, Giles always rooted for his home team and for the once-in-a-generation superstar, on and off the court.

“You’re a Jazz fan at heart, and he always comes in and always plays to the top of his ability and makes it so hard for us, but you’ve got to respect him as an ambassador of the game,” Giles said. “He went through his hard times. He paid his dues. He’s a good person, a good father, a good philanthropist — just doing his thing to do right by people in the world and not just to be seen as a basketball player.”

Bryant retired as the all-time leading opponent scorer vs. Utah with 1,549 points (the majority coming in his last game — or so it seemed) and played against the Jazz more than any other player ever (84 times in the regular season and playoffs).

The Jazz actually held their own against Bryant, beating the Lakers 37 times in his tenure (second only to the Spurs’ 48 W’s). The biggest win margin-wise came in Kobe’s final trip to the Beehive State. The Jazz gave him the worst loss of his career — a 48-point blowout (123-75) on March 28, 2016.

But despite an off night, Kobe didn’t go down quietly that spring night in SLC.

Basketball fans had other ways to show some love to the Laker legend a day after the devastating news. One man stood behind the baseline holding up a yellow sign that read, “Salt Lakers feel it too.” Bam Bam’s BBQ in Orem sold all of its combo meals for a discounted rate of $8.24. A fan on Twitter shared a photo of a yellow and purple ribbon with basketballs on it that an arena usher handed her. Rudy Gobert was among the Jazz players who wrote messages on their shoes to pay homage.

Some fans created a makeshift shrine on the J-note monument on the plaza. They took note of Bryant’s career and his untimely passing by placing Lakers hats and shirts, Kobe jerseys, candles, yellow and purple flowers and balloons, stuffed animals and a “Thank you, Kobe!” sign on the base of the statue.

“It was a real shock. I don’t believe it now,” Giles said. “To lose someone like that, it’s a rough thing to grasp.”

Though Bryant didn’t score much in his final showing in Utah — five points on 1-of-11 shooting — he left his mark. Kobe requested to defend the red-hot Hood in the second half after the Jazz guard exploded for 30 points in the first half. Bryant, only weeks away from retirement, held Hood scoreless the rest of the way.

And as had happened in Hawaii, there was a bit of jawing involved. No resume exchange happened though.

“He was just congratulating me on the season,” Hood said. “I just told him he was the greatest of all time, a guy I’ve been looking up to since I was a little child.”