Kyrie Irving opens up about the loss of mentor Kobe Bryant

NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving put it in the simplest of terms.

“It’s been three days, man.”

Time has seemingly stood still since the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter accident Sunday morning, an absence Irving is still grappling with after losing his mentor.

Irving returned to the floor Wednesday after missing Sunday night’s game against the New York Knicks, hours following the announcement of Bryant’s death. Irving played 33 minutes in a 125-115 win over the Detroit Pistons at Barclays Center, where a tribute to Bryant was held before tipoff.

“It’s an open wound,” said Irving, who scored 20 and added five assists and five rebounds. “I’m doing my best to focus on the game.”

Two seats at center court, seats where Bryant and Gianna sat last month when visiting, were vacant with a flower on each in remembrance. Gianna was on the plane with Kobe, on their way to Bryant’s Mamba Academy for games Sunday morning when the crash occurred.

“Where I come from, my native North Dakota, South Dakota [Standing Rock Sioux Tribe], you lay that craft down, that craft you love so much,” Irving said. “That’s what I did at MSG [on Sunday]. I couldn’t even come up with wanting to play that game. It’s still heartbreaking.”

He compared the loss to that of a family member, putting it in the same breath with losing his grandfather last season in Boston — which he said contributed to his uneven year that ended in his departure to Brooklyn.

“I’m not the only one that’s hurting,” Irving said. “I don’t wanna make this about me and our relationship because we all shared something really, really strong with him, there’s a bond whether watching him or studying him. We all shared something.”

Irving was arguably Bryant’s most notable pupil, and he soaked up all Bryant had to offer over the years. The two notably made a playful bet during a USA Basketball practice when Irving was a rookie, with Bryant saying he was going to give Irving’s Cleveland Cavaliers a 50-point game due to Irving’s challenge.

Related: Kobe Bryant and his family 

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Kobe Bryant and his family
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23: (L-R) Vanessa Laine Bryant, Kobe Bryant, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant and Natalia Diamante Bryant attend Tribeca Talks: Storytellers: Kobe Bryant with Glen Keane during 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at BMCC Tribeca PAC on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23: Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Bryant, Gianna Briant, and Natalia Bryant attend Tribeca Talks during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Borough of Manhattan Community College on April 23, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - JULY 14: Kobe Bryant (top) and (L-R) Vanessa Laine Bryant, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, and Natalia Diamante Bryant arrive at Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards 2016 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion on July 14, 2016 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
WESTWOOD, CA - JULY 14: (L-R) Gianna Bryant, Vanessa Bryant, former NBA player Kobe Bryant and Natalia Bryant attend the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards 2016 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion on July 14, 2016 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - JULY 14: Vanessa Laine Bryant, Kobe Bryant, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant and Natalia Diamante Bryant attend the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion on July 14, 2016 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - FEBRUARY 19: LA Laker Kobe Bryant, wife Vanessa Bryant and daughters Natalia Diamante Bryant (L) and Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant (R) attend the Kobe Bryant hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on February 19, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Barry King/FilmMagic)
Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant holds his daughter Natalia during practice for the NBA All-Star basketball game in Houston, Texas, February 16, 2013. The All-Star game will be played on February 17. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
Basketball player Kobe Bryant and his daughter Natalia Diamante Bryant watch swimming events during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 4, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT SWIMMING OLYMPICS SPORT BASKETBALL)
Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant smiles with daughters Gianna (R) and Natalia with the Bill Russell MVP Trophy after his team defeated the Boston Celtics in Game 7 to win the 2010 NBA Finals basketball series in Los Angeles, California June 17, 2010 . REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant carries his daughter Gianna, as his wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia (2nd R) stand next to him during the NBA Championship parade in Los Angeles, California, June 21, 2010. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant (top R) holds the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship trophy as his wife Vanessa (top L) and daughters Natalia (bottom L) and Gianna watch after the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic to win the NBA Championship in Game 5 in Orlando, Florida June 14, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski (UNITED STATES SPORT BASKETBALL)
Vanessa Bryant (C), wife of Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant, watches the Lakers NBA game against the Seattle Supersonics with their two daughters Gianna Maria-Onore (R) and Natalia (L) in Los Angeles November 3, 2006. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES)
Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant poses with his wife Vanessa and their daughter Natalia at the premiere of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" at Disneyland in Anaheim, California May 19, 2007. The movie opens in the U.S. on May 25. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES)
Basketball super star Kobe Bryant watches with his two daughters, Natalia (R) and Gianna (L) as Los Angeles Galaxy plays the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer game in Carson, California April 3, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES)
Basketball super star Kobe Bryant reacts along with his wife Vanessa (L) and their two daughters Natalia (R) and Gianna as they watch the Los Angeles Galaxy plays against the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer game in Carson, California April 3, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES)
Vanessa Bryant (R), wife of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, hugs their daughter Natalia during the NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs, in Los Angeles November 28, 2003. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson LN/HB
Vanessa Bryant (L), wife of unrestricted free agent Kobe Bryant, and their daughter Natalia, listen to Kobe speak at a press conference to announce he will remain with the Los Angeles Lakers in a seven-year deal for the NBA's league maximum of $136 million in El Segundo, California, July 15, 2004. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson LN
Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers arrives with his wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia to a news conference at the team's training facility in El Segundo, California July 15, 2004. Bryant signed a seven-year contract worth more than $136 million to remain with the Lakers. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith RG
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 19: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses with wife Vanessa and daughters Giana (L) and Natalia during a ceremony honoring Bryant for moving into third place on the all time NBA scoring list and passing Michael Jordan, before the game withthe Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on December 19, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. 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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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That wasn’t then where their relationship blossomed but years later, Irving said, in an emotional, unguarded setting following a game.

“I asked him for help, maybe four, five years ago,” Irving said. “Asked him for some help. I wasn’t ready to be a mentee at that point.”

Irving, with a rare smile, said, “I’m gonna go deep on you guys, you know I am.”

“In some ancient texts it says when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” Irving said. “I had that type of mentorship relationship with him. I could ask him anything, no matter how nervous or how fearful I was.”

It’s hard to picture Irving, a fearless competitor on the floor with his history of making big shots in big moments, as vulnerable. But he had that kinship with Bryant, so much so that after the biggest shot of Irving’s career — a clutch 3-pointer that sealed the Cleveland Cavaliers’ win over the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals — he FaceTimed Bryant in the locker room during the wild celebration.

“He was easy to approach with those type of questions with what goes on in a day-in and day-out basis on chasing something that’s bigger than yourself,” Irving said. “When you’re trying to leave a legacy or a mark on the game, there will come a lot of sacrifices and a lot of hate, a lot of love and a lot of balance you must create in your life.”

Whether Irving has found that balance remains to be seen, going through such an uneven journey since 2016 and just recovering from a shoulder injury that cost him nearly two months this season.

With Bryant gone, there is a void Irving isn’t likely to fill anytime soon.

“He left a lot of teachings, a lot of bread crumbs, as I call them,” Irving said. “And I just followed every single one of them. That probably pays a lot of focus into the person I am today. Just listening, seeing what he was creating. Seeing his daughter, Gigi, and opening doors in women’s sports. We talked about it all the time. I wanted that same structure.”

He referred to Bryant as a leader people wanted to follow, even calling himself one of the “little mambas” Bryant took under his wing. Bryant became more open and available to other players following his 2013 Achilles’ injury, spending the rest of his playing career preparing for life after basketball.

Bryant made it clear he would not be an athlete struggling for purpose or passion when his time with the game was over, bucking popular belief.

“He had his own company, he had his own belief system, his own principles that he lived,” Irving said. “Excuse my language, he didn’t give a f--- what anybody said. Having that type of strength.”

Irving can speak in riddles, often subject to interpretation or even ridicule. It seems like some of that came from Bryant.

“Some people would text him, ‘What about this shooting slump?’” Irving said. “He would say stuff like, ‘The next shot is the best shot,’ or ‘Figure it out,’ or ‘F--- em all.’ Simple things.

“But it was what he helped you see inside of yourself. It wasn’t the words, it was something inside you he knew was there but you had to tap into it. And he tapped into it all the time when was playing the game of basketball, when he was around his family. He’s getting his just due and his legacy now, more than ever. You don’t have to worry about anyone not being on Kob’s side. I’ve been on Kob’s side for a long time. That’s what I remember, all encompassing our relationship. It’s deeper than basketball.”

It’s just the start of the grieving process for so many, and Irving wasn’t in any rush to press the fast forward button. He’s going to feel this for a very long time.

“It’s nothing easy to turn the page and flip a switch,” he said. “You go through every emotion. You be human.”

 

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