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Kobe Bryant’s death brings Bulls coach Jim Boylen to tears

The Bulls tried to pick up the pieces on an emotional day leading up to the game against the Spurs. They found out firsthand how difficult that can be.

Bulls coach Jim Boylen breaks down while giving his reaction to the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter.
Bulls coach Jim Boylen breaks down while giving his reaction to the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Coach Jim Boylen did his best to fight back the tears while trying to answer the question.

He’d soon lose out on both fronts.

Boylen, who has two teenage daughters who are heavily into basketball culture, was asked about the deaths of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the emotion overwhelmed him.

“Well, you know,’’ Boylen said Monday before his voice started cracking, “that’s a tough question to answer.’’

So he didn’t.

And he didn’t need to.

Boylen’s heavy heart typified what many around the United Center felt throughout the day as the Bulls tried to return to the business of basketball less than 24 hours after news of Bryant and eight others dying in a helicopter crash swept the nation like a tidal wave.

“What I marveled at was [Bryant’s] confidence, his ability to miss two or three shots in a row and then make eight in a row,’’ Boylen said after gathering himself. “His ability to close games, to close quarters, to be a two-way player. . . . He honored the system. He was respectful to coaching. He was always the hardest worker. He never ran from the tough moment. He was willing to help other players. He loved the work part of it, which I think is what this league is all about.

“And I think about the husband and father part. You know, I take my kids to practice. I take them to their AAU camp. I play with them in the driveway. I have two daughters who play basketball. So it’s tough.’’

The day didn’t get any easier, either.

Players and team personnel spoke about Bryant throughout the afternoon and into the night, and then once it actually was close to game time, the Bulls and Spurs had to deal with the emotion of playing a game while honoring a fallen hero.

There was a video tribute and a 24-second moment of silence. When the Bulls won the tipoff, they took an eight-second backcourt violation, then the Spurs purposely let the 24-second clock run down on their end to chants of “Kobe.’’

Bryant made the jersey Nos. 8 and 24 famous, so Boylen and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich agreed before the game to honor him in that manner.

The Spurs seemingly had an advantage on the emotional front because they had played a game Sunday against the Raptors, but Popovich didn’t see it that way.

“I think everybody was in a little bit of a fog, which is expected, and I think it will still take some time, especially for the guys that knew him the best, to get back whole just mentally and psychologically — emotionally, more than anything,’’ Popovich said. “It’s a tough thing.’’

The impact was felt all the way up to the front office.

Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson released a statement about Bryant on Sunday, but he still wanted to publicly share his feelings a day later.

“I’ve said this many, many times about Michael [Jordan],’’ Paxson said. ‘‘I had the opportunity to be around him for such a long time, and seeing that rare competitiveness, the closest I’ve seen and I wasn’t obviously involved in it, but you could just tell that Kobe Bryant had that thing. Some gene in you that is rare. There are a lot of really good players and you could even say great players, but there are very few people you put in the greatest category, and obviously [Bryant is] one of those.’’