Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant was Denver Nuggets veteran Will Barton's favorite player. It is still hard for him to process Bryant's death in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, especially as the Nuggets prepare to play their first game in Los Angeles since then. The team is playing the Lakers' hometown rival the Clippers at the Staples Center Friday night.
"It's hard to process," Barton told the Denver Post during Friday's shootaround before the game. "It's still a little fresh. Anytime you lose somebody like that, so sudden, you just try to remember him. I try to watch highlights of him and play hard in his honor every night."
Since the crash, Barton said playing on the court has helped keep his mind busy.
"That's how I cope with things, anything that goes on in my life, any tragedy, death," the 29-year-old said. "Those two, three hours I'm on the court, it helps take my mind off everything and I can just focus on basketball, so I needed it. You don't even want to think about it, and then after that whistle blows, it's back to reality."
Barton grew up collecting magazines with Bryant's face on the cover, and eventually got to play against him. Barton made his debut with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012 and joined the Nuggets in 2015. Since he has spent his entire career in the Western Conference, he played against Bryant multiple times before Bryant retired in 2016.
"Every time he guarded me, it was always something I looked forward to and was special," Barton told the Post.
The first time Barton played against Bryant was in April 2013. After the game, Bryant had an hour-long talk about basketball with Barton.
"He talked to me for about an hour about things he saw in my game," Barton told NBA.com after Bryant's death. "[He said] that he respects my game and thought I was good. [He told me] some things he wanted me to work on for me to reach my potential. It really helped shaped my career."
The Nuggets played the Houston Rockets on the day of Bryant's death. They had a moment of silence, and the Pepsi Center was lit up in purple. The game was still competitive, with the Nuggets winning 117-110.
"I think it affected us. I think it affected them [the Rockets] as well, the impact he has had, the greatness, his legacy, everything he leaves behind," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game. "A tough loss for everybody, the NBA, the basketball world, especially his family. I just challenge our guys to go out there, and if you want to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant, play the game the right way, play it hard, the way he approached every single game through his illustrious career."
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others were killed in the helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Bryant spent his entire 20-year NBA career with the Lakers, winning five NBA championships. He also won two Olympic gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics as part of Team USA.
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