ORLANDO, Fla. — What started as just another Pro Bowl quickly turned into a tribute to NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
News that Bryant and his daughter Gianna were among several people killed in a helicopter crash Sunday morning in California broke shortly before the Pro Bowl game began. The players found out in the locker room moments before the start of the AFC’s 38-33 victory at Camping World Stadium. Numerous players took time throughout the game to pay tribute to the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson led a prayer in the locker room before the teams took the field. NFC defensive players made multiple gestures to honor Bryant, the first coming during a timeout early in the second quarter when all the players in the huddle did a fadeaway jumper. That was Bryant’s signature move during his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Everybody in our locker room was hurting,” said Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was named the game’s offensive MVP. “Some of these guys don’t know Kobe at all but he’s in our hearts. He did something for the game. … It’s hurtful seeing something like that. … It was devastating, like this has gotta be fake.
“This was my first Pro Bowl so it was right before the game, like it was crazy. But God always calls his angels home for a reason. God knows best.”
Green Bay linebacker Za’Darius Smith, as well as Detroit’s Darius Slay and Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett, did step-back fadeaway jumpers following Smith’s sack of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson later in the second quarter. Smith, Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks and Everson Griffen, and Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett were among a group of players who repeated the gesture after a forced fumble early in the third quarter.
“It was a tribute to Kobe and his family,” Smith said during the game’s broadcast on ESPN. “This what we’re gonna do: two steps, then a fadeaway for him. For everyone to participate as a team, I just hope that touched a lot of people in a special way.”
Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell, who was named the game’s defensive MVP, and Baltimore’s Matthew Judon each took a knee during a moment of silence at the stadium during the two-minute warning. The crowd chanted “Ko-be” after the moment of silence was over.
“Kobe’s one of my heroes. He’s a big inspiration to me. In the few times I got to meet him, I was super encouraged when I left,” Campbell said. “… Honestly when we went into the locker room, our mentality was, ‘Embrace every moment.’ Because every moment is precious. You don’t know if you’re gonna get another one. You can tell the guys locked in. I think we played harder because of that.
“This is Kobe Bryant. His legacy – millions are affected by him. Everybody who plays sports, we have respect for the great Kobe Bryant. It was just devastating for all of us. We definitely all wanted to pay tribute and homage to him because he is the epitome of what an athletes supposed to be.”
Green Bay’s Davante Adams twice flashed two fingers and then four fingers — a reference to Bryant’s No. 24 jersey he wore with the Lakers — after his third-quarter touchdown catch.
Bucs outside linebacker Shaq Barrett said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll came into the locker room and said, “Go play and go play hard, because if [Kobe] was here, that’s what he would do … If he was here that is something that he would do, like if something happened to somebody else, he would go out there and play and leave it all on the field.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees reacts to the news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash Sunday morning.
Brees gets the start: Wilson was supposed to be the NFC’s starting quarterback, but he gave up that honor to New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who was making his 13th Pro Bowl appearance. It was clearly a sign of respect for the 41-year-old Brees, who is contemplating retirement. Brees is scheduled to become a free agent in March and said earlier in the week that he was either going to play for the New Orleans Saints in 2020 or not at all. Brees told media after Saturday’s Pro Bowl practice that he would wait until after football is completely finished before announcing a decision.
Ravens fly: Baltimore had a league-high 12 players in the Pro Bowl and its offensive stars accounted for 289 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Lamar Jackson — the game’s offensive MVP — threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns with one interception and tight end Mark Andrews had a game-high nine catches for 73 yards and one touchdown. Running back Mark Ingram ran for 31 yards and caught one pass for 17 yards.
Safety Earl Thomas had one of the AFC’s two interceptions.
ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine contributed to this report.