TORONTO — Somewhere tucked away in Leo Rautins’ house is the box score from the Toronto Raptors’ loss to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers from 2006.
Rautins grabbed the paper copy on the way out of Staples Arena as a souvenir from the historic night.
Bryant, of course, went off for 81 points, the second most in NBA history. Broadcasting the game made for one of the most memorable nights of Rautins’ career.
The 59-year-old Rautins also won’t soon forget calling the Raptors game Sunday at San Antonio, a night that was memorable for much more sober reasons. The two teams tipped off about an hour after learning of the death of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash.
“I’d just got into the arena and sat down, and just kind of checking a few things on my phone and I saw (early reports) and go ‘Woah, what is this?’ And within minutes Matt (Devlin) and a few other people were ‘Hey, did you see this?'” Rautins said. “All of a sudden the whole arena within minutes started buzzing. And then it got crazy as we were getting closer to going on air, obviously this is something you have to discuss, yet at the same time we still didn’t know if it was confirmed or not. As we went on the air we found out.”
The two teams collaborated on a tribute to Bryant to start the game. The Raptors won possession but Fred VanVleet dribbled down the 24-second shot clock — a poignant nod to Bryant’s No. 24 jersey. The Spurs did the same thing on their first possession. It was a scene of raw anguish, as Raptors guard Kyle Lowry looked forlorn, retired Spurs veteran Tim Duncan buried his face in his hands and fellow assistant coach Becky Hammon wiped away tears.
“That’s honestly where it got me . . . when the two teams did that, that’s when it kind of hit me, and I went ‘Woah, this is real,'” Rautins said.
Rautins grew to know Bryant’s dad Joe (Jellybean) Bryant when they two played against each other in Italy in the 1980s.
“He was phenomenal . . . averaging 40 a game, and my first recollection of Kobe was when we were scrimmaging his team in Rome and Kobe is just running all over the place, playing pinball, playing basketball, just running everywhere,” Rautins said.
Rautins remembers Kobe’s 81-point explosion well. The Raptors were leading 63-49 at halftime.
“It looked like this game was over. I was even goading Chuck (Swirsky, his former Raptors broadcast partner) into calling ‘salami and cheese’ in the third quarter,” said Rautins — referencing Swirsky’s catchphrase that signalled fans when he figured the game was in the bag.
“I tell people all the time that the crazy part about that game, a lot of times when a guy scores that many points, you go ‘OK, it was a blowout, you’re just kind of padding your numbers.’ But even midway through the third quarter, the Raptors were still in control of the game, and then Kobe just decides it’s not going to happen.
“I would say 70 points of his 81 were absolutely necessary for them to win the game. And the final few were a little icing on the cake. That was a spectacular game.”
All eight NBA games Sunday night tipped off with teams taking 24-second shot clock violations. There was some discussion about whether the games should have been played at all.
“That was a hard one,” Rautins said of the night. “Obviously I know Kobe, I know his dad, and just the tragedy like that where so many people died, and children, it’s just horrible. So now you’re calling the game because there is a game, and there’s some people who that’s their escape, they want to watch the game. So it’s that fine line of not forgetting the moment, acknowledging Kobe throughout the game, yet at the same time doing the game. It wasn’t an easy day.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press