Joined by sportscaster Ernie Johnson, the basketball icons appeared in a TNT pre-game special to remember Bryant — who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday that killed his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others — and shared how the late athlete made an impact in their respective lives.
O’Neal, 47, was visibly upset while recalling his time with Bryant. After struggling to keep his composure, the former Lakers player broke down in tears and said he “didn’t want to believe it” when he first heard the news of Bryant’s passing.
“I haven’t felt a pain that sharp in a while,” he said, before explaining the “final blow” was learning that Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna had also perished in the fatal crash.
O’Neal went on to tearfully reflected upon a future without Bryant, lamenting over all the things he’ll never get to do with his former teammate again.
“We’re not going to be able to joke at his Hall of Fame Ceremony,” he said. “Those are the things you can’t get back.”
O’Neal continued, “That’s the only thing, I wish I could just say something to him again.”
Wade’s voice cracked with emotion as the player, 38, spoke of the impact Bryant made on him.
“Every time we played against each other I had to act like I didn’t care that I was playing against one of my idols,” he remembered. “I grew up wanting to be like him.”
Citing Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Bryant as his three favorite players, Wade said, “For me, as a young kid coming into this league, there was one person I wanted that respect from. One person, I wanted to look at me as an equal. And look at me eye to eye. And it was Kobe Bryant.”
The former Miami Heat star added that he’s “been in shock for two days” and having the chance to process Bryant’s death with friends was “the first moment where it actually feels real.”
“I’m shaking. I’m numb,” he shared, telling fans that “it’s okay to be hurt.”
“It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to show emotion,” Wade, who previously shared a tearful tribute to Bryant, said. “It’s okay to have laughter and it’s okay to get around people and … talk about moments and talk about memories.”
Barkley, 56, shared how he reacted when he found out about Bryant’s death, “I’m not gonna lie. I just started crying.”
“I didn’t even have that kind of relationship with Kobe, but he was part of the basketball fabric … He was like one of my kids,” he said. “I just felt pain.”
The athlete also explained during the sit-down why he hasn’t been publicly expressing his grief, “I turned down every interview because, truth of the matter is I didn’t know what to say.”
Smith, 54, spoke about having jogged on the “same hill” where Bryant’s helicopter crashed. As a father himself, he was “devastated” to learn that Bryant was on his way to a youth basketball game with his daughter, her teammates and other parents when the helicopter crashed in Calabasas, California.
“The first thing I thought of with him was a family man,” he said. “You think Kobe Bryant needs to buy a gymnasium in Thousand Oaks? … You think Kobe Bryant needs to have a tournament for girls called the Mamba Series? No. He’s doing it to spend moments with his daughter.”
The somber special ended with a tribute to all nine passengers involved in the fatal crash, including Sarah Chester and her daughter, eighth-grader Payton, the head basketball coach at Orange Coast College John Altobelli, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa, girls basketball coach Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan.