NEW ORLEANS — Marcus Smart posted a picture on Twitter that is now even closer to his heart.

In it, Kobe Bryant is attempting to back the Celtics guard toward the basket as Smart tries to use his right arm as a guardrail. They appear to be touching hands.

“I couldn’t guard him. No one could. He’s an All-Star in Heaven too. Praying for the whole family. I’m in shock,” Smart tweeted.

Bryant, who along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, had this depth of impact on everyone. Per orders from the NBA, the Celtics kept their locker room closed prior to Sunday’s game against the Pelicans, but on the other side of those doors was an entire cast of players who grew up at a time when Kobe Bryant was the greatest scorer in the game.

And when he retired in 2016, his true fans – his opponents – showed their true respect.

“He’s one of the guys that probably broke the hearts of the Celtics more than anybody that’s ever played, and in his last year our guys were all sneaking around getting his shoes signed and everything else, just like everybody else, right?” said Celtics Coach Brad Stevens. “I know a lot of our staff did, too.”

Even Stevens can reach far back in his 43-year-old life for a personal Bryant story.

“It’s so sad. My first memory of Kobe was, his dad recruited my best friend in high school,” said Stevens. “Kobe was just a kid playing open gym with him, and my best friend came back and just told me, ‘I just played with the best 16-year-old I ever saw.’ He was right.”

Jayson Tatum spent the summer of 2018 working out with Bryant in California. The jokes about Tatum’s resulting shot selection aside, it’s likely now one of the Celtics forward’s prime memories.

“A lot of our guys. A lot of our guys,” Brad Stevens said when asked about Tatum’s relationship with Bryant.

“Again, and he broke the hearts of the Celtics many times, but there’s probably not greater appreciation for him than all of us that worked for the Celtics, and certainly our fans,” said Stevens. “All of our players totally looked up to him and totally admired him.”

And, as Stevens found when he talked to his players about the tragedy, some things are beyond words.

“There’s no right or wrong emotion when you are experiencing something like this,” he said. “These guys – I told (them) most of the guys in the league, the way that I describe it, being a 43-year-old, is Kobe is their Jordan. So we’re not going to say anything about the game, we’ll just talk about why the game matters.

“Ultimate competitor, great for the game, loved the game. My favorite part has been watching him transition as a dad to a coach and those kind of things. So, really hard.”

Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry has three players on his roster – former Lakers Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart – who were accustomed to Bryant being a major part of their lives.

“It’s tough for them. We have three guys that played on that Laker team,” said Gentry. “He means everything. They knew him enough and he was around enough that he tried to help them with certain things. It’s a huge loss for them. It’s a huge loss for anyone involved in this league at all, just because of who he was. The word competitor keeps coming up because that’s who he was.”

The Celtics released the following statement:

“There are no words that can convey the heartbreak the entire Celtics organization feels in the wake of the terrible loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. Kobe was one of the greatest talents and competitors to ever play basketball, and his love of the sport inspired countless fans and players around the world. Our fans were fortunate to watch him as he contributed many memorable chapters to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, which he treasured. We extend our deepest condolences to Kobe’s family, fans, and the entire Lakers organization, as well as all of the victims and families affected by this horrible tragedy.”

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