El Segundo, Calif. — The last time the Lakers’ practice facility was close to being as crowded as it was Wednesday—the team’s first public practice since Kobe Bryant’s death—was Media Day, when the organization was filled with excitement and promise before the start of what’s become, in terms of the on-court product, a wildly successful season. The emotions were a little different this time, as a horde of media from around the world waited for the Lakers’ first public comments since Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash.
The mood was somewhere between somber and angsty. Reporters and camerapeople piled on top of each other in preparation for what was a tightly packed scrum around a small backdrop where Frank Vogel, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis were all expected to speak publicly for the first time. In the end, only Vogel addressed the media, describing the Lakers’ predicament as “extremely emotional.”
“We want to represent what Kobe was about more than anything,” Vogel said. “We’ve always wanted to make him proud. And that’s not going to be any different here.”
The decision for LeBron and AD not to speak was confusing—or even frustrating—to some. They’re inarguably the faces of the franchise. And James is even bigger, a globally respected NBA icon who had a personal connection to Bryant. But the decisions of James, Davis and every other player not to speak make sense in the wake of the massive void Kobe’s death has left in Los Angeles.
You can’t escape Kobe right now. There are memorials all over the city. The area around Staples Center is constantly filled with fans leaving messages and flowers even days later. Some city buses even flash “RIP KOBE” across the front in between the route number. That’s simply the impact Bryant has had on the people who didn’t know him—so what are the people who were actually his peers or teammates going through?
We’ve seen people like Jerry West and Shaquille O’Neal grieve publicly for Bryant. Their teary-eyed stories about Kobe during TNT’s tribute show from inside Staples were raw, compelling and heart-wrenching. But just because it was great television doesn’t necessarily mean anyone was owed that level of emotion.
I honestly don’t know when it will feel appropriate for the Lakers’ players to answer questions about Bryant. It was obviously difficult enough for Vogel, and he only ever coached against Kobe. The strangeness of the death of a widely loved public figure means not only an outpouring of support, but an expectation that the public figures who knew him help put everything into perspective.
I cringe a little bit at the thought of the questions we would have asked LeBron on Wednesday. Are we entitled to know exactly what he was doing the moment he found out about Kobe? Is it fair to ask how he felt in the moments, hours, and days following? It may help fans of Bryant or the Lakers move to the other side of grief to hear one symbol speak up after the loss of another, but it’s only human for players not to be ready to discuss a personal tragedy with a massive audience while they’re still processing it.
Of course, James, Davis and everyone else will eventually speak about their connection to Bryant. That’s the nature of the beast. The Lakers’ next practice is scheduled for Thursday. The crowd will be immense and the mood will be strange. Los Angeles and Kobe Bryant will be intertwined for the foreseeable future. For better or worse, no one will be able to escape Kobe’s presence, especially the people who actually knew him.
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