LOS ANGELES – Minutes before tip off of Lakers-Blazers on Monday, LeBron James walked to center court. He looked down on a piece of paper, carefully reading the names of the nine victims of Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash that took the life of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter, Giannna.
Then, James pulled some notes out of his waistband.
And he threw them onto the floor.
“Laker Nation, I’m gonna be selling y’all short if I read off this sh--,” James said. “So I’m gonna go from the heart.”
What a night. What a powerful, emotional, memorable, horrible night. It was the Lakers first game since Bryant’s death. Four hours before thousands of fans packed the plaza across the street. Flowers, signs and murals were erected everywhere. Messages were inscribed in chalk on the pavement. A woman stared at a shrine for Bryant mumbling, “This is killing me.” A father gazed down at one of the chalk messages and, with tears welling in his eyes, pulled his daughter close to him.
Inside Staples Center, each seat was covered with a gold tee shirt. Some bore the No. 24. Some No. 8. Bryant’s name was emblazoned on the front and back. Throughout the arena, tears flowed. Fans shuffled through the building, hugging each other. Usher began the night signing Amazing Grace. A six-minute tribute to Bryant played after, which Lakers players watched from the bench, captivated. James slung an arm around Quinn Cook. Danny Green and JaVale McGee looked up from the floor. When the Lakers were finally introduced, each was the same:
At 6’6” … in his 20 year … from Lower Merion High School … Kobe Bryant.
In the middle of it all was James. What a week it has been for LeBron. On Saturday, he passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list. On Sunday, Bryant was gone. The video of a distraught James getting off the Lakers plane went viral. James said he largely stayed off social media this week. The mere image or mention of Bryant was too painful. Before the game, James hung a Bryant jersey on a wall next to his locker. During the game, James wore sleeves on his right arm and leg, a wristband on his left forearm, tape on his fingers and an oversized jersey—Bryant signatures during his playing days.
To show appreciation, James explained, for what Bryant gave us way before he knew us.
For most of his career, James didn’t share a closeness with Bryant. Few players did. A bond between the two was forged at the 2008 Olympics, on the Redeem Team, with fierce competition in practice, with both players battling, James admits, for the right to be the alpha. They shared a kinship, sure, but a friendship, a true connection would come years later, when James slipped on a Lakers jersey soon after Bryant took his off.
It’s been a tortured week for James. He has reminisced about Bryant with family and friends. He talked to his wife, Savannah, about how these last few years, with basketball in his rear view and fatherhood a full time gig, Bryant had never seemed happier. Standing at center court on Friday, he encouraged Lakers fans to mourn, but to see the game as a celebration.
“This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken-down body,” James said. “The determination to be as great as he could be. Tonight we celebrate the kid who came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we’ve seen over the last three years.”
James has always shouldered a heavy burden. But as the Lakers try to move forward, James’s responsibilities have grown. The Lakers leaned on Frank Vogel to be the voice of the franchise this week. James couldn’t do it. Rob Pelinka, the GM, the former agent of Bryant the godfather to Gianna, couldn’t either. Vogel called James “a tower of strength” this week. He will have to continue to be. Players admitted to feeling anxious arriving at the arena. Anthony Davis recalled his first experience with Bryant, in 2012, on the Olympic team. It was the summer before Davis’s rookie year. In an early round game, Davis was summoned off the bench for mop up duty. He ran to the scorers table … only to realize he was not wearing his jersey. Bryant was incredulous. He pulled out Davis’s shooting shirt to confirm. To this day, Davis said, he peaks down his shirt before every game, just to make sure the jersey is underneath.
Davis will look to James now. Everyone will. The Lakers lost on Friday. Damian Lillard (48-points) went bonkers, Hassan Whiteside (30) did too, and Portland squeezed out a 127-119 win. James scored 22-points, but committed five turnovers. A usually sturdy defense didn’t show up. Vogel played all 12 players in the first half because, he said, “I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to contribute in this game.” Short term, it doesn’t matter. “This week has been about life,” Vogel said. But the Lakers are fending off the Nuggets, Clippers and Jazz for home court advantage. James will have to both deal with his own grief while doing what he can to make sure his team is channeling theirs.
It’s a big responsibility. And as James addressed reporters after the game, sunglasses covering his eyes, it’s clear Bryant’s loss clearly still weighs on him. He encouraged the assembled media to “hug the sh—out of your families.” He said to make time for your kids whenever you can. He noted that players like himself and Bryant often sacrifice time spent with family in the pursuit of greatness. That’s why when LA played in Boston last month, James zipped west to see his son, LeBron James Jr., play in nearby Springfield. The Lakers, James recalled, “got our ass kicked” that night. Said James, “I didn’t feel bad at all.”
As the Lakers move forward, James’s leadership, his ability to pull this team together will be critical. Staples Center will be a challenging place to play this season, for both teams. Reminders of Bryant will be everywhere. As he walked on the floor, James pointed to Bryant’s jersey’s that were lit up on a wall near the ceiling. The first play the Lakers ran was from the triangle, the offense Phil Jackson crafted and Bryant won five championships playing in LA. Clips of Bryant’s greatest moments played during timeouts.
Soon, it will just be about basketball again. The Lakers are in Sacramento tomorrow night. They are back home on Tuesday for matchups against San Antonio and Houston next week. The tributes to Bryant will be deconstructed. The non-perishable items will be delivered to the Bryant family. The flowers will be mulched and used as fertilizer. The memory of Bryant will never fade, but it must be something LA can work through. One of the hardest weeks in the history of the NBA is over. But there are hard ones still ahead.
More Kobe Bryant Coverage
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* How the NBA Can Honor Kobe Going Forward
* In L.A., Loss of Kobe Bryant Still Doesn't Feel Real