LOS ANGELES -- LeBron James vividly remembers the first time he played against Kobe Bryant in his rookie season in the NBA.
But it’s not the 16 points and seven assists he had in an 89-79 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Jan. 12, 2004 that stick out.
James had a collage of pictures of his idol in his home at the SpringHill Apartments, No. 602 growing up in the inner city of Akron, Ohio. The homage to Bryant was taped up on James’ bedroom wall, along with other players he admired as one the most dominant high school players in the nation.
Like Bryant, James sought to make the jump from high school to the NBA. In Bryant, James saw someone’s path he could follow, along with Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady.
“To be able to share the floor with him, for any kid who has aspirations or has inspiring moments from someone, it’s just like a sense of awe, of the grace he played the game with, and the passion he played the game with,” James said about that moment. “The determination to just go out and dominate you was something that I loved. And something that I could pick up from that.
“There was not much dialogue at all. As you know, Kobe’s not out there to talk to anyone; he’s out there to kill you. He’s out there to dethrone you and really stranglehold you. And you’ll be able to take away from that. But it was just an awe moment. It was something that I’ll never, ever forget, to able to grace the floor with someone that played with so much grace.”
Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary when Bryant died on Jan. 26, 2020, in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
While Bryant is gone, his presence remains a constant with James and his teammates. The Lakers break each huddle on the court with a “one-two-three-Mamba” -- something they implemented last season and continued through the team’s inspiring NBA title run in the Orlando bubble.
Every game, James has the No. 24 stitched outside the tape on his left middle finger to remind him of Bryant. And Bryant’s No. 24 and No. 8 hang in the rafters at Staples Center, a reminder of his greatness on the floor and what Bryant meant to the L.A. community off it.
The Lakers remained in Cleveland Tuesday, and Lakers head coach Frank Vogel gave his team the day off, allowing them to reflect on the one-year anniversary of the death of this franchise’s icon.
“To me, it’s not really a day of remembrance,” Vogel said. “Those are things like his birthday, the 81-point night and things like that. This is more of a somber tone, type of day. So, I’m going to give our guys the day off, let them be to themselves and manage that day however they see fit.”
As Bryant inspired awe in him, James has become a caretaker of Bryant’s legacy at the franchise that helped to bring out his greatness.
“I try not to put myself back in that head space because it’s too dark for not only myself, but for everyone in the organization that was involved in it,” James said, when asked his thoughts on the one-year anniversary of Bryant’s death. “As the leader of the ball club, it was my job and my responsibility to take it all on -- represent our team with the most strength that I could prosper at that time for the purple and gold, for Laker nation it was my job to take that responsibility.
“And I wanted to let everyone know inside this organization that I was okay in doing that.”
Like Bryant, James has also inspired greatness in others. Specifically, a young player growing up in Chicago who would one day later become his teammate in Anthony Davis.
“I was on the bus one day on the way to the game – I can’t remember what game it was, but it was in the playoffs,” Davis said. “I was on Instragram and I saw a post about LeBron. It was basically saying that he was top three in almost every statistical category. I sent it to him, and I sent him this long paragraph about it. And it was just saying that I remember when I was a kid riding on a Greyhound bus as a 15, 16-year-old kid riding to Akron for your camp. And seeing you for the first time, and that you such an inspiration to all of us, and you might not know it.
“And that it’s crazy that how everything comes full circle, and now we’re on the same team battling for a championship. And it was a lot more in-depth about it. … And I’m sure he was the same way with a guy like Kobe. And it was kind of that same feeling for me.”
As Bryant served as motivation and inspiration James fills that role for Davis during the times he has struggled on the floor in Los Angeles.
“Sometimes you allow a guy to kind of go through it and figure it out for themselves,” James said about his mentorship with Davis. “But also at the same time let him know that we’re here for him. Me, as the leader of the squad and has his brother, I let him know whatever he needs from me, I can do.”
James sees his role on the Lakers as continuing the enduring legacy Bryant established with the franchise.
“There’s a saying that time heals all,” James said. “And as devastating as tragic as it was, and still is, to all of us involved with it, it takes time. Everyone has their own grieving process. Everyone understands that everyone individually is different. Everyone is going to grieve different. And how long that takes them to come to grips with it, that’s up to them and that individual.
“All you can do as a friend or a loved one or anyone in our brotherhood and our family that we have here in Lakers’ nation is put an arm around someone when they need it. … Us being able to remember him by wearing the jerseys during the postseason and the success we had during the postseason as you guys saw with those uniforms. We have a lot of guys that still wear his shoes to this day obviously. I’m able to wear the 2-4 on my finger every night. And then when we play at Staples Center you see the “8” and the “24” in the rafters and be able to see his legacy live on.
“There’s a lot of things that die in the world, but legends never die. And he’s exactly that.”