But as the Lakers once again celebrated Bryant’s brilliant career, the man tasked with trying to move on from the Kobe Bryant era — Lakers Coach Luke Walton, Bryant’s friend and longtime teammate — understands the difficulty of the job ahead.
“The next chapter is coming out of the darkness of the Kobe era,” Walton said. “There are very few teams that have lost a superstar like Kobe and stayed on top.”
The Lakers most certainly haven’t. A franchise accustomed to being an annual contender is instead coming off its four worst seasons since relocating from Minneapolis close to 60 years ago. And for all of the deserved celebrating of Bryant on Monday night, it is the specter of his greatness — and the inability of the Lakers to replace or replicate it — that still hangs over them.
Bryant’s presence envelops every part of the organization. His former agent, Rob Pelinka, was named the team’s general manager almost instantly after his predecessor, Mitch Kupchak, was fired earlier this year in a move made both out of convenience and comfort by the team’s owner, Jeanie Buss, who still remains close to Bryant. With each high draft pick the Lakers have made the past three seasons — first D’Angelo Russell, then Brandon Ingram and finally Lonzo Ball — the immediate conversation becomes whether they can take on the mantle and responsibility of being the man to replace one of the biggest stars in the history of the league.
Thus far, none of them has, though the latter two still have time to change that, and both showed signs of their potential in Monday night’s loss to the Golden State Warriors. And while the Lakers have pursued star after star in free agency in the past few summers, those attempts have all come up empty as well. That’s why the franchise still finds itself stuck trying to move on from Bryant more than four years since he last was an effective NBA star, when he hobbled off the court after tearing his Achilles’ on April 12, 2013.
Ask Bryant this question, though: How, exactly, do the Lakers move on from you? His response is simple — and typical: Just work at it.
“The thing about sports is that the chapters are coming, whether you like them or not,” Bryant said before Monday’s game. “The stories are being written now, right? The legacies are being created now. For the players that are here now, it’s just to focus on the micro stuff. The day-to-day stuff. That’s it, man. That’s it. Just work on your game, the little details of it. … Just go day by day, you appreciate each day as it comes, and that’s what these players will do. And years from now, the fans will look up and say, ‘Man, they created a dynasty.’ ”
That’s certainly what they’re are hoping for, that the combination of Ingram and Ball can be the faces of the next great Lakers team. Against the Warriors — the team that has assumed the Lakers’ customary place as the NBA’s boogeyman — they both showed at least glimpses of playing the part. Ingram had 19 points, six rebounds and five assists, including the game-tying basket at the end of regulation. Ball, meanwhile, had 16 points, six rebounds and six assists, scoring seven of the Lakers’ 12 points in overtime to keep them in the game until Kevin Durant snuffed any hopes of an upset with a Bryant-like pull-up jumper to win it for Golden State.
Replacing Bryant, however, will take more than succeeding on the court. It will involve matching the presence of a man who commissioned an animated documentary of his “Dear Basketball” letter in The Player’s Tribune that played at the beginning of Monday’s jersey retirement ceremony – complete with a tagline at the end to go check it out at a website known as go90.com.
It was that same flair for the dramatic that led Bryant to change numbers from No. 8 to No. 24 in the first place, and to play exactly 10 years in each of them. It led him to create the “Black Mamba” persona and, by doing so, to instill in a whole generation of stars the idea of the “mamba mentality.” It’s the same smoothness that allows Bryant to seamlessly shift from English to Spanish to Italian in interviews, depending on which the question was asked in.
All of that combined to create the image Bryant expertly cultivated during his two decades with the Lakers, one that turned him into a constantly compelling figure both on and off the court.
“There will never be another Kobe Bryant,” Magic Johnson said. “This man has turned out to be the greatest we’ve ever seen.”
The thing about the Lakers, though, is that another Kobe Bryant is exactly what they need these days. The kind of presence big enough to allow the franchise to officially move on from the man who spent two decades captivating everyone here with his combination of brilliance on the court and flair for the dramatic off it.
Otherwise, it may be quite some time until the Lakers are able to remove themselves from the darkness of the Kobe era, and back into the light of championship contention for which the franchise longs.
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