On Friday, as the Lakers hosted the Portland Trail Blazers in their first game since Bryant’s helicopter crashed in Calabasas, Calif., killing all nine people aboard — including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna — the area transformed into a giant shrine to the basketball icon. And LeBron James, Bryant’s successor as the face of the Lakers, capped an emotional pregame tribute by saluting the future Hall of Famer as a player, competitor and father.
“At some point we will have a memorial for Kobe, but I look at this as a celebration tonight,” James said. “This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken-down body. 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 began his remarks by dropping a piece of paper with a prepared statement to the court, telling the crowd that he planned to speak from the heart. He concluded by quoting Bryant’s farewell speech after the final game of his career.
“In the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,’ ” James said. “But in the words of us: ‘Not forgotten. Live on brother.’ ”
The much-anticipated pregame tribute, which had been kept under wraps all week, opened with pop star Usher singing “Amazing Grace” as the crowd chanted “M-V-P,” “Ko-be” and “Gi-Gi.” The Lakers then aired a six-minute video, which leaned heavily on interviews with Bryant, that traced his entire 20-year career with the Lakers, including footage of his rookie year, championship celebrations, Achilles’ injury and 60-point finale. Bryant was shown dunking past Michael Jordan, clowning around with Shaquille O’Neal, shaking hands with former Lakers owner Jerry Buss and spending time with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters.
After a 24.2-second moment of silence for Bryant and the other crash victims, James took the court, pledging to “continue [Bryant’s] legacy.” Once his speech was complete, the five Lakers starters were announced with Bryant’s standard introduction: “A 6-6 forward from Lower Merion High School in his 20th season. Kobeee Bryant.” Then, on the game’s first possessions, the Lakers took a 24-second violation and the Blazers took an eight-second violation to honor Bryant.
James and the Lakers, however, could not cap the night of remembrance with a win, falling 127-119 to the Blazers, who were led by Damian Lillard’s 48 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. James finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists.
Over the years, Bryant’s scoring acumen and fearless style of play drew an endless stream of movie stars, musicians and prize fighters to Staples Center, and his tragic death Sunday has brought thousands of mourners to the building and the adjacent L.A. Live district this week.
Television reporters arrived outside Staples Center at 5 a.m. for live shots, thousands of fans were milling around L.A. Live by midafternoon, and T-shirt bootleggers were doing brisk business selling apparel bearing images of the Bryants. Inside the building, the Lakers had draped a yellow T-shirt with Bryant’s jersey numbers on every seat, and they had added special decals with his initials and numbers to the court. In a touching tribute, the franchise wrapped two courtside seats with jerseys belonging to Kobe and Gianna Bryant. Roses were also placed on the seats where father and daughter had sat together in Section 112 to watch a game between the Lakers and Dallas Mavericks in late-December.
As fans began trickling into the building an hour before tip-off, they wore Bryant jerseys of all types (Lakers, Lower Merion, NBA all-star and USA) and colors (purple, yellow, white, blue, red and black). The scoreboard cycled through photos of the nine crash victims and displayed their names, and the Lakers took the court donning yellow Bryant jerseys as rap songs mentioning Bryant’s names played over the sound system.
The game capped an emotional and overwhelming week for the Lakers, who postponed their Tuesday game against the Clippers to allow for a grieving period. Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s longtime agent and godfather to Gianna, released a heartfelt statement Thursday, calling Bryant’s death “an amputation of part of my soul.”
“Kobe was a force of nature, deep and obsessed with excellence,” Pelinka said in the statement. “He was wise, determined, passionate. A visionary beyond measure. A dedicated and loving husband, and a ‘girl-dad’ like no other. When he walked into a room, the energy ignited. He was high voltage, with a motor that had no limits. His mind had an infinite capacity to learn. He was, simply put, the most inspirational athlete of our time. What the world may not know, is that he was also the best friend anyone could ever imagine.”
The Lakers progressed gradually and quietly toward their return to the court after their game Tuesday was postponed. James, Anthony Davis and the rest of the team declined to meet with the media Thursday for the second straight day, and Coach Frank Vogel acknowledged that the organization was bracing for a charged atmosphere.
“I would imagine [paying tribute to Bryant] would make it a little harder than an ordinary game with all the emotions and that stuff, but we shouldn’t do it any other way,” Vogel said after practice Thursday. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s an important night for our franchise.”
As huge piles of candles, flowers and tribute paintings amassed in L.A. Live throughout the week, the price of tickets to the Blazers game skyrocketed on the secondary market. Courtside seats were listed on StubHub for more than $15,000 each Thursday afternoon, and sellers were asking more than $700 for the 300 level.
The Lakers weren’t the first team to pay tribute to Bryant at Staples Center this week. When the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, they honored Bryant by donning his jersey and holding a 24-second moment of silence, a reference to his jersey number.
The Clippers, who typically cover the Lakers’ retired jerseys during their home games, left the two worn by Bryant uncovered Thursday night throughout their game against the Sacramento Kings. Clippers players donned warmups with Bryant’s jersey numbers on the back, and Paul George narrated a lengthy tribute video that aired before the game.
“Our city is suffering. Four days ago in Calabasas, nine lives were lost, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of Los Angeles,” George said. “We gather tonight in the house that Kobe Bryant built to honor him and them. Kobe was as synonymous with Southern California as the sunshine. He touched every inch of it.”
The somber mood in Los Angeles this week has stood in stark contrast to a joyful Lakers season. Despite an offseason overhaul that brought many new faces to town, The pairing of James and Davis has worked on the court from Day 1, and the unexpected contributions of Dwight Howard and other key role players have contributed to a jovial locker room culture.
At 36-10, the Lakers possess the West’s best record and, with the Clippers, are the favorites to represent the conference in the NBA Finals. Thanks to their on-court success and strong chemistry, the Lakers have been more warmly embraced this season by the Staples Center crowd than at any point since Bryant’s retirement.
The Lakers tried to regain a sense of normalcy during their grieving period, going through light shooting drills Wednesday before heading outside to warm up and toss a football on a nearby field Thursday.
“There are therapeutic benefits to sunshine,” Vogel said. “We’re trying to strike a balance of making guys feel good. Laughter is always a good remedy for something like this, when it’s appropriate. We had some of that at today’s workout outside. It feels good to be out there. Once we came inside, it was back to business.”
A week without basketball, though, set the stage perfectly for a poignant Friday night. James, who spent a decade as one of Bryant’s chief rivals, appeared as moved as anyone. He tattooed an image of Bryant’s jerseys, roses and a snake — a reference to Bryant’s “Black Mamba” nickname — on his leg this week, and he arrived at Staples Center wearing an unreleased version of Bryant’s sneakers.
“As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving, we’re all hurt, we’re all heartbroken,” James said. “When you’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family. I heard about Laker Nation before I got here last year, about how much of a family it is. That’s absolutely what I’ve seen this week. Everybody who is here is really, truly, truly a family.”