James returned to the spotlight Friday, stepping to center court to deliver an extended pregame statement honoring Bryant before the Lakers’ 127-119 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. The speech hit all the right and expected notes: James recognized the victims, expressed sympathy to their families, praised Bryant’s basketball abilities and thanked Lakers fans for coming together as a community. He projected strength and pledged to honor Bryant’s legacy, all while doing his best to hold back tears.
“What he said was just beautiful. It was strong,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “It represented who he is and who we are as a team. [That was] definitely the heaviest game I’ve been a part of.”
After the game, the weight of Bryant’s death on James was even more obvious. He wore sunglasses to hide his eyes, he hung his head at times, and he answered questions, uncharacteristically, in monotone. Yet James was able to make clear that Bryant’s death had led him to reflect on his own life, career, family and priorities.
Although James and Bryant were rivals for more than a decade, they had much in common. They are champions, MVPs, Olympic gold medalists, fathers, maniacal workers, global celebrities, sneaker pitchmen and heirs to Michael Jordan. They had different strengths on the court and distinct personalities off it, but they clearly could relate to each other in ways outsiders could never fathom.
James appeared reluctant to share detailed memories of Bryant through his grief, although he called Bryant his “brother.” He remembered their first meeting when he was 15 years old and waxed briefly about their battles at USA Basketball practices in 2008 and 2012.
“You can see a lot of the clips from our practices where we, me and Kobe, were leading the troops,” James smiled. “You could tell both of us were trying to see which one was the alpha dog. We had so much mutual respect and drive.”
The bulk of James’s reflection this week, though, clearly wasn’t spent on basketball. As his news conference closed, James recalled a recent conversation with his wife, Savannah, about Bryant’s relationship with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters, including 13-year-old Gianna, who also died in the helicopter crash.
“Seeing Kobe playing the game of basketball for 20 years,” James recounted, “you know what’s crazy? Out of all the success he had — five rings, MVPs, first-team everything, all-life, all-world, all-basketball — I felt like the last three years were the happiest I’ve ever seen him. Being able to be with his daughters and his family.”
James’s relationship with his children has been a subject of increased media attention throughout this season, in part because his 15-year-old son, Bronny, has become a high school basketball phenomenon. Bryant’s happiness in retirement and his sudden death naturally led James to contemplate his own work-life balance.
“When we play this game of basketball, we give so much to it,” he said. “This is my 17th year, so I know. Unfortunately your family comes to the wayside at times. When you want to be great at something, the best at something, you become so driven that you won’t let anything stand in the way of it. Not even your own family sometimes.”
James, 35, added that history — and playing in the shadow of past legends — only increases the burdens of pressure and time.
“We get compared all the time to greatness, and that makes us even more driven and even more [kept] away from our own family,” he said. “That’s the difficult part that we deal with as professional athletes when you want to be great. … [Bryant’s death] puts everything into perspective.”
On a recent road trip, James drove two hours out of his way, to Springfield, Mass., to attend one of Bronny’s high school games shortly before a game against the Boston Celtics. James said Friday that, even though the Lakers “got our a-- kicked” by the Celtics, he “didn’t feel bad” about it because he had spent the time with his son.
For James, this was the major takeaway from Bryant’s tragic death: Career and family might unavoidably come into conflict, but the former shouldn’t marginalize the latter.
“When you punch your clocks and we punch our clocks, when we’re done for the day, make sure you hug the s--- out of your family,” James told the assembled media members. “If you have kids, tell them you love them. Try to make it to as much as you can, and don’t feel bad if you happen to go to one of your loved one’s events and [that means you] sacrifice your job.”