Kobe Bryant took the court at Staples Center again on Friday. The 13 active players for the Lakers wore no. 8 or no. 24 jerseys up until tipoff. Each member of the starting lineup was introduced the same way: “Number 24, 6-6, 20th season, from Lower Merion High School … Kobe Bryant.”
LeBron James took the tribute one step further, devoting his in-game aesthetic to Bryant: a baggy jersey, a sweatband on his elbow, even a finger sleeve. “Just showing the appreciation and the love that he gave us way before he knew us,” James said.
The void Bryant left in the Lakers organization and its fans is limitless. That was clear on Friday, when the Lakers went back to work for the first time since Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash. Staples Center was eerily quiet during pregame warmups, arena attendants and players alike wearing grief on their faces and across their chests. The usually resplendent Rob Pelinka—Kobe’s agent and friend and godfather to his late daughter—looked worn and stubbled. Anthony Davis’s face was still red as he made his way through pregame introductions.
“It was very emotional,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after the 127-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. “Our guys were teared up going into the jump ball.”
But into the void stepped LeBron. After moving tributes to Bryant during the pregame ceremony, James stood at center court between two memorial wreaths bearing Bryant’s no. 8 and no. 24, tossed aside his prepared speech, and spoke to the masses “straight from the heart.”
“The first thing that comes to mind, man, is all about family,” James said. “As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving. We’re all hurt, we’re all heartbroken. But 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. And that is absolutely what I’ve seen this week. Not only from the players, not only from the coaching staff, not only from the organization, but from everybody. Everybody that’s here—this is really, truly, truly a family.”
.@KingJames gives a heartfelt speech during the Lakers' pregame ceremony. pic.twitter.com/BsYO0NlxIP— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 1, 2020
The message he delivered echoed the one Bryant gave him during their first conversation as Lakers. Soon after James announced his decision to sign with the Lakers on July 1, 2018, Bryant, never one to make friends during his playing days, reached out to him. “Welcome to L.A.,” Bryant recalled telling James nearly two months later. “Now you’re a part of the family.”
Not all Lakers fans were as hospitable. Murals of James sprouted up around Los Angeles following his signing—including one with James gazing up at Lakers luminaries, Bryant among them. But the paintings were defaced almost as quickly as they appeared. Kobe fans have become a subsection within Lakers fandom, especially in Bryant’s final seasons, when the team’s success took a backseat to a proper sendoff for the legend. And Kobe fans weren’t exactly opening their arms for one of Bryant’s longtime rivals for NBA supremacy. “Die-hard Kobe fans, the old ones, they still hate LeBron,” one fan told The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti in the summer of 2018. “If [LeBron] wants to be the King of L.A., he’s gotta win first,” said another. It’s a tough assessment for one of the greatest players in NBA history, two years removed from his third championship, yet one befitting of their idol.
“If you’re a fan of mine, you’re a fan of winning,” Bryant said in response to the initial backlash James received. “You’re a fan of the Lakers. I bleed purple and gold. So that’s above anything else. I’ve been a Laker fan since I was yay high—that’s never gonna change. It’s about winning championships. They’ll fall in line.”
James hasn’t gotten quite that far, but after a tumultuous first season in Los Angeles, LeBron is playing inspired basketball again, and the Lakers are back on top. In turn, the lingering doubt has dissipated. Last Saturday, Bryant practically blessed James—not only as a Laker but as a worthy successor. After James passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list, in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, with “Mamba 4 Life” written on his shoes, Kobe tweeted out his congratulations. The message was brief but intimate: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.” Bryant also reportedly called James later that night; it was likely Bryant’s last contact with the NBA world before the tragedy that claimed him.
Even the most cynical Kobe fan would be moved by the kismet. This was, almost literally, a passing of the torch.
“It’s surreal,” James told reporters after the Sixers game. “It doesn’t make no sense, but the universe just puts things in your life.”
On Friday, James said the best way to continue Bryant’s legacy was to play. But he also understands that doing so means not just playing but playing to win.
“From the time I was in high school, to watching him afar, to being in this league at 18 watching him up close. All the battles we had throughout my career, the one thing that we always shared was that determination to just want to win,” James said. “And just want to be great.”
That desire was there Friday, just not the execution. The Lakers rallied in the fourth, getting a boost at one point, Vogel said, by chants of “KO-BE.” But Damian Lillard, amid one of the best runs of his career, proved insurmountable; the Blazers All-Star finished with 48 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds, bringing his scoring average over the past five games to 48.
“We all wanted to win this game really bad,” Vogel said.
But the night was about more than that. Vogel played everyone on the roster before halftime, a symbol for the bond they built over the past week. James finished the night by relaying a story: Earlier this week, he told his wife that Bryant was happier in the three years after his retirement than he was while winning accolade after accolade during his 20 years in the NBA.
“When we play this game of basketball, we give so much to it,” James continued. “This is my 17th year, so I know. You give so much to it that, unfortunately, your family comes to the wayside at times. Because when you want to be great at something, when you want to be the best at something, and you become so driven that you won’t let nothing stand in your way of it. Not even your own family. And we get compared all the time to greatness, and that makes us even more driven and even more shadowed away from my own family.”
But when the day is over, James said, “love the shit out of your family. … And don’t feel bad about it.”
“Because I didn’t feel bad in Boston, when I went to go see my son two hours away in Springfield and we had a game that night, and we got our ass kicked,” James said, referencing a 32-point loss to the Celtics last week. “I didn’t feel bad at all.
“So … yeah,” he concluded. “That took a twist. But in the name of Kobe, why not?”