The year 2020 couldn’t have started out much worse for the Lakers. In the midst of their most successful season in a decade, one of the greatest players to ever represent their organization, Kobe Bryant, was involved in a helicopter crash in Calabasas that killed him and eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant. A piece of Los Angeles died that day too.
The night before, LeBron James had passed Bryant on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, which added another bullet point to his Hall of Fame resume and strengthened his case for the 2019-20 MVP Award. Bryant’s last tweet before his tragic death was a congratulatory message to James.
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
The Lakers didn’t play for six days after Bryant died, with the grief everyone was going through even leading to a postponement of then next matchup on their schedule. When they did return to the court, it was to remember Bryant’s life and legacy — the game they played and lost that night was an afterthought.
But as hard as it was for them to continue their season, they did, and they did it with Bryant in mind: They wore black and yellow “KB” patches on their jerseys, they broke up every team huddle with “1-2-3 Mamba” and, best of all, they played as hard as humanly possible, something Bryant prided himself on doing over the course of his 20-year career.
But just as the Lakers were starting to hit their stride, beating the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers in back-to-back games to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were legitimate title contenders — something that was very much doubted by many at the time — their season was indefinitely suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. All the momentum they had built up had come to a hard stop, and there was no guarantee that they’d be able to start it back up again. For a moment, it felt like the season was effectively over. Like 2020 wouldn’t let us have any silver linings whatsoever.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
After three months of planning and negotiating, the NBA restarted its season at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando with nine teams from the Eastern Conference and 13 teams from the Western Conference. The Lakers went into The Bubble as the No. 1 seed in the West, but there were legitimate concerns about how they’d look upon their return.
Avery Bradley, their starting point guard during the regular season, decided to stay home for the final stretch of the season for personal reasons, and his primary backup, Rajon Rondo, suffered a thumb injury that he had to undergo surgery to repair. In addition to that, there were questions about how the Lakers’ veteran players would look after having almost four months off, and season-long questions about if their supporting cast was good enough continued.
While those concerns weren’t mollified immediately, it didn’t take long for the Lakers to turn their doubters to believers. After dropping Game 1 of their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers won four consecutive games to move onto the Western Conference semifinals, where they did the same thing. In fact, the only series they didn’t win in five games was their NBA Finals series against the Miami Heat, and even that series should have been settled in five games ... but I digress.
Seeing James win his first championship with the Lakers and his fourth overall championship was sweet. Seeing Anthony Davis have his “playoff moment”against the Denver Nuggets and win his first-ever championship was amazing. Seeing Bryant’s former teammate, Dwight Howard, run up to James and yell “we got one” seven years after his infamous exit from Los Angeles, was amazingly sweet . But none of those things were as sweet as they could have been.
Due to the very real dangers of the coronavirus pandemic, the Lakers weren’t able to end their seven-year playoff drought in front of their fans at Staples Center. They also weren’t able to celebrate with a championship parade on Figueroa, to feel the love from the fans who endlessly appreciate their efforts in raising banner No. 17. This year has taken moments — and people — from us that we will never be able to get back, and that reality can often be sobering.
But it also made us appreciate the things and moments we had a little more, as well as the people we were able to spend them with. There are obviously things in the world that are more important than basketball, but Lakers basketball has a unique ability to bring us together like few other things can. It’s why this site exists.
Hopefully, some day soon, we can all be together again.