LOS ANGELES — After their week-long Grammy road trip, the Los Angeles Lakers finally returned to Staples Center on Friday for their first home game since Jan. 15. A lot has changed since then, to say the least.
While the Lakers still sit atop of the Western Conference with a 36-11 record, the organization suffered a loss over the weekend that they can’t make up in the standings. As the team was flying back to Los Angeles on Sunday morning, Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
All of a sudden, the Lakers’ highly anticipated homecoming was no longer sweet. The city they left behind had changed forever by the time they landed.
The Lakers were scheduled to play a game before Friday, against the Clippers — their rivals from across the hallway and the only team they’ve lost to twice this season — but the pain heading into that Tuesday game was still too fresh, and the game was postponed. While having a few days to process the tragic events of Sunday undoubtedly helped the team, there was nothing that could have prepared them for what Friday had in store.
Outside of Staples Center, there were whiteboards lined up for fans to leave their final messages for Bryant. The floor was covered with purple and gold flowers, candles, Lakers memorabilia and writing in marker. Standing over that scene were bright billboards with a pictures of Kobe and Gianna, and the names of the seven other people that lost their lives.
All of these things were reminders that Bryant was really gone, and Quinn Cook, who grew up a die-hard Kobe fan, put himself at the center of all of it on Sunday, the day of Bryant’s passing.
“I’m a fan first, so when I saw on TV that they were doing that, my brother just took me out there,” Cook said. “He dropped me off, I was with nobody. I wanted to pay my respects to my favorite player ever.
“I was crying all day, and I got out there and the fans let me mourn. The fans always gave me some encouragement. That was rough, but I’m happy I did it. It’s something I felt I needed to do.”
Inside the hallways of the building, the marquee that usually has the matchup of the night on it read “Rest in peace Kobe and Gianna.” But it was the sound of the hallways, or lack thereof, that was the most stunning. For one night, the biggest show in basketball took a deep breath to make sure everything went right for Bryant, and their attention to detail paid off.
Staples Center was lit up in gold, with all but two seats having been covered by a shirt with Bryant’s name and two numbers. The two seats that didn’t have a shirt on them were the two seats the Lakers left empty for Kobe and Gianna, the same seats they occupied during what would be their final game at Staples Center.
On the court, by the scorer’s table, were Bryant’s two numbers, eight and 24, now emblazoned into the court — the same two numbers that are hanging in the rafters. All of the other retired numbers were blacked out for the night.
Even before the Lakers started their tribute to Bryant, the scene on its own was heavy, and Anthony Davis didn’t know how to process all of the emotions he was feeling.
“[I felt] anxious, nervous,” Davis said. “Seeing everything, the decals on the floor, knowing what tonight was going to be, it was just an emotional game for all of us.”
Then, the tribute started, and it became nearly impossible for anyone to contain their raw emotions.
The first sight of Bryant’s face on the jumbotron and sound of his voice over the sound of Ben Hong masterfully playing the cello were met with smiles; like seeing a loved one for the first time in a while. Those smiles quickly faded, as the reality that Bryant was gone started setting in for everyone. This wasn’t a statue unveiling or a Hall of Fame ceremony — this was Bryant’s memorial.
As one does at a memorial, LeBron James gave a speech in remembrance of his friend Kobe, but his speech wasn’t written down on a piece of paper — or should I say, the speech he gave wasn’t he one he wrote down. James tossed the paper in his hand to the ground and spoke from the heart, and it showed.
“I wanted to make sure I acknowledged all the lives that was lost Sunday morning,” James said. “I didn’t want to mess that up, so I put all their names on the paper and was able to go through that, but when I kind of looked at the note cards I kind of had, or was being assisted on, some of them were what I wanted to talk about, but I just decided that for me personally, letting the words just flow right from the heart, just knowing that they’re pure, and that it’s all truth to it.
“It just happened. Spur of the moment.”
“What he said was just beautiful,” James’ head coach Frank Vogel said after the game. “It was strong and it represented who he is, and really who we are as a team, as an organization. I thought the tribute was extremely well done by the people in the Lakers organization. And the fan support was not surprising, but it was off the charts. It was really a great night from all those standpoints.
“For Bron to be up there speaking to Laker Nation with such strength, it really represents what we’re all about.”
James’ speech was the perfect end to a beautiful tribute by the Lakers, but the night was just getting started for the players on the court. With tears still in their eyes, they had to pull themselves together to play their first game in a week.
Like he has every home game for the last 27 years, the Lakers’ PA announcer Lawrence Tanter announced the starting lineups, but in honor of Bryant, he introduced everyone on the home team wearing a Bryant jersey as if they were actually him.
“6’6, 20th year out of Lower Merion High School: Kobe Bryant,” Tanter said in his baritone voice. The crowd grew louder with each introduction.
When the Lakers took off their Bryant jerseys, a few of them still paid tribute to Bryant with the way they dressed for the game. While all of them had the new, black and gold “KB” patch sewed onto their game jerseys, James and Davis took it a step further and wore double-wide wristbands like Bryant used to.
“It was basically us showing our appreciation for what he did for us growing up,” James said. “Me wearing the oversized jersey, me wearing the wristbands, me wearing the finger sleeve, me wearing his shoes was just showing him the appreciation and love he gave us way before he knew us, and then when we got the opportunity to actually become competitors and become brothers.”
James was 12 years old when Bryant was drafted with the No. 13 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, and Bryant had already been a superstar by the time James entered the league in 2003. Almost everyone in the league today grew up watching Bryant — he was their Michael Jordan, which is what makes his death so devastating.
“It’s like a piece of my childhood was taken from me. Taken from everybody,” Cook said. “I’ve never experienced a death where it’s affected everybody like this in my 26 years. I just kept going back to my dad because he was the biggest Laker fan ever. The biggest Kobe fan ever. When he passed, it was like Kobe was what kept me going. The Lakers are what kept me going at that time.
“So it kind of brought me back to 2008. It’s been a rough week for everyone, and we’ve all been there for each other. Like I said earlier, I just don’t know how to get over it. I just know he would want us to keep going.”
The Lakers didn’t get the result they wanted, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers 127-119, but Vogel understood that the real victory was his players getting back out on the court and playing basketball after tragedy struck the team. Regardless of the result, it was an escape.
“We need to understand as a group that it’s a long season, and this was going to be a difficult one,” Vogel said.” We didn’t want to lose, but this week has been about life more than basketball wins and losses.”
“It’s definitely the heaviest game I’ve been apart of, and I think most of our guys and fans would probably agree.”
The Lakers will continue to try and move forward, and they’ll do it the same way they’ve been doing everything all season: Together.
“We’re a family,” Vogel said. “This current group has become a family very rapidly by NBA standards, and we all shared this this week. We all were on that plane to hear that news, and I wanted to give everybody an opportunity to contribute in this game.”
Kyle Kuzma compared this year’s team to a college team.
“Everyone is so close,” Kuzma said. “We know each others’ families. We hang out together everywhere. We’re super tight-knit. So it just means a lot. A lot of us have been emotional the past week, and I think we’ve done a great job coping and mourning, and laughing and just being together.”
Kuzma formed a relationship with Bryant went he was drafted in 2017, and he said he’s cried so much that he doesn’t think he has any tears left. But he and the Lakers know they have a job to do, and Vogel thinks that getting back to business — and time — will help things start to feel normal again.
“There is therapy in the work, and that’s what’s led to our success so far this year,” Vogel said. “So it’s gonna take time, but our guys, we’ve got a resilient group with high character that has a great work ethic.”
Those qualities got them through one of the toughest and most emotional weeks an NBA team has ever faced. It will have to be enough to steady them moving forward, too.