LOS ANGELES — All eyes were on the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night as they took the court for the first time since the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant, who spent 20 years with the team as a player and won five championships during that time.
The hope from fans was that the Lakers would rally around all the emotions coming into tonight’s game and give this city the type of feel-good moment it desperately needs, and at times it seemed like they might.
Within the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, the Lakers trailed the Portland Trail Blazers by 12 points, and with the game clock winding down, they needed something. Then, the fans at Staples Center — wearing the gold Bryant shirts that were given out — serenaded the Lakers with the loudest “Kobe” chants of the night. That chant gave them the energy they needed to go on a run and cut the deficit to seven points.
“That was pretty awesome,” Vogel said of the moment, flashing a big smile in his postgame press conference on Friday.
Unfortunately, the Lakers weren’t able to complete the comeback, ultimately losing 127-119. They came awfully close, but no one on the team had a Kobe Bryant-like performance in them to finish out the game — not even LeBron James, who’s as unstoppable of a player as we’ve ever seen in the NBA. But while James didn’t rise to the occasion in the clutch, he showed up when it mattered most.
On Friday, that moment just happened to be before both teams tipped off.
Before the start of the game, James walked to the center of the court to address the thousands of Lakers fans in attendance. James had written down what he wanted to say, with some help of people from the organization, but he decided at the last minute that he wasn’t going to read off of a paper.
“They asked me to kind of stay on course or whatever the case may be, but Laker Nation, man, I would be selling y’all short if I read off this shit, so I’m gonna go straight from the heart,” James said.
What followed was one of the most memorable displays of strength a basketball player has ever shown. James, without skipping a beat, honored his friend and said everything that needed to be said to a fanbase in need of a pick me up.
“Tonight we celebrate the kid that came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38, and became probably the best dad that we’ve seen over the last three years, man. Tonight is a celebration. Before we get to play, love y’all man,” James said.
James ended the night with 22 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds, but while turning the ball over five times and shooting 9-22 from the field. From a basketball standpoint, it wasn’t his best night of the season.
For reasons beyond basketball, it was a reminder of how great he consistently is, and that only further shined through in his postgame press conference.
James navigated through the questions about his personal grief to get to his final statement of the night, which was centered around one thing that’s bigger than basketball: Happiness.
“To see (Kobe) these last three years, just being a — I know you’ve all seen it — ‘Girl Dad,’ is the new hashtag. I’m a girl dad, my brother right here [Anthony Davis] is a girl dad, I don’t know how many of y’all have girls at home or if y’all got sisters, you quite understand. It just puts everything into perspective,” James said.
“Yes, this is a beautiful game. It’s taken us all over the world, it’s given us so many things that we could never, ever complain about ... But at the end of the day, when we all punch our clocks and we’re done for the day, or just done doing what we’re doing, just hug the shit out of your family. If you got kids, tell your kids you love them and 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 sacrifice your job, 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 got our ass kicked. I didn’t feel bad at all.”
Would it have been nice to see the Lakers win in the spirit of Bryan’t fierce competitiveness? Of course, but there are things that are so much bigger than a game, whether it’s a loss to a bitter rival like the Celtics or a game with a playoff atmosphere like the Clippers, or even just a game that felt important, like taking on the Blazers in the Lakers’ first time back on the court after an impossibly difficult week.
Losing a light like Bryant — one of the greatest to ever do it — helps put all that into perspective. The game is just the game, something James was wise to highlight during a week that has seen this franchise and fanbase face much bigger losses than any one game could ever be.