Kobe Bryant is gone, but he’ll always be with the Lakers. The NBA season being halted by a global pandemic that hit U.S. shores shortly after the deaths of Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, may have give everyone more time and space to grieve their loss, but their presence is still visible all around the purple and gold.
The KB patch the Lakers wear on their jerseys and display on their court. LeBron James hanging Bryant’s jersey in his locker. The No. 24 he put on his finger tape. That tattoos he and Anthony Davis got to honor their former USA Basketball teammate forever.
Even months after their deaths, Kobe and Gigi’s presences are still with James, simultaneously haunting and inspiring him, constantly.
“A day doesn’t go by where I don’t think about him,” James said on his Zoom call with the media on Monday. “A day doesn’t go by where our organization doesn’t remember him and think about not only Kob’, but Gigi, Vanessa and the other girls.”
James and the Lakers had plenty of motivation to win a title before Bryant’s death. But in a season that’s seen them deal with adversity right from the start — when they were trapped in their hotel rooms in China due to tweets sent by Daryl Morey — to when their campaign was again derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, his loss is one more collective hardship that has forced this team closer together.
“Anytime a group like ours goes through something so emotionally deep, it forms bonds. It strengthened our group. You never want something like that to happen, but I do think that’s the effect of something like that,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel.
This is not a sports movie. Death is real, and awful, and far more than just some hurdle to clear. But it’s also not the only reason the Lakers are trying to honor Kobe. According to Vogel, that’s something they wanted to do long before he passed. As one of the greatest players in franchise history, his work ethic left an indelible imprint on the entire organization, and his loss reminded them of how important it is to emulate his commitment to the craft.
“He’s still with us,” Vogel said. “We always, even prior to this happening, we wanted to embody what he stood for, and even more so now with what happened. We want to honor his memory.
“I think there is going to be a daily mindset of honoring the work, and having that toughness about us,” Vogel continued. “When we get into the playoffs there will be opportunities and situations where we’ll refresh our mindset of things that he stood for, and what his approach was from a competitive spirt standpoint. Come playoff time that I think will help us in our mission this year.”
Something I’ve tried to stay away from in my writing this year is the idea that the Lakers need to “win it for Kobe,” or other such ideas. During an already unprecedented and insane season, and while the team was going through actual grief over his loss, that seemed completely unfair and borderline-hacky to ask. It was too easy, and again, real-life isn’t a sports movie. Death isn’t a third-act struggle.
But just because it’s not a fair expectation doesn’t mean it’s not one James and the Lakers are embracing. In his first words after Bryant’s death, he promised to carry Bryant’s legacy forward.
“I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation,” James wrote on Instagram, punctuating his words with purple and gold emojis. “It’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here!”
It was a sentiment he doubled down on in his heartfelt, unscripted and inspiring remarks to fans at Staples Center in the first game after Bryant’s death.
“Kobe is a brother to me, and from the time I was in high school watching him from afar, to getting in this league at 18 and watching him up close, all the battles that we had throughout my career, the one thing that we always shared is that determination to just want to win. To just want to be great,” James said. “The fact that I’m here now means so much to me, I want to continue — along with my teammates — to continue his legacy not only for this year, but as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love, because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want.”
So while we can’t ask the Lakers to play or win for Kobe, it really does seem as though that’s what they want to do. What James wants to do. That the generation of players he inspired and his successor as the league’s best player that make up the current team want to honor Kobe and Gianna’s legacies by doing what both Bryants loved to do most on the court: Win.
“(The Bryants) are a part of this family just as big as anybody in this organization’s history. We still wear 24 and 8, and the number 2 with pride and in remembrance of how great they were,” James said.
And from the sound of things, those are far from the only ways they want to honor them.