LeBron James and Kobe Bryant may have never been best friends, but as a fellow all-time great and the first superstar to attempt to carry the Los Angeles Lakers forward after Bryant’s retirement, it’s been clear that James has felt Bryant’s death as acutely as nearly anyone in the organization.
From wearing Bryant’s No. 24 on his finger sleeve to hanging his jersey in his locker, some of the signs have been on public display. Others, like James being the one who requested that the Lakers’ starters all be introduced as Kobe Bryant before the emotional first game following Bryant’s death, have only recently come to light.
Bryant came up again after James led the Lakers to the NBA Finals with incredible shot-making down the stretch in Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets to close out the Western Conference Finals, with James being asked about Bryant doing the same thing a decade earlier against the Phoenix Suns in 2010. His answer was a direct testimony to why Bryant still comes up so often around this team.
“I mean, every time you put on purple and gold, you think about his legacy. You think about him and about what he meant to this franchise for 20-plus years, and what he stood for both on the floor and off the floor. What he demanded out of his teammates and what he demanded out of himself. We have some similarities in that sense,” James said.
“Our games are different, but as far as our mindset and our drive to want to be the best and our drive to not lose — sometimes you’re going to lose games, but that drive to always want to be victorious, it stops you from sleeping,” James continued. “You sacrifice a lot of things. You sacrifice your family at times because you’re so driven to be so great that other things fall by the wayside at times.
“I understand that. I’m one of the few that can understand the mindset that he played with and the journey from high school to the NBA. It’s just a thing that I carry with me.”
James is far from the only Laker to feel Bryant’s loss, but he’s certainly been the most public about it, basically from the moment Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were tragically taken from the world.
“I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation,” James wrote back in January, in his first comments after Bryant passed. “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!”
This is not some sports movie-esque, forced motivational trope, either. James truly does seem to feel the burden of leading a franchise and its fanbase through the loss of the player that carried them for the nearly 20 years before James arrived, literally tattooing a black mamba — the inspiration for Bryant’s nickname — on his leg as a constant, permanent reminder of what has been lost.
Some have questioned why Bryant comes up so often, or if the media is trying to milk the narrative for all its worth. Some of the talk is attributable to the questions these players are asked, yes, but it’s also a point of discussion because it’s not just James who feels this loss on a daily basis.
From Quinn Cook — who grew up a Lakers fan and mourned Bryant’s loss in the streets alongside them in January, and says that Bryant made his entire life by complimenting his NBA Finals’ performance — to Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka — who was not just Bryant’s agent, but his best friend who called the loss of his friend and goddaughter “an amputation of part of my soul” — this team was really, truly impacted by Kobe’s death. And that’s without mentioning an entire, tight-knit and self-described family organization full of people who watched him grow from a 17-year-old kid into a 37-year-old, proud Girl Dad, a group that was “devastated and forever changed” by his loss.
With all of those feelings and emotions reverberating around the building and carrying forward into the NBA bubble, the players on this roster have really come together and tried to seize the proverbial torch carry Bryant’s legacy forward.
Davis joined James in getting ink, tattooing Bryant’s logo on his leg, and speaking throughout the postseason about how the Lakers want to win this title to honor Bryant. Cook changed his number from No. 2 to No. 28 out of respect for Gianna. Dwight Howard wasn’t able to speak to the media for nearly two weeks due to the grief he felt after the death of his former teammate, and was clearly racked by guilt due to the loss of a man he never got to fully make amends with. Still, he was able to take some solace in the idea that Bryant had seen his growth, and was one of the people telling the Lakers to sign Howard for a second go-round with the Lakers, even after their tumultuous and failed first one together.
In the immediate aftermath of Bryant’s loss, the Lakers paid tribute to him in tons of ways, but have seemingly renewed their efforts to do so when the postseason — the games that really mattered to Bryant — began. James and Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said early on that the team was still playing for Kobe in the bubble. Vogel and J.R. Smith then spent Bryant’s birthday talking about how much his legacy impacted them and this team. The Lakers debuted new jerseys the day afterwards — 8/24, or “Mamba Day” — the Bryant-designed “Black Mamba” duds, now with a patch for Gianna, that they said had them feeling Bryant’s presence.
But some of the remembrances have been smaller and more internal. The team started their first playoff film session with a Kobe hype video put together by assistant coach Lionel Hollins, a two-minute reminder of Bryant’s postseason legacy. And from Howard wearing his former teammate’s No. 8 jersey to Davis donning a shirt calling Bryant the greatest of all-time, sartorial tributes to the late legend have been constant.
“Not just me but the entire team thinks about him all the time,” Davis said the night he wore that shirt. “We say, ‘Mamba on three’ after every timeout, every huddle, knowing that he’s with us, and knowing that we’re not only playing for our organization, but playing for him.”
Perhaps most fitting as a way to remember a player who cared about winning more than anything else, though, has been the Lakers going undefeated (3-0) so far in their black, Bryant-inspired Mamba uniforms, culminating in Davis hitting one of Bryant’s patented game-winners in Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets while wearing the duds. Success like that is what would have made Bryant the most proud of this group, according to Lakers governor Jeanie Buss.
“Kobe loved Lakers basketball and he loved winning, so it’s the perfect combination. That was the standard that Kobe set,” Buss said last week during an appearance on “Sedano and LZ” on ESPN Los Angeles. “I mean, to go from not being in the playoffs last year to leading the Western Conference is really an accomplishment, and I think that’s what Kobe would really want to see, and I think last night (in Game 2) the team really made him proud.”
And whether or not one believes in the supernatural, or if Bryant’s spirit is actually with this team, or if winning a title for him is something they should feel like they need to do, it’s obvious at this point that the team itself has taken on that challenge and let it buoy them through an unprecedented year that started with the team being trapped in their hotel rooms in China and ended with them confined to a resort in Orlando. But whether they ultimately close out this unprecedented run with a title or not, Buss says the play of these Lakers has helped the city and world both heal from and process the loss of Bryant.
“Kobe left a legacy for us, so being together through Laker basketball has kind of helped all of us, as Laker Nation came together to mourn him,” Buss said. “I know what Kobe meant to us, to Laker fans, to the city of Los Angeles, but the outpouring of athletes all over the world, even continuing today (is incredible).
“He really was so generous with his time and advice, and I knew that’s what he meant to me and what he did for me, but I didn’t realize how generous he was with so many other people, and you know we all lost somebody special. Irreplaceable,” Buss continued. “I think about just the basketball knowledge that he was sharing with this next generation of NBA players. When they talk about their interaction with him and his ability to share and be so generous with the things that he learned. And even watching Naomi (Osaka) win the U.S. Open, and her saying in her conversations with Kobe that she said ‘I want to be as good as you,’ and he said ‘no you’re going to be better.’
“That kind of motivation and those kind of things, what a beautiful human being, and we all lost somebody that is irreplaceable, and we’ll feel that loss forever.”
It seems impossible to believe now, but the last time the Lakers played in an NBA Finals in Orlando, Bryant was not considered in the same, almost-unimpeachable vein as a basketball star that he is now. He had three rings, but they all came with Shaquille O’Neal. He had won an MVP, but lost in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics the year prior. There were people genuinely asking if you could win a title with him as your best player.
Not smart people, but still, people.
When Bryant and the Lakers finished off that series, there was no question. Bryant had won a title as the team’s best player, and looked like a man who had gotten a proverbial monkey off his back. There would be no more suggestions that he couldn’t win without Shaq, no more questioning his ability to be the center of a team, because now he’d actually done both.
Game 5 against the Magic was never really in doubt, but you could still see the relief in Bryant’s eyes as it actually ended with him victorious. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, jersey in his mouth but still smiling ear to ear for one of the only times all season, he let himself feel the type of happiness that can only come with great relief. As his teammates engulfed him to celebrate his fourth championship, he could finally breathe: The job was finished.
The Lakers aren’t facing the exact same situation. LeBron James has won three titles already. Anthony Davis is looking for his first one, but even if he wins it, it won’t be with him as a clear alpha in the way Bryant’s was. People will still use it to question him down the line, because that’s how the internet works.
But this Lakers team has collectively faced questions in much the same way Bryant’s did. Was this group good enough? Did these stars have enough help? This team is going to be sold as if they were always favorites now that they’ve made it here, but they entered both the season and postseason with doubters aplenty. Literally no one on ESPN’s panel of NBA experts picked them to win the title. As good as their stars were, the Lakers were clearly not viewed as a preseason sho-in or juggernaut.
But Bryant won in part because relatively unheralded role players stepped up to complement him and Pau Gasol. Can Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso do the same for Davis and James, and serve as their own versions of Shannon Brown and Trevor Ariza? If the Lakers are able to beat the Miami Heat, we’ll know the answer.
And if that happens, hopefully this team can channel their inner Bryant one more time. Not for a brow-furrowed jaw jut, but to let the relief and happiness he felt as the Lakers celebrated in Orlando in 2009 wash over them if they follow in his footsteps. In a season full of tributes, being able to let all of that burden go after a year unlike any other would be the best one yet.