Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020
Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020

Lakers hold emotional tribute for Kobe Bryant

On a night where basketball was almost secondary, the Lakers battle through their first game since the franchise icon's tragic death

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Archive

Feb 1, 2020 2:05 AM ET

The Lakers left roses and jerseys in the empty seats frequented by Kobe and Gigi Bryant at Staples Centers.

LOS ANGELES — Sometimes there is honor in cracking in the moment, something Kobe Bryant never did in two decades as a certified and relentless winner, something that was unavoidable, understandable and definitely applaudable in a surreal Friday at Staples Center.

The first commanding voice heard over the loudspeaker was the baritone belonging to Lawrence Tanter, so smooth and regal for four decades as the public address announcer for the Lakers, suddenly so static for a brief and detectable moment while he welcomed a sellout crowd and weaved through the pregame ceremony.

The second came from LeBron James, who tossed aside a handwritten statement on a sheet of paper, explaining that instead of “selling y’all (short), I’ll go straight to the heart.” Then he needed a few deep breaths to make it through his impromptu address about what Kobe meant to him, the Lakers and basketball.

In between those sounds came others that struck the right tenor for a long-awaited and much-needed night of remembrance. Usher, the soul singer, gave a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that belonged on a Sunday morning, his pitch turning honey as highlights of Bryant being celebrated by dozens of teams and athletes from multiple sports and countries played overhead. The arena turned dark for that, peppered only by tiny lights from thousands of cell phone cameras.

And then with Ben Hong of the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing cello, more Kobe highlights, complete with his words about his philosophy on life, hard work, family and the sport he lived and sweat for and loved.

 
LeBron James addresses the crowd at Staples Center before Friday's game.

So moving, so rich. For the next 10 minutes it was Kobe on autoplay, in his own words, bouncing through his basketball journey starting as a teenager in high school who couldn’t believe his luck when the Lakers swung a draft-day trade for him. Then there was Kobe, with miniature ‘fro and perky personality, elevating his way to stardom, the arms of Shaquille O’Neal and a string of championships. Also the twilight Kobe, wincing from a torn Achilles, pushing through rehab and finishing with a 60-point exclamation point in his final game. Lastly, the father Kobe, doting on his four daughters and teaching the finer points of the game to the one who embraced basketball, Gigi.

These were some snippets of his message that brought sniffles and chants of “MVP” and “Kobe”:

“I wanted to be the best basketball player I could and anything that was outside of that lane I didn’t have time for.”

And:

“Pay everything you learned forward.”

And:

“I love you guys, or can I say, 'Mamba out.’”

Well. You expected this and so you got this just before tipoff of the Lakers’ first action since the death of Bryant and eight others, including Gigi. There is no guidebook for moments such as these, when emotions and tragedy make for a turbulent mix, and you ask: What is appropriate? What is tasteful? What is right?

 
The Lakers and Blazers honor Bryant with violations to start their game.

This was not a basketball game anyone came to see; this was a shared reflection everyone wanted to feel. Here on the final and longest and most moving of the Kobe memorials around the NBA over the past five days, everyone saw how the devotion to Kobe naturally runs deepest in L.A., where he won five titles but mostly made people happy while doing it.

“It was very emotional,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “Guys teared up going into the jump ball. You just felt it the whole night.”

The player he was for 20 years and the passionate father he was until the minute the helicopter crashed Sunday in the Calabasas hills is what resonated with so many and why Staples had the mood of a mass therapy session and fully embraced it.

“This week has been about life more than basketball,” said Vogel.

Both before and during the ceremony, thousands of fans gathered in the streets outside Staples, unable to get in but anxious to share the sentiment. The crowds actually began gathering Friday morning around 9. By noon, there was a swell, and the makeshift memorials that peppered the sidewalks around Staples and the courtyard at LA Live across the street had multiplied.

Arena officials said these will not go to waste. Instead: The basketballs and large boards featuring handwritten signs will be boxed and sent to Bryant’s family, upon their request. The flowers will be turned to mulch and used to fertilize plants around the arena. The candles will be donated to shelters.

But inside: Everyone was given a shirt with 8 on one side, 24 on the other. With Gigi’s travel teammates watching from nearby seats, two chairs remained unoccupied by design. They were draped with jerseys, a No. 24 for Bryant, No. 2 for Gigi; father and daughter sat on those seats in December to watch the Lakers play the Mavericks because she was a Luka Doncic fan. It was the last NBA game they saw together.

 
LeBron James and Anthony Davis reflect and share memories of Kobe Bryant.

The players were inspired by that, and Anthony Davis said: “For me, it was about playing as hard as I could knowing that’s what he would want me to do. Try my best to make him proud.”

Frank Vogel and the coaching staff wore Kobe sneakers. The players warmed up in Kobe T-shirts and then Kobe jerseys for the starting lineup introductions, which were anything but routine.

Tanter spoke, this time without a hitch, with each guard and forward and center position sounding concise and the same: “6-6, 20th campaign from Lower Merion High School, Ko-bee Bryant.”

More? Of course more. As the Lakers walked from the bench to the scorer’s table to check in, they bypassed a freshly-painted No. 8 on the court, while the Blazers walked over a 24. There was a 24.2-second moment of silence, the 24 for Kobe, the 2 for his daughter. Also, a 24-second violation to start the game, followed by an eight-second backcourt violation. As the night deepened, a single spotlight stayed transfixed on the only visible retired jerseys hanging in the rafters, and your first guess which ones is correct.

The Lakers played through their emotions in their first action in six days after flying from Philadelphia last Saturday and checking their cell phones in shock. They also dribbled and shot through particles of chalk, tossed in the air by LeBron, who never pointed skyward after tossing until this one time.

 
The Lakers introduce their five starters as "Kobe Bryant."

He was silent since the crash, choosing to save his first words for Friday. In his pregame speech he got straight to what matters:

“It’s all about family,” he said. “Best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family. This is really truly, truly, a family … I look at this as a celebration tonight. Tonight we celebrate the kid that came here at 18 and retired at 38. Kobe is a brother to me. All the battles we had in my career, the one thing we shared is the determination we had to want to win … I want to continue his legacy, not only this year but for how long we play the game of basketball because that’s what we love.”

There was a basketball game wrapped inside a tribute. It was Portland’s third game since Kobe’s death. The Blazers, looser and less burdened, won 127-119 for those interested.

The real finish was provided hours before the buzzer by LeBron in his tribute. He played the role of closer, much like Kobe had, by quoting Kobe’s final game sign-off with a twist:

“In the words of Kobe Bryant, 'Mamba Out,’ but in the words of us, 'not forgotten.' Live on, brother."

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here  and follow him on  Twitter .

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