LOS ANGELES — “I look at this as a celebration tonight. This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken-down body, the getting up and sitting down, everything, the countless hours, the determination to be as great as he could be.
“Tonight, we celebrate the kid who came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38, and became probably the best dad we have seen over the past three years.”
LeBron James stood at center court, flanked by floral arrangments in the shape of 8 and 24, threw out his pre-written notes and spoke from the heart about Kobe Bryant. He said those words in an effort to make Friday night’s game against Portland — the first time the Lakers have stepped on a basketball court since the untimely death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and nine others last Sunday in a helicopter crash — into something other than a memorial.
Outside of Staples Center it has been a memorial for days, with fans showing up in mass — especially on Friday night — to leave mementos and sign the large commemorative boards set up. Los Angeles had embraced Kobe for two decades, and his death had the feel of losing family rather than a celebrity to most.
Inside the building on Friday, it was somber before the game, and it felt more like a memorial than a night of entertainment. On the court were the numbers 8 and 24, as well as a “KB” logo that also will be on Laker jerseys the rest of the season. Season ticket holders hugged each other in the corridor and around their seats. Players went through the motions of their warm-ups but without the bounce often seen pregame. Often jaded and cynical media members asked each other how they were doing, and building staff was hugging the people they knew.
There were “Ko-be” chants pregame from the fans, but also “Gi-gi” chants.
While it had been five days, the primary emotion still seemed to be shock.
“Yea, to be honest. You wake up every day saying, ‘I can’t believe this has happened.’… There’s still an element of shock for sure,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
The video tribute was emotional for everyone — LeBron and Quinn Cook were in tears during it.
Then LeBron took the mic.
"Tonight we celebrate the kid that came here at 18, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we've seen over the last three years.” pic.twitter.com/0sS7e91cuz
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) February 1, 2020
The players and fans wanted the game to start, to have basketball — the game Kobe loved and dedicated so much of his life to — to help them grieve and move on, even a little.
“Everything we’ve done this week is to seek therapeutic benefits, and basketball is our refuge,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said. When you have a week like this, an event like this, nothing is going to feel better for our guys than to get out there and compete and take their minds off it and do what they love to do the most.”
It’s what everyone needed.