With fans still flocking to L.A. Live in order to pay their respects to Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the seven others who tragically passed away in the helicopter crash, the Los Angeles Lakers were in the final stages of preparing to embark on their new normal.
The organization has been rocked by the losses of Kobe and Gianna, and Friday marked their first game since the horrific accident. The Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers both had stretches of sloppy play and moments where they appeared inspired. But that hardly mattered.
The night was bigger. Much bigger.
Commemorative t-shirts — split in half for Bryant’s Nos. 8 and 24 — were placed on each seat. The gold backdrop was picturesque, but the air inside Staples Center was heavy.
One half of Staples Center is receiving a No. 8 Kobe Bryant shirt, and the other side gets No. 24. pic.twitter.com/ZFF073p1QS
— Matthew Moreno (@MMoreno1015) January 31, 2020
The mood remained somber as the Lakers ran through rehearsals with Usher, Boyz II Men and cellist Ben Hong. Bryant’s tribute video played — one composed with clips of him speaking — and many observers were overcome by emotion.
As tipoff neared, every Lakers player wore a No. 8 or No. 24 jersey during warmups. Songs with references to the five-champion played, including Lil Wayne’s “Kobe Bryant.”
Staples Center had a buzz, which suggested fans were eager to begin a night of celebration after spending the week mourning. And that is precisely what the Lakers delivered.
For as heartfelt of performances that were put on, the crowd regularly broke into “Kobe!” and “MVP” chants. There also was a brief “Gigi!” chant.
During his pregame media session, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel acknowledged the emotional pull he and the team felt when walking into Staples Center. However, he also said it was their duty to remain focused, and Vogel praised LeBron James for leading the Lakers through the difficult time.
— Matthew Moreno (@MMoreno1015) February 1, 2020
What James had been doing behind closed doors was then put on full display as he took the microphone to address the crowd at the conclusion of the pregame ceremony. His speech was prewritten, but James decided to go off script.
“Laker Nation I would be selling you all short if I read from this [expletive],” he said, to the roar of the crowd. James went on to speak from his heart and the moment helped push the Lakers further down a path to normal. Or, their new normal.
Public address announcer Lawrence Tanter went on to introduce every Lakers starter as Kobe Bryant, further delighting fans. James wore two different models from Bryant’s signature shoe line with Nike, a sleeve on his right arm and forearm band with “24” on his left.
Anthony Davis also wore two pairs of Bryant’s shoes, and the Lakers coaching staff followed suit.
Damian Lillard led the Trail Blazers to a win, but the Lakers are beginning to put the pieces back together, and ultimately that’s what was important.