BY DAN WOIKE AND BRODERICK TURNER
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
LOS ANGELES — The Lakers, reeling from the unthinkable loss of a franchise icon, his daughter and seven of his friends, gathered as a group and vowed to carry the pain with them all season.
Kobe Bryant’s death wouldn’t be forgotten, not by them, and his legacy would be channeled every time the players gathered on the court. They’d try to transform pain into appreciation.
“Mamba on three … One, two, three — Mamba!”
They broke their huddles with it even as their hearts ached in the aftermath of the Jan. 26, 2020 helicopter crash. They said it when the NBA season hung together by threads in the earliest days of the coronavirus outbreak.
When the team reconvened inside the NBA bubble in Florida, the world a drastically different place than it was five months earlier, they broke huddles the same way. And when the players fought through a 95-day gantlet on their way to a championship, those words never stopped passing through their lips.
‘Legends never die’
Because of that, because of Bryant and his impact, the Lakers weren’t going to stop now.
“There’s a lot of things that die in this world,” LeBron James said. “But legends never die and he’s exactly that. . . . It’s all about representing that.”
One year since Bryant’s death, the Lakers still celebrate his life. Players wear tributes. Some have tattoos. They wear his sneakers, spot his jersey numbers 8 and 24 all over arenas. They shout his name after the biggest shots of their careers.
The day after
What could be a better basketball tribute to Kobe Bryant than that?
“We want to represent what he stood for. That’s the most important thing for us,” coach Frank Vogel said three days after Bryant’s death. “We want to represent what he stood for.”
One day after the crash, the NBA postponed a scheduled game with the Clippers. The Lakers, who as an organization were silent after the crash, finally acknowledged it in a brief statement.
The next day, players, coaches and staff gathered for lunch, the floor open for people to share memories, to vent about regrets and to plot how’d they move forward, most notably with James telling teammates that he’s got broad shoulders for a reason. He would carry them if they needed it.
Service for Kobe, Gianna
The team practiced Wednesday and Thursday, Vogel trying to ease some of the tension by bringing the team across the street for an impromptu outdoor workout that devolved into a football scrimmage. And the hope was that a return to game action Friday would be the next step for the team’s recovery.
“This whole week has been really good for our group to just pull through it together and heal together,” Vogel said before the Lakers played Portland.
But Staples Center didn’t host a basketball game that night. It hosted a city-wide funeral.
Players wore Bryant jerseys over their warmups. Grammy winning artist Usher sang “Amazing Grace” to start a 24-minute tribute. A moment of silence lasted 24.2 seconds for Bryant and his daughter Gianna. Their jerseys were draped over the last courtside seats they occupied.
And before they could play, James delivered a eulogy.
The Lakers lost — by eight.
All-Star Game honor
The NBA renamed its All-Star Game most valuable player award after Bryant, and the Basketball Hall of Fame announced his induction.
Players, coaches and staff constantly wore shoes with Bryant’s logo on them, a subtle tribute. Other reminders were more surreal.
Wearing their black “Mamba” jerseys, the Lakers led 24-8 while playing Portland in the first round of the playoffs on Aug. 24 — 8/24. Later, Davis hit a game-winning shot in those same uniforms, screaming “Kobe!” in celebration while he was mobbed by teammates.
Vogel called it a “Mamba shot.” They talked about winning for Bryant, with general manager Rob Pelinka even addressing the team before Game 5 of the NBA Finals — a potential title clincher — to talk about his former client and close friend. The message was heavy and included a tribute video, catching some in the locker room off guard.
The team, wearing those Mamba jerseys, lost Game 5 before closing out the Heat in Game 6, completing their dance with what felt like destiny.
“Hope I made you proud my brother,” James posted on Instagram.
The wounds remain within the Lakers a year later, people who were close to Bryant still reluctant to talk about what happened Jan. 26, 2020.
“I’m not comfortable talking about it. I’m sorry. Still to this day, I have never really talked about it,” Lakers center Marc Gasol said.
Quinn Cook, who idolized Bryant, declined to speak about Bryant’s death and legacy. James has done it reluctantly. The pain maybe isn’t as acute, but it persists.
On the night the Lakers returned to the court following the deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, James stood under the spotlight in the middle of the floor, flanked by floral arrangements.
“In the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,’” he said. “But in the words of us, ‘Not forgotten.’”
They’ve lived up to their promise, to continue to honor Bryant no matter the hurt.