The Los Angeles Lakers held their first return game on Jan. 31 following the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna (Gigi), and seven others.
The NBA postponed their scheduled game against Los Angeles rival Clippers on Jan. 28. Millions of NBA fans around the world, along with NBA players, have mourned the tragedy since the accident on Jan. 26.
Starting Sunday, fans showed up to the Staples Center leaving flowers and mementos for Kobe and Gigi. On Friday, before and after the game, thousands crowded LA Live to remember and mourn. Numerous large writing boards were provided for fans to write messages commemorating the Bryants, and they were repeatedly filled and replaced throughout the night.
The pre-game ceremony against the Portland Trail Blazers began with Usher singing “Amazing Grace,” with the arena’s lights turned off, followed by Boyz II Men singing the national anthem. Then a highlight video of Bryant’s career was played with his own narration.
LeBron James followed with a tearful speech saying this was a celebration of the life of Kobe Bryant.
“In the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,’ But in the words of us, ‘Not forgotten.’ Live on, brother,” he said.
James walked off the court leaving the microphone on the floor just as Bryan did at his 2017 retirement ceremony after saying, “Mamba out.” James and Anthony Davis then gave each other a tearful hug on the floor.
The pre-game ceremony concluded with the introduction of the five starting Lakers as Kobe Bryant.
A very high scoring first half with Anthony Davis leading the Lakers ended with the team up 62 to 60. The second half was dominated with an exceptional game by the Blazers. Damian Lillard had a magnificent performance, scoring 48 points; he made seven 3-pointers, 10 assists and nine rebounds. Other major contributors were Hassan Whiteside with 30 points and CJ McCollum adding 19.
As for the Lakers, Davis led with 37 points, 15 rebounds, and six assists. James had 22 points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists. He was the main spark of a near comeback in the fourth quarter as his 27-foot 3-pointer brought the Lakers within three points, 108 to 105, with 7:47 remaining in the game.
Chants of “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe” throughout the games pushed the emotionally charged Lakers throughout the game. However, it was not enough. Other contributors include Kyle Kuzma with 17 points and 15 rebounds in 25 minutes. Avery Bradley scored 10 points, and two assists in 25 minutes, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added eight points and one assist.
Unfortunately the Lakers lost 119 to 127 against the Trail Blazers.
Lillard told ESPN after the game that it was a “really tough night” to play under the circumstances. But he said that he wanted to honor Bryant, to “come out here and play our hearts out.”
He also added, “The memories that we’ll take away from it was just sad and just tough. It’s good that we had to compete, so being on the winning side is a positive, but I don’t think anybody walks away from this moment and this situation a winner.”
Obviously, the Lakers were not as emotionally prepared to compete in this game as the visiting Blazers.
The recent tragedy may impact the team in many other ways. Since joining the Lakers last year, LeBron James has not appeared to have the full support of all Lakers fans, some of whom claimed he came to Hollywood for his personal benefit, and that basketball was secondary. However, the ongoing celebration of Bryant’s legacy could have the effect of uniting the new Lakers team with James and fans.
Even after Bryant retired in 2016, he still had a lot of support. Ironically, James had just surpassed Bryant as the third highest leading scorer in NBA history in their last game before the accident, during a losing game with the Philadelphia 76ers.
There was concern that if the record was broken at home, that there could be backlash from the fans. However, after the record was broken, Bryant congratulated James, and their public interactions appeared to be friendly and supportive.
Bryant had even mentioned that the team would have a chance this year at the championship. It’s been a long drought since Bryant led the Lakers to their last win, and fans likely hope the team can honor Bryant by winning the championship once again.