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LeBron James: ‘Mamba Out,’ But ‘Not Forgotten’

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Lesbron James

The Los Angeles Lakers and grieving fans packing the Staples Center paid an emotional, pregame tribute to basketball icon Kobe Bryant on Friday night.

Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, an event that devastated the NBA and fans worldwide. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause, which will likely take months.

The other seven victims were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, 56, his wife Keri Altobelli, 46, and their daughter Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Sarah Chester, 45, and her daughter Payton Chester, 13; Mamba Sports Academy coach Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.

kobe-bryant-lebron-james

This was the first game the Lakers have played since Bryant’s death, facing the Portland Trail Blazers. Their Tuesday game against the Clippers was postponed, as the sports world openly mourned the five-time NBA champion and 18-time All-Star.

Bouquets of red roses were placed on two empty, courtside seats. Bryant’s yellow No. 24 Lakers jersey was pulled over one. Gianna’s black No. 2 jersey from Mamba Sports Academy was pulled over the other.

The Staples Center held 24.2 seconds of silence in honor of the father-daughter pair and the other victims.

Kobe Bryant tribute

Usher began the roughly 25-minute ceremony, spotlit in center court, singing “Amazing Grace.” Cellist Ben Hong of the Los Angeles Philharmonic accompanied a video montage, splicing together narration by Bryant through different moments of his career.

“I have four girls, so my mission is for women to have opportunities,” Bryant’s voice boomed across the Staples Center. The helicopter was en route to a youth basketball tournament at Mamba Sports Academy when it crashed in Calabasas.

The tributes were punctuated by the crowd’s chants of “Kobe, Kobe!” and “Gigi, Gigi!” Commemorative No. 8 and No. 24 t-shirts, Bryant’s numbers during his 20-season career with the Lakers, were draped on seats throughout the Staples Center for fans to take home.

A visibly devastated LeBron James tossed aside his written speech, opting to speak from the heart to “Lakers Nation.”

“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. Tonight is a celebration.”

Kobe Bryant memorial

James vowed that he and the Lakers would carry on Bryant’s legacy. He closed by echoing Bryant’s retirement speech. “In the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba Out,’ but in the words of us, ‘Not Forgotten.’ ”

The enormity of Bryant’s impact made his name ubiquitous that night. When the Lakers ran out for starting lineup, each player was announced the same way: “No. 24, 6 feet, 6 inches, 20th year from Lower Merion High School. Kobe Bryant.”

Jubilant fans erupted, that tribute earning the biggest cheers of the night.

“I’m sitting next to total strangers. We’re hugging. We’re crying. We’re high-fiving,” fan Ebony Bryant (no relation) told NPR.

The Lakers were not victorious in the resulting game; Portland won 127-119. Lakers Coach Frank Vogel didn’t fault his team, with grief over Bryant’s loss permeating the night.

“It was very emotional. Guys were teared up, going into the jump ball. You want to give maximum effort, but, you know, we had a difficult week,” he said.

Bryant’s triumphant career and utter devotion to the game of basketball was the clear focus of the night, though the complexities of his legacy have borne out in public conversation. A 2003 sexual assault accusation ended in a settlement. His record of trash talking and lashing out at other players generated rivalries.

In 2018, two years after retirement, Bryant created Mamba Sports Academy and won an Oscar for his animated short, Dear Basketball. He focused his energy on supporting the next generation of players. This retirement chapter, and the basketball future of Gianna Bryant, was brought to an abrupt close.

“His daughter at 13, we did not see a full chapter. We barely saw a beginning. I’m thinking about the relationship that Kobe had with his daughter, and the support that he was showing for the WNBA. That’s evolution from where he once was,” Kevin Blackistone, sports columnist for The Washington Post, told NPR’s Morning Edition.

In a post-game interview, LeBron James spoke little of losing to Portland. He spoke of Bryant’s happiness in spending more time with his family.

“I didn’t feel bad in Boston, when I went to go see my son two hours away in Springfield,” James said. “We had a game that night. We got our ass kicked. And I didn’t feel bad at all. In the name of Kobe, why not?”

LeBron James honors Kobe Bryant, ready to carry on his legacy

Kobe Bryant and family

LOS ANGELES – The Lakers had just played a series of video tributes filled with Kobe Bryant highlight reels. It also featured a series of Bryant’s interviews that detailed his work ethic and mentality that achieved such results.

Moments later, LeBron James was called to center court. At that moment, James mirrored Bryant perfectly. James came through in the clutch. James did not hesitate to scrap the game plan and call up his own play. And James gave Lakers fans every reason to cheer with his words and actions.

“I got something written down. They asked me to stay on course, whatever the case may be,” James said before throwing away the playbook. “But Lakers Nation, I would be selling ya’ll short if I read off this. So I’m going to go straight from the heart.”

James spent the next four minutes inspiring a grieving fanbase. First, James offered sympathies to all the victims that died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, including Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter (Gianna) and the other seven victims (John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester and Ara Zobaya). Then, James called Lakers Nation “a family” after mostly spending most of his career hearing boos from those same people.

Lesbron James

Then, James described Bryant in way that explains why a sell-out crowd belted out either “K-O-B-E” or “M-V-P” chants throughout his video tributes.

“This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken-down body, the getting up, the sitting down, the everything, the countless hours, the determination to be as great as he could be,” James said. “Tonight we celebrate the kid who came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we’ve seen over the last three years.”

Sure, the Lakers still finished with a 127-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday at Staples Center. But those reasons had more to do with having no way to stop Portland’s Damian Lillard (48 points) than the Lakers struggling with their emotions surrounding Bryant’s passing. And it certainly had nothing to do with James’ play. He performed with Kobe-like aggression when he drove to the rim. He also facilitated with Magic Johnson-like passes. But before James had those 22 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, the Lakers’ star honored Bryant in a different way. James went off script.

“I just decided for me personally, it was just about letting the words flow right from the heart,” James said. “Then they know what comes out, they know that they’re pure. It’s all truth to it. So it just happened in the spur of the moment.”

Because of that spontaneity, James accomplished a few things. He compelled Lakers fans to cheer louder. He galvanized his teammates. And he inspired his head coach.

“What he said was just beautiful,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “It was strong, and it represented who he is and really who we are as a team and an organization.”

Kobe Bryant

James had often represented someone who could tackle adversity. He weathered the criticism for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat as a free agent. In his second stint in Cleveland, James helped the Cavaliers overcome a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit in 2016 against a Golden State Warriors team that had set the NBA record for regular season wins. And James has become numb toward the constant micro-analyzing on social media.

Still, James never encountered adversity quite like this. He had just lost a player who had served as an idol, rival and mentor during various stages of his career. Bryant had just talked with him to congratulate him for surpassing him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. So when Bryant unexpectedly died on Sunday morning, James understandably struggled.

He leaned on his family and friends to grieve. He and the rest of the Lakers opted to postpone Tuesday’s game against the Clippers, and he declined to speak to reporters all week so he could compose himself.

On Friday, James seemed ready to help the Lakers take their next step forward. He hung Bryant’s No. 24 jersey right next to his locker. James mimicked Bryant’s attire with an oversized jersey, a wide wristband on his forearms and a No. 24 warm-up shirt. Then when James took the microphone, he spoke confidently and clearly about how he will make Bryant proud.

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