LOS ANGELES — Just over 25 minutes before a game unlike any other ever played at Staples Center tipped off, a celebration of Kobe Bryant began.
There were two moving and powerful video tributes, R&B artists Usher and Boyz II Men and cellist Ben Hong performed, an emotional LeBron James addressed the crowd for the first time since Bryant’s death on Sunday, and the entire Lakers’ starting five was introduced as Kobe Bryant one by one while wearing either Bryant’s No. 8 or No. 24 Lakers jersey before playing the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night.
After reading off all the names of those who died in Sunday’s helicopter accident — “Alyssa Altobelli. John Altobelli. Keri Altobelli. Payton Chester. Sarah Chester. Christina Mauser. Ara Zobayan. Gianna Bryant and Kobe Bryant” — James pointed to notes he had on him before tossing them to the floor.
“I got something written down, they asked me to kind of stay on course or whatever the case may be,” James said. “But Laker Nation, man, I would be selling y’all short if I read off this s— so I’m going to go straight from the heart.”
The entire Staples Center erupted into a thunderous and what felt like therapeutic applause as James continued.
“Now I know at some point, we will have a memorial for Kobe,” James said. “But 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, the sitting down, the everything. The countless hours, the determination to be as great as he could be. Tonight, we celebrate the kid that came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we’ve seen over the past three years, man.
“Tonight is a celebration.”
The Lakers and their grief-stricken fans returned to Staples Center uncertain of how to feel on Friday night, just five days after Bryant, his daughter and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
But it became clear that the organization, its employees, players and fans needed this moment to cry, as many did in the stands and on the floor, to smile again at Bryant’s legendary moments and to remember the nine victims lost in a tragedy that has left Los Angeles heartbroken.
No one really knew what to expect coming to Staples Center, the place Bryant called home for nearly two decades.
Hours before the game — which featured a nearly 30-minute pregame tribute, followed by a halftime tribute as well — began, staff members and Staples Center employees could be seen hugging and talking to one another. The entire franchise has been grieving since Sunday’s tragedy stunned the world. Rob Pelinka, vice president of basketball operations and general manager, could be seen walking around and being greeted by people giving him their sympathy. Pelinka was Bryant’s best friend, longtime agent and godfather to Gigi.
“The first thing that came to mind, man, is all about family,” James said. “As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving. We’re all hurt. We’re all heartbroken. But when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family. And from Sunday morning all the way to this point — and I’ve heard about Laker Nation before I got here last year, about how much of a family it is — and that’s absolutely what I’ve seen all week. Not only from the players, not only from the coaching staff, not only from the organization, but from everybody.
“Everybody that’s here, this is really, truly, truly a family. And I know Kobe, Gianna, Vanessa and everybody thank you guys from the bottom of their hearts as Kobe said.”
At halftime, rapper Wiz Khalifa, with Charlie Puth on piano, performed a stirring rendition of their hit, “See You Again.”
Everywhere in the arena, there were reminders of Bryant. Inside the Lakers’ locker room, a Bryant No. 24 jersey hung off a fire alarm on the wall next to James’ locker, which was Bryant’s former locker stall. James had several pairs of Bryant’s signature Nike sneakers in front of his locker to choose from. He wore an unreleased pair of Kobe 5 Protro “Big Stage/Parade” sneakers to the Lakers’ morning shootaround.
Above the court up in the rafters, all of the Lakers’ retired uniforms were covered by a black cloak except for Bryant’s Nos. 8 and 24. On the court, there were decals affixed to the hardwood representing both of Bryant’s numbers as well as the special KB patch.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel and staff members wore a pin with the special KB logo on as well. Every seat in the building was blanketed with gold T-shirts with “Bryant No. 8” on the front and “Bryant No. 24” on the back — the same shirts Lakers players wore while warming up before the game.
But there were two empty courtside seats that stood out from the rest. Where Bryant and Gianna sat courtside across from the Lakers bench for a game on Dec. 29 against the Dallas Mavericks, there was a black Mamba Academy No. 2 uniform for Gigi and her father’s gold No. 24 Lakers uniform draped on the seatbacks, with two bouquets of red roses on the seats.
“Everything we’ve done this week has been to seek therapeutic benefits and basketball is our refuge,” Vogel said. “We have a week like this, an event like this, nothing’s going to feel better, I believe, for our guys than to get out there, compete, get their minds off it and do what they love to do the most.”
Everything was different about this Lakers home game, the first since Sunday’s tragedy after Tuesday’s game between the Lakers and Clippers was postponed. Prior to James’ emotional speech, the lights were dimmed inside the arena more than an hour before the game, which was unusual. The typically late-arriving L.A. crowd had the arena filled over an hour before the game began. And when the lights came back on, the Lakers players, donning Bryant No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys, jogged onto the floor for their layup line to loud cheers.
After the first warm-up, the lights turned off and then Usher, standing at a microphone in front of No. 8 and No. 24 signs made of of gold flowers, sang “Amazing Grace” as a video played on the big screen of the outpouring of grief from the sports world for Bryant. Every fan in the building stood and held their phones up to record the moment. After that, the lights turned off again and “Kobe” and “Gigi” chants echoed through the building.
When the lights came back on, Hong played “Hallelujah” at center court as another video played featuring Bryant speaking in previous interviews over highlights from his life. The crowd watched the entire spectrum of Bryant’s joy and pain, as scenes of him rehabbing and training, winning championships with Shaquille O’Neal, celebrating Olympic gold with James, winning his Academy Award, and his love for his wife, Vanessa, and his four daughters played on the big screen.
The Lakers and Blazers sat in their seats on the bench watching as fans remained standing the entire time. After a 24.2-second moment of silence to honor Bryant’s and his daughter’s numbers, Boyz II Men, who hail from Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, sang a stirring rendition of the national anthem. James and some of his teammates had their arms around each other, and some fans could be heard sobbing in the stands. Then James took the mic, still emotional from the anthem and all that had transpired to that point.
“Kobe’s a brother to me,” James told the crowd, sniffling and fighting his emotions. “From the time I was in high school, watching him from afar to getting in this league at 18, watching him up close. All the battles we had throughout my career. The one thing that we always shared was that determination to just always want to win and just want to be great.
“The fact that I’m here now means so much to me. I want to continue along with my teammates, to continue his legacy, not only for this year, but for as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want.
“So in the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out.’ But in the words of us, ‘Not forgotten.’ Live on, brother.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributes to this report.