The Lakers’ glorious past is never far from the minds of their fans, executives and players in literal and figurative ways. The specter of that past is why there is such urgency within the organization to return to championship contention. The literal reminders of it hang in the rafters.
On Thursday night, one also showed up in the flesh.
Kobe Bryant sat on the baseline in a corner, diagonally across from the Lakers bench with his hands clasped in front of his gray suit for most of the game. He had a front-row seat to another critical moment in Lakers history.
LeBron James notched his first triple-double as a Laker with 28 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. He is the first Laker since Bryant did it in 2014 to secure a 20-point triple double.
With a 121-114 win over the formerly undefeated Denver Nuggets, the Lakers secured their first home win of the LeBron James era.
What was it like for Bryant to see James playing in a Laker jersey in person?
“It’s [expletive] awesome,” Bryant told The Times and the Athletic, without a moment of hesitation. “Being here in this building. Seeing the fans, seeing the energy back in the place, it’s awesome.”
This marked James’ 74th triple-double, but a special one nonetheless.
Kyle Kuzma contributed 22 points and JaVale McGee added 21 for the Lakers. Lance Stephenson scored 12 points and again provided a spark off the bench.
Six Lakers scored in double figures, including Lonzo Ball, who had 12 points, eight assists, six rebounds and a game-high five steals. Two of Ball’s steals came within the game’s final four minutes as the Lakers tried to close out the win.
Denver center Nikola Jokic was nearly unstoppable in the post for most of the night, but the Lakers seemed to solve him late in the game.
“Speed kills,” James said.
He finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds, and committed a critical turnover late in the fourth quarter.
“The growth that’s continuing to happen tonight was about the fourth-quarter defense, which we struggled with, minus the Phoenix game,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “We really struggled to get stops in the fourth. Tonight we didn’t. That’s the whole idea preaching so much about defense. You can control your own destiny when you have the ability to get stops. I thought tonight we went and got stops in the fourth.”
Neither team ran away with the game at any point. Neither team ever had a double-digit lead.
The Nuggets led by eight with 6:11 to go in the game, when Stephenson sank two three-pointers and added another bucket all within one minute and 38 seconds.
It was a competitive game between two teams who should be fighting for playoff positioning in the spring. But through the ebbs and flows, the star power in the building mattered most.
The arena was loud when Bryant was first introduced on the video screen. With just under 11 minutes left in the game, fans began a ‘Kobe’ chant, and were quieted quickly when James hit his first three-pointer of the game to bring the Lakers within three in the fourth quarter.
They were louder when Magic Johnson walked down the sideline to hug Bryant with 5:15 left in the game, just after one of Stephenson’s threes.
They were the loudest they had been all night when James sliced down the baseline, caught a pass from Stephenson and dunked the ball to give the Lakers the lead with 3:30 left in the game.
James slammed the ball through the net and ran past it shouting, mere feet away from where Bryant sat. He appeared to look down to Bryant’s seat in the process.
After the game, James was asked whether he noticed Bryant in the arena.
“Of course,” James said. “Noticed him sitting right there on the baseline over there, one of the all-time Laker greats. What he’s done for this franchise in the 20-plus years he was here speaks wonders.
“For me to be able to compete against him all those years. For me to be able to share a jersey, the same jersey as him at this point, I think it’s pretty special.”
When James finished speaking and retreated for a post-game shower, Bryant had already boarded a helicopter and headed south to Newport Beach.
James left about an hour after Bryant did, traveling the same path out of the arena that Bryant had hundreds of times before.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli