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Frank Vogel: Togetherness has been therapeutic for Lakers since Kobe’s death

Lakers coach Frank Vogel talks with his team during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Nov. 27, 2019 in New Orleans.
(Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

On Wednesday, bonded by tragedy, the Lakers held their first practice since a helicopter crash killed Kobe Bryant. Players were asked if they’d like to address reporters, and none of them did.

So coach Frank Vogel took it upon himself to speak for them.

“He was the most feared man in the league for an entire generation,” Vogel said from the team’s practice facilities in El Segundo. “The influence is profound league-wide, basketball community-wide, world-wide, Lakers family-wide and his influence will be felt forever.”

Above Vogel and to his right, a pair of overhead lights had been fixed onto the numbers 8 and 24, the numbers Bryant wore during his 20-year career with the Lakers. They’d been lit since the night before, and the team plans to light them for at least the rest of the season.

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There is no business as usual for the Lakers. In the three days since Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died when Bryant’s helicopter struck a Calabasas hillside, the organization has worked to try to heal in a variety of ways.
Those who needed to talk had the opportunity to do so. Those who needed space got it. Those who needed a drink got one. And basketball, of course, has helped.

“Everything we’ve done in terms of being together has been therapeutic,” Vogel said.

On Wednesday night, the Lakers released a statement that said: “We are devastated and have been forever changed by the sudden loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. We send our love to Vanessa, the Bryant family, and to the families of the other passengers.

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“Words cannot express what Kobe means to the Los Angeles Lakers, our fans, and our city. More than a basketball player, he was a beloved father, husband, and teammate. Their love and light will remain in our hearts forever.

“The Mamba Sports Foundation has set up the MambaOnThree Fund to support the families affected by this tragedy. To help, please visit http://MambaOnThree.org. For those who are inspired to continue Kobe and Gianna’s legacy in youth sports, please visit http://MambaSportsFoundation.org.”

It was Vogel who first addressed the players on their flight Sunday, as they made their way from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. He said he approached them one by one. Some knew about Bryant already, and others didn’t, but he wanted to make sure they all did.

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As the news spread throughout the plane, tears flowed among members of the traveling party. Upon landing, they went their separate ways.

“I went home and hugged my family,” Vogel said.

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Lakers coach Frank Vogel talks about Kobe Bryant.

They went their separate ways for the next day and a half, until Tuesday when they met for on-court activities. Afterward the whole traveling party, joined by team executives and members of ownership, met for a luncheon where they soothed themselves with thoughts of happier times.

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Vogel helped guide the luncheon, leading a group filled with people who knew Bryant better than he did. He didn’t try to inflate their relationship; rather he created an environment where those around him could grieve as they needed.

General manager Rob Pelinka, a man who was Gianna’s godfather and considered Bryant his best friend, gave an emotional speech.

Forward LeBron James told the room he had broad shoulders for a reason — that he would help carry them all through it.

Center Dwight Howard showed the room the pain he felt at all that was left unsaid between himself and Bryant. That Bryant wouldn’t see what this team could accomplish.
Howard and Bryant didn’t always get along when they were teammates in the 2012-13 season. Howard has been driven this season by redeeming his story in Los Angeles, and Bryant spoke positively about him this past fall. Howard had wanted Bryant to be part of his performance in the dunk contest at All-Star weekend.

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Team co-owner Jeanie Buss didn’t speak, but she had been at the office throughout the week.

At the players’ request, there was wine. Around the room they lifted their glasses and toasted Bryant.

From the top down, the Lakers focused on considering this: What would Kobe have wanted them to do?

They all knew the answer: Do whatever it took to win a championship.

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“It’s something that’s touched my family being the father of daughters,” Vogel said. “It’s been very emotional and something that brings us together. As well as the Lakers family. I’m around the people that were closest to Kobe throughout his time here. ”

Some sang. Others cried. But everyone mourned — and that included Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, who watched as the crowds grew from his penthouse high above L.A. Live.

Their Wednesday practice was not a return to normalcy. But it was a return to regularly scheduled basketball activities. The NBA isn’t stopping for the Lakers’ anguish, even though their scheduled game Tuesday against the Clippers was postponed.

There have been tributes and number changes, but business continues. The trade deadline is less than a week away, and the Lakers have a game Friday at home against Portland — a game Bryant told Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony he would attend.

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As fans continued their pilgrimages to sign a temporary memorial placed outside the training facility, the players gathered inside. Pelinka attended at least part of the session.

Vogel said he plans to follow the leads of James and Anthony Davis, who had a close relationship with Bryant since he entered the NBA, on how the team proceeds from here.

Said Vogel: “It’s a deeply saddening time for all of us.”


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