Column: Lakers mourn and celebrate Kobe Bryant’s life on a night of heartbreak and healing

The Lakers hold each other close during a performance by Usher on a night the organization honored the life of Kobe Bryant at Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Through the blackness, there appeared shouts of light.

“Ko-be! Ko-be!” the crowd chanted in a darkened Staples Center. “Gi-gi! Gi-gi!”

Through the bleakness, there appeared a voice of hope.

“I want to … continue his legacy ... because that’s what Kobe Bryant would have wanted,” LeBron James announced.

Amid the wake, there was an awakening, as the Lakers both mourned loss and celebrated life Friday in an extraordinary show of fortitude and family.

In the Lakers’ first game since Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna were killed with seven others in a helicopter crash, the team gave an emotional tribute.

Jan. 31, 2020


It was their first game since Sunday’s shocking death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.

It might have been their most impactful game ever.

Nobody is going to remember the 127-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, but nobody will forget how a franchise linked arms with a mourning city and helped guide it on the first steps out of a nightmare.

It was Usher singing “Amazing Grace” and James showing amazing grace. It was Ben Hong playing “Hallelujah” on the cello while Bryant’s highlight video replayed countless angelic leaps.

It was tears during a 24.2-second moment of silence — 24 was Bryant’s number, 2 was Gigi’s youth basketball number — followed by wild cheers when every Lakers starter was introduced as if he were Bryant.

“At one forward, No. 24, 6-6, 20th year, from Lower Merion High School, Kobe Bryant!” longtime public address announcer Lawrence Tanter intoned, again and again and again and again and again.

Under the roughest circumstances, LeBron James headlining a pregame ceremony that was essentially a funeral for Kobe Bryant.

Jan. 31, 2020


The crowd roared louder with each similar introduction. By the end they were cheering louder than perhaps anybody has cheered for anything in this town for the last week. It felt cathartic. It felt cleansing. It felt as if the ever-resilient Kobe Bryant would have slyly grinned, then approved.

“It’s important that we start somewhere in the healing; it’s too hard on the human psyche to feel this bad for this long,” said Tanter, who moderated this memorial. “That healing starts tonight.”

The death of the legendary Bryant at age 41 still doesn’t seem real. The hole he left in this building will forever be huge.

On Friday night, the two courtside seats where he and Gianna sat at their last Lakers game in late December were purposely left empty.

For 20 years and five NBA titles, Staples was his house, and to think he’ll never step inside it again still drains a bit of the soul. He’ll never walk on to the court he once owned to be honored for his Hall of Fame induction. He’ll never get to stand outside the grand structure he helped build and watch the unveiling of his statue.

“To be honest, you wake up in the morning and say, ‘I can’t believe this has happened,’” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “There is still an element of shock, for sure.”

Yet on this night, that shock finally gave way to a bit of serenity during an event that was a metaphor for Los Angeles’ collective experience since the death.

The afternoon began, outside, with hundreds of grieving Lakers fans continuing their weeklong period of mourning. Filling the Xbox Plaza across the street from Staples Center were large families and groups of teens, children and seniors, folks in aging Kobe jerseys and wrinkled Lakers caps, everyone slowly walking through what felt like the world’s biggest mortuary.

They lingered among endless rows of candles, flowers and balloons. They were surrounded by fuzzy photos, letters of appreciation on torn notebook paper, giant murals filled with scrawled bits of heartbreak.

A couple of hours before the game, a 73-year-old man dropped to his knees and scrawled a thank-you note with a pen on the concrete.

“My heart is broken,” Williams Foar said after struggling to stand up. “The city of Los Angeles is not the same without Bryant.”

A few moments later, in another corner of the plaza, a 53-year-old man began crying.

Vanessa Bryant has made a request to receive some of the Kobe Bryant memorial items left by fans at Staples Center and L.A. Live.

Jan. 31, 2020

“I followed him his whole life,” Joel Salas said. “He was a hero who, when you needed something, he was always there, responding at that crucial moment, hitting the game-winning shot that would make you jump out of your seat. It’s so terrible that he’s gone.”

Inside the arena, Bryant’s presence was everywhere.

He was alive in the Kobe T-shirts that were draped on every seat, No. 8 on the front, No. 24 on the back. For the first time in recorded history, many of the too-cool Lakers fans actually wore the T-shirts, even some of those sitting courtside.

He was present in the Kobe signature sneakers worn by the Lakers coaching staff, squeaking his memory up and down the sidelines. He was also on the court in front of them, in KB decals on the corners and his two numbers plastered by the benches.

Most impressive of all, he was actually on James’ body, on his left thigh, inked there on a new tattoo featuring a black snake above the words, “Mamba 4 Life.”

Then, two minutes before tip, the Lakers took the court wearing jerseys with either Bryant’s No. 8 or 24.

In the Lakers’ first game since Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna were killed with seven others in a helicopter crash, the team gave an emotional tribute.

Jan. 31, 2020

“Definitely the heaviest game I’ve been part of, and most of our guys and fans would all probably agree with that,” said Vogel, later adding, “We’re all just trying to pick ourselves up.”

That burden was powerfully carried after pregame performances by Usher and Hong, when the microphone was handed to James, who was holding a piece of paper.

In only his second season with the team, and having just passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list, James has struggled to gain full acceptance from Lakers fans.

This was his chance to finally connect, and he nailed it. This will be forever known as the night LeBron James became a Laker.

“Now, I’ve got something written down, they asked me to stay on course or whatever the case may be,” James announced. “But Laker Nation, I would be selling y’all short if I read off this ... I’m going to go straight from the heart.”

And so he did, in a compelling talk that celebrated Bryant’s memory while embracing the fan’s love for him. Like James on the basketball court, it was a speech that did it all.

There were balloons and jerseys, smiling teddy bears and scuffed basketballs. But the gut punches were delivered by notes that had been written on paper, cardboard, or greeting cards.

Jan. 30, 2020

First, it was about the fans.

“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.”

Then it was about the legend.

“I know at some point, we will have a memorial for Kobe ... but I look at this as a celebration tonight,” he said. “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 … 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.”

James ended his talk with a message that fans carried out into a night.

“So in the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,’ ” James said. “But in the words of us, ‘Not forgotten.’ Live on, brother.”

He will, in the words of a city that kept chanting two syllables late Friday night, a city that will surely be chanting them somewhere, somehow, forever.

“Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!”