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Lakers seek closure with tributes to Kobe Bryant in emotional return to basketball

LeBron James holds the ball and lets the 24-second shot clock expire as a tribute to Kobe Bryant to begin a game against the Trail Blazers on Jan. 31 at Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The lights had been dimmed for a while. Usher sang “Amazing Grace” as the video board began to show images of players throughout the NBA crying as they played the games they were forced to endure during for the past week.

Not far from where he sang, Rob Pelinka, the Lakers general manager who considered Kobe Bryant his best friend, put his hand over his eyes and bowed his head.

Friday’s game was one of public release for the Lakers. They celebrated their fallen soul and cried openly for Bryant. They clung to each other as they had the previous week.

Another video tribute included clips of interviews Bryant had given during the past 24 years, with a live cello solo of ‘Hallelujah’ as its soundtrack. After Boyz II Men sang the national anthem, a tearful LeBron James turned toward Anthony Davis and they both held each other. Davis’ eyes were still red when he came through pregame introductions and was introduced, like all Lakers starters, as “No. 24, 6-6, 20th year from Lower Merion High School, Kobeeee Bryant.”

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“The entire memorial before the game was tough,” Davis said. “Tough for me to see. And then to hear his voice. Had to come to the realization that he’s gone.”

That the Lakers lost 127-119 to the Portland Trail Blazers was almost an afterthought. Damian Lillard, who played against Bryant in his first NBA game, scored 48 points, and Davis scored 37, making 14 of 22 shots.

But the night belonged to Bryant.

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“I know at some point, we will have a memorial for Kobe,” LeBron James said as he addressed the crowd. “But I look at this, 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.”

He died in a helicopter crash Sunday, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other close friends. Their names — John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester and Ara Zobayan — were shown on digital screens throughout the arena before and during the game.

Two seats remained empty throughout the game, save for two bouquets of red roses. One had a Mamba Academy jersey worn by Gianna Bryant on it, and the other Kobe’s Lakers No. 24.

Every fan received Bryant T-shirts with the No. 8 on one side and the No. 24 on the other.

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“It was just an emotional day, just knowing coming in that someday we’re gonna face this night and play,” said Davis, who met Bryant during the 2012 Olympics and considered him a mentor. “For me just trying to play as hard as I can and knowing that’s what he would want me to do. Tried my best to make him proud.”

James and Davis wore a wide wristband on their forearms like Bryant used to wear. James’ had the No. 24 printed on it while Davis’ had the No. 8. James also wore a wrap on his left middle finger with the No. 24 on it, like Bryant used to wear. James even wore an oversized jersey like Bryant used to wear.

“Just basically showing our appreciation,” James said. “Me wearing the oversized jersey, me wearing the wristband, me wearing the finger sleeve. Me wearing his shoes. Just showing the appreciation and love that he gave us way before he knew us.”

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Every player wore a Bryant jersey over his warmups before the game, many of them wore versions of the same shirt fans received at other points in the day. Everything they wore had a decal on them — a black circle with the letters: “KB.”

The coaching staff all wore Bryant’s signature Nike shoes. Most of the players did too, even Rajon Rondo, who has a sponsorship with another shoe company.

Davis felt anxious throughout the day, nervous as the game approached. The Lakers had delayed this day, having postponed their scheduled Tuesday contest against the Clippers. When Davis saw the decals on the court — a black circle that said “KB” near each bench — the gravity of the day began to crystallize.

When James did his pregame chalk toss, he pointed toward the heavens as the dust settled around him.

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Before the game, coaches Frank Vogel and Terry Stotts met in the hallway to confirm that one would take a 24-second shot clock violation to start the game, and the other an eight-second backcourt violation, as teams around the NBA had done in their first games since Bryant’s sudden death.

So when JaVale McGee tapped the opening tip to James, James crossed midcourt and stopped. Fans stood and cheered until Lawrence Tanter announced the 24-second violation. Portland then took its agreed-upon violation.

At halftime Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa sang “See You Again,” with Khalifa mentioning Bryant near the end of the song.

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With 2:09 left in the game, the crowd began to chant “Ko-be!” once again. They didn’t get the result they wanted. James shot a three-pointer with about 1:15 left that hit the rim and bounced out of bounds.

The Lakers trailed by eight with 52 seconds remaining after Hassan Whiteside hit a short turnaround fadeaway — after which he yelled, “Kobe!” But most of the fans stayed. Even when that deficit grew to 10, they stayed.

The Trail Blazers took a 24-second shot clock violation with two seconds remaining in the game, and as they did so, with the result decided, fans began a somber chant.

Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be.”

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