LeBron James stood in the middle of Staples Center on Friday night, the golden light centered on him, Kobe Bryant’s memory surrounding him, a microphone in his hand and comfort in his heart.
The last time James spoke publicly, he talked about literally walking in Bryant’s shoes.
Against the back wall in a tiny, stripped down road locker room in Philadelphia last Saturday, James remembered a gift from Bryant — a pair of sneakers — that he wore in a high school all-star game even if they were a size too small.
His next speech came Tuesday, privately when the Lakers gathered for the first time fully since Bryant’s death. In a room full of people paralyzed by unthinkable sadness, James rose up, shared his grief and some memories, inspiring and imploring his teammates, coaches and Lakers staff to try to win in Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s honor.
And then there was the note he wrote for Friday, the one he tore up right before he spoke, eulogizing Bryant like a seasoned reverend.
“Now I know at some point, we will have a memorial for Kobe. But I look at this, I look at this as a celebration tonight,” James said under a golden spotlight at center court. “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.”
Even though the Lakers lost 127-119 to Portland, even though James missed 13 of his 22 shots, he did everything he needed to throughout the week.
“I think he’s been really a tower of strength for all of us,” coach Frank Vogel said of James before the game. “He’s really been a great leader in this difficult time for us, both by example and by just being a vocal leader and we’re following his lead.”
This is what Lakers greats do — find the right words at the hardest times.
Earlier this month in New York City, Magic Johnson did the same thing at David Stern’s memorial, going on stage without a written speech and delivering one of the most memorable eulogies of the afternoon. Bryant did the same thing in his last two official Staples Center appearances, perfectly ending his career with “Mamba Out” before perfectly honoring the past when the Lakers put his jerseys in the rafters.
Friday, it was James’ turn under the roughest circumstances, headlining a pregame ceremony that was essentially a funeral.
James’ speech came after Usher sang “Amazing Grace,” after a package of highlights was scored by a cello playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” after two giant purple and gold wreaths shaped into the No. 8 and the No. 24.
“The first thing that came to mind, man, is all about family. As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving. We’re all hurt. We’re all heartbroken,” James said, connecting with Los Angeles stronger than ever. “But when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.”
After he finished, his teammates pulled the tears from the corners of their eyes. Fans did the same. Then they cheered because the game didn’t feel quite as out of place anymore.
Inside the Lakers’ locker room, the players did their best to make things seem as normal as possible.
James got to the arena at the same time as normal, his only tribute being a rare pair of Bryant’s signature sneakers (later he’d share a more permanent tribute — a tattoo memorializing Bryant on his left thigh — on social media).
Heput on his headphones, bobbed his head to the music, picked out his socks and moved on to the training room just like usual.
But that was all play-acting — it had to have been.
There hasn’t been anything normal for the Lakers since Sunday, and there might not be for a long time. But there might be some comfort in James pushing to continue Bryant’s legacy as a Lakers great — not just a basketball one.
The emotions pregame were a lot. James, like so many teammates, had eyes swelled with tears. But while virtually every other Laker kept his eyes down during the national anthem, James held his head high, puffing out his cheeks to keep it all together.
Things were easier six days ago in Philadelphia, when James didn’t have to offer remembrances, when he just simply could remember.
That night, before the tears, before the tragedy, before the tributes, James told a story about the first time he met Bryant, at a basketball camp.
That day wasn’t about talking. It was about listening.
“I was just trying to soak everything up I could,” James said last Saturday. “I remember one thing that he said, he said, “If you want to be great at it or be one of the greats, you have to put the work in.’ ”
James did that Friday, speaking for the organization after a week of mostly silence, telling the fans what they needed to hear.
“The fact that I’m here now means so much to me,” James said before the game.
“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.”
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