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Lakers’ first game after Kobe Bryant’s death captured hearts everywhere

LeBron James speaks to the fans on Jan. 31 in honor of Kobe Bryant at the Staples Center.
LeBron James speaks to the fans on Jan. 31 in honor of Kobe Bryant at the Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

For two decades, Lee Zeidman watched as Kobe Bryant sparked Los Angeles’ imagination and turned Staples Center into one of the world’s basketball meccas. It became “The House that Kobe Built,” and, leading into a somber and reverent Friday night, Zeidman knew that people were definitely going to come.

On Jan. 31, the Lakers were going to play their first game since the deaths of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others when their helicopter crashed into a Calabasas hillside on Jan. 26.

Zeidman, the president of Staples Center and L.A. Live, had seen thousands of fans make a pilgrimage to the plaza adjacent to the arena, leaving flowers, balloons, basketballs with messages inscribed and countless other tokens of their affection for Bryant.

With a guaranteed 19,000 fans on the way downtown to witness the Lakers’ pregame tribute to Bryant and the game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Zeidman wanted to minimize the potential for chaos. That afternoon, he posted a tweet asking fans to tune in from their homes, saying the plaza would not be offering a live feed.

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Of course, his plea was largely ignored. The hundreds who continued to congregate in the plaza as tipoff approached might not have gained admission to the inside event — tickets were upwards of $900 just to get in the door — but the mourners wanted to be as close as possible to the place where Bryant became theirs.

The anticipation for what the Lakers would do had been growing all week. The organization had remained mostly quiet, providing counselors for its grieving staff members and large banners for heartbroken fans to sign outside the team’s practice facility and at the arena. Only Frank Vogel, the team’s first-year head coach, had spoken publicly about Bryant’s passing.

In the hours before the game, though, word began to trickle out on social media about the franchise’s plans to honor Bryant in a way that pays proper respect to the legend’s impact on the Lakers, the city and the game of basketball.

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The Lakers posted a photo on Twitter of a black circle with the letters “KB” inside displayed on the baseline at Staples Center. Their home gold uniforms also would feature a patch with the logo. Every fan who entered the building would receive a gold Bryant T-shirt jersey. One side of the arena wore No. 24, the other No. 8.

The Lakers covered the two seats that Kobe and Gianna occupied the last time they came to a game on Dec. 29 with Kobe’s No. 24 jersey and Gianna’s No. 2. Bouquets of red roses were laid on the seats.

These previews of the night to come gave fans an idea of the emotions that would soon take over Staples.

Inside, with the 7:30 tipoff fast approaching, the lights dimmed. The chants rang out. Ko-be! Ko-be! Then, M-V-P! M-V-P! That was to be expected, but the heartfelt moments that followed came in waves, inducing unpredictable flashes of feeling in the building and throughout Southern California.

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Usher stood in the spotlight at center court, singing “Amazing Grace” with his eyes closed. Los Angeles philharmonic cellist Ben Hong set the background music during a stirring video tribute. Boyz II Men wore gold No. 8 jerseys and sang the national anthem. A fan yelled “Jesus loves you, Kobe!” before the crowd broke into chants of “Gi-Gi! Gi-Gi!” to honor Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter.

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The Lakers, a franchise forced to confront the death of the star shooting guard who helped add five NBA championship banners to the rafters above, had one more surprise in store.

LeBron James stepped to center court and read the names of the nine who died. Now in his second season with the Lakers and having passed Bryant to take third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list the week before, James held a small piece of white paper but quickly tossed it aside.

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“I’m going to go straight from the heart,” he said.

In that case, James had read the room perfectly.

“The first thing that comes to mind, 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,” James said. “And from Sunday morning until this point ... I’ve heard about Laker Nation and how much of a family it is ... and that is absolutely what I’ve seen this whole week. ... This is really, truly a family.

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“Now, I know at some point we will have a memorial for Kobe, but I’m looking at this as a celebration tonight. This is a celebration of 20 years, of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken-down body, the countless hours, the determination to be as great as he could be … tonight we celebrate the kid that came here at 18, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad that we’ve seen over the last three years, man.”

Earlier Friday, James revealed on his Instagram that he had gotten a new tattoo in Bryant’s honor on his left thigh. It was a black snake with the inscription “Mamba 4 Life.”

“In the words of Kobe Bryant, Mamba out,” James told the fans, “but in the words of us, not forgotten. Live on, brother.”

James put the microphone down and walked to the Lakers bench. The lights came on and the starting lineups were announced, finishing with Bryant’s name being called as the Lakers’ sixth man for this special night.

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In honor of Bryant’s NBA uniform numbers, the Lakers began the game with a 24-second violation, and the Trail Blazers followed with an eight-second backcourt violation — as all other NBA games had begun that week.

Then, somehow, the Lakers and Blazers played a game of basketball. The Lakers lost 127-119, but nobody seemed to care.


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