After Kobe Bryant retired in 2016, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss dreamed of a day when Bryant would return to the team in some official capacity. After all, Magic Johnson became a Lakers owner, coach and president after he retired. Jerry West made the transition to coach, general manager and president after he walked away from the game.
Bryant, however, didn’t feel the same urge to return. After a 20-year career with the Lakers, he was content living in Orange County and being a husband to Vanessa and a father to their daughters, Natalia, 17, Gianna, 13, Bianka, 3, and Capri, who was born last June.
“I have my routine at home,” Bryant said in October. “I’d rather be giving B.B. a shower and sing Barney songs to her. I played 20 years and I missed those moments before. For me to make the trip up to Staples Center, that means I’m missing an opportunity to spend another night with my kids when I know how fast it goes. … I want to make sure the days that I’m away from them are days that I absolutely have to be. I’d rather be with them than doing anything else.”
As Buss looked up at Bryant’s retired jerseys at Staples Center this week, the reality of Bryant being gone still hadn’t sunk in as she made her first public comments since Bryant, Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
“It’s difficult for me to take talk about the pain of the loss of Kobe,” Buss said. “I still can’t believe that’s it’s real. What we’re going to do as Lakers fans is keep his memory and what he stood for alive. He inspired me and set a bar for the Lakers that we will continue to try to match. We’ll miss him every day.”
“I always dreamed that he would come and join the Lakers as an official part of the organization but he was always available to me any time I needed advice, support or input. He made himself available and I’m forever grateful for that. I will try to live up to his greatness and the standard that he set for us and we will continue to celebrate him and honor him and Gigi and we will embrace the entire Bryant family and keep them close. They will be a part of us forever.”
Buss spoke alongside Lakers fans Anthony Kiedis and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a Lakers All-Access event. The band members were still coming to grips with the loss of Bryant as well.
“I feel closer to Kobe than I’ve felt in my life,” Kiedis said. “It is a very bizarre phenomenon. Some human beings die and their energy does not. … I think about him every day now. I didn’t used to think about him every day.”
Flea recalled standing next to Kiedis at the end of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, watching Bryant and the Lakers defeat the Boston Celtics.
“We were hugging, jumping around and celebrating and in that moment Kobe and all of the Lakers brought us all together,” Flea said. “Every ethnicity, every economic bracket, people from all parts of the city came together under an umbrella of purple and gold that was loving and beautiful. In his death as well as in his life, he brought us together.”
One of the most surprising stories for the Lakers this season has been the play of Dwight Howard, who went from possibly not being in the league this season to being a key role player on a team with the best record in the Western Conference.
The Lakers originally traded for the center at the height of his career in 2012 when he was coming off five straight All-NBA First Team appearances and three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards, but Howard did not re-sign with the Lakers when he became a free agent after one season in Los Angeles. He signed with the Houston Rockets, and the move made him one of the most disliked former Lakers ... but Buss never blamed him for leaving.
“I understand why he left,” Buss said. “We hired a coach [Mike D’Antoni] that didn’t respect his game and wasn’t going to put him in a position to succeed.”
Buss made it a point to never publicly or privately knock Howard for making the move and, despite the resentment from Lakers fans, both sides remained cordial during his six seasons away. That made his return to the Lakers far smoother than anyone outside the organization could have anticipated.
“What was important was we never burned that bridge,” Buss said.
There was heavy skepticism before the season started about the ability of Frank Vogel, Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins to coexist on the same coaching staff. Each one interviewed to be the Lakers head coach and had never worked together before, but the Lakers liked all three so much they named Vogel the head coach and hired Kidd and Hollins as assistants.
It has worked better than anyone could have imagined, and that was evident when the three sat on stage at the Lakers All-Access event and Hollins, Kidd and Vogel needled each other about their age, taste in music and ability to tell jokes. Hollins mentioned that the Lakers’ flight home last week from New Orleans highlighted how tight the coaching staff has become.
“We ate, we slept, we talked, we laughed,” Hollins said. “It was one of the best flights ever even though it took forever. It was a fun time. Frank has the ability to be serious and keep it enjoyable at the same time and he allows us to join in on the party with him.”