On Kobe Bryant’s birthday, Lakers remember his influence

Kobe Bryant left Los Angeles with memories, championships and a Mamba legacy
Sunday would have been Kobe Bryant’s 42nd birthday. He gave Los Angeles memories and a Mamba legacy.
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)
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Anthony Davis couldn’t sleep. He lay in his bed here at the Gran Destino Tower, tossing and turning, trying to leave behind a night when he made eight of 24 shots, didn’t assert himself like he could have and his team lost in his first playoff game as a Laker. As he fought the insomnia, he knew exactly who would have helped him.

Kobe Bryant.

“I thought about: What would he say to me in this moment if I could text him and ask for his advice?” Davis said. “‘What did you see on the floor?’ What would he say? And the only thing I came up with that I know he would say is, ‘Play harder. Leave it out on the floor. Did you play hard in Game 1? Did you leave it out on the floor in Game 1?’”

Bryant was the first NBA player to have mentored Davis, and Davis was the only player Bryant mentored before he retired from the NBA. It was a relationship that began when Davis was a teenager on the 2012 Olympic team. They stayed close throughout the years. Though Bryant never recruited Davis to the Lakers — that just wasn’t his style — he was excited to see what Davis could do for the franchise that meant so much to him.

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He often told Davis, “Go out there and kill. No one can stop you.” Davis took that mentality into Game 2 and produced a dominant performance.

Kobe Bryant and Anthony Davis talk while sitting on the bench during a game at the 2012 London Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

They are fond memories that Davis still thinks about constantly. He isn’t alone in his remembrance of the Lakers giant who died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t remember him,” Davis said. “We don’t forget what he’s done for this organization and for the world.

“… Now we have the opportunity to finish this season off and make him proud. We know that’s what he would want. He would want us to go out there and compete and bring another championship home. Any time we step on the floor we play for his memory.”

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Sunday would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday. Monday is the 24th day of the eighth month of the year — the two numbers Bryant wore during his NBA career. The Board of Supervisors in Orange County, where Bryant lived and where his family still resides, has designated it Kobe Bryant Day. The city of Los Angeles proclaimed Aug. 24 Kobe Bryant Day in 2016, not long after his retirement.

In a different Orange County, the one in Florida that is serving as the NBA’s bubble to complete the season, the Lakers will honor Bryant as well. For Game 4 of their playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, they will wear their Black Mamba uniforms, which Bryant helped design. The Black Mamba was the avatar Bryant adopted for himself.

The world lost Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven of their friends in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, but fans are expected to honor and remember the basketball great on Aug. 24, or 8-24, the numbers he wore on his jerseys during his NBA career, and just one day after what would have been his 42nd birthday.

The organization had each player write “Leave a Legacy,” a nod to Bryant’s mentality, in their own handwriting. They have used those images in signage around the arena in the bubble.

It’s just one of the many ways Bryant’s memory has been present in Orlando.

On their flight to Florida, Davis wore a T-shirt printed with three photos of Bryant and his daughter together.

Every time the Lakers finish practices here, they gather in a huddle and put their fists together.

“1, 2, 3, Mamba,” they say to break.

The day before the Lakers began the playoffs, assistant coach Lionel Hollins, who is helping coach remotely due to the NBA’s health rules, delivered a message to the team about Bryant and what it meant to be a Laker. Guard Alex Caruso called it a “sermon.”

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“The message was strong,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “It’s about our opportunity here and what Kobe stood for. And we’ve said that since this all happened, since we lost Kobe that we want to embody what he stood for, so I thought it was an appropriate time to do that today.”

The Lakers aren’t the only ones remembering Bryant. Portland star Damian Lillard idolized Bryant growing up, and scored 48 points at Staples Center in the Lakers’ first game after learning of Bryant’s death.

His memory is present with Houston Rockets star James Harden.

“He impacted so many people with the game of basketball, his competitive nature, his spirit, his everything — it’s unbelievable,” Harden said. “I think about him a lot, man. Obviously, we all miss him.”

Outside the bubble, too, those close to Bryant are eager to see how the world remembers him this week.

“It’s going to be amazing that the mayor, or whoever is responsible for doing it,” said Magic Johnson from Europe where he is vacationing, speaking about Kobe Bryant Day.

“We miss him and we want to miss him. It’s like nothing you can say to really describe what he meant to Los Angeles and to the world of basketball and to Orange County, and all of that. You just can’t do it, put it in words.”

Jerry West, who traded for Bryant on draft day when he was Lakers general manager, still feels the pain he felt when he first heard Bryant had died.

Kobe Bryant is congratulated by Jerry West during a ceremony on Feb. 3, 2010, to honor Bryant as the Lakers' leading scorer.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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“Honestly, I think this will be a moment when people will go back and reflect in time,” West said. “And then, secondly, it will hopefully conjure up memories not about his passing, but about who he was as a person. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

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What West hopes for is exactly how LeBron James think about Bryant. The last thing James wants to do is think about the day he died.

“I try to forget about that plane ride, of actually waking up and Dwight [Howard] telling us,” James said. “And me getting off the plane and just breaking down. I think more about the All-Star game that we played in, the epic one-on-one matchups that we had either at Staples or at American Airlines Arena down in Miami or at the Q [in Cleveland], and also about us, the redeem team and winning gold.”

Before the playoffs started, he reminisced with his good friend, Portland forward Carmelo Anthony, about the time in Philadelphia when Bryant gave James, then a high school junior, a pair of his shoes. They weren’t the right size, but James wore them anyway.

“Every day I’m in my room I’ve got Laker gear in my room, I’ve got his shoes in my room; there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think of him,” James said. “On social media I seen a clip [Thursday] from Game 1 of the Finals against the Magic. I seen how he dominated 40 points, eight rebounds, eight assists. That’s impossible to get away from and that’s absolutely OK with me. Just, there’s no way you can get away from him and I don’t want to.”

There’s a feeling he has, and others share, that in some ways Kobe Bryant is here.

Staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this story.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts joined players in wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys in honor of the Lakers legend on what would have been his 42nd birthday.