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Column: Kobe Bryant’s spirit is present in Lakers’ NBA championship triumph

A large mural of Kobe Bryant in a purple Number 24 Lakers jersey on a brick wall
A fan walks under a mural of the late Kobe Bryant on Hill Street in downtown L.A. in August.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

From the heavens, they were touched.

To the heavens, they have soared.

On the wings of the fallen Kobe Bryant and the prayers of a hungry city, the Lakers have once again reached basketball’s glorious peak.

At AdventHealth Arena near Orlando, Fla., on Sunday night, Los Angeles’ most beloved sports franchise ended a decade-long drought by defeating the Miami Heat 106-93 to capture its 17th NBA championship.

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The clinching blowout, in which the overmatched Heat were quickly swarmed and suffocated, gave the Lakers a four-games-to-two victory in an NBA Finals that ended in exhausted hugs and jubilant tears.

As purple-and-gold confetti filled the air, the champions hugged and bounced across the floor, one giant mass of Lakers, a team till the end.

LeBron James was ecstatic, stretching out his arms and tapping his head and screaming to the ceiling. His wingman, Anthony Davis, was emotional, sitting on a table with his head buried in a towel.

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“To you Laker team, I’m so proud of you both on and off the court,” said owner Jeanie Buss during the midcourt trophy ceremony. “You’ve done Los Angeles proud. You have written your own inspiring chapter in the great Laker history.”

On a night of joy long anticipated by a city feeling the sting of watching this pandemic postseason from 2,500 miles away, there was history everywhere.

With the 17 titles — a dozen of which were won with the team based in Los Angeles — the Lakers have finally equaled the number won by the hated Boston Celtics and thus can claim at least a share of the title of greatest NBA franchise ever.

“I will bring back the trophy to Los Angeles where it belongs,” Buss proclaimed.

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By becoming the first player to win the NBA Finals MVP award with three different franchises — while winning his fourth title overall — James can surely claim at least a share of the title with Michael Jordan as greatest player ever. James’ legacy was marginalized this past summer by the release of the Jordan documentary “The Last Dance,” but that narrative is changing.

Lakers players celebrate their NBA championship victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“We just want our respect,” said James, who of course had a triple-double in the clincher. “Rob [Pelinka] wants his respect, Coach [Frank] Vogel wants his respect, our organization wants their respect, Laker nation wants their respect, and I want my damn respect too.”

Then there is the history made by Buss, who cheered from the upper tier of the near-empty gym while wearing a mask. Three years after wresting control of the organization, she becomes the first female controlling owner to lead her team to an NBA championship.

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“To Laker nation, we have been through a heartbreaking tragedy with the loss of our beloved Kobe Bryant and Gianna,” Buss said. “Let this trophy serve as a reminder of when we come together, believe in each other, incredible things can happen.”

The real hero of the Lakers’ title run could indeed be found in that reminder, evident in the clothing they wore and the name they chanted. The biggest star was the memory of the late Bryant, whose spirit hovered over everything and whose influence was felt everywhere.

After Bryant and 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash in Calabasas, the Lakers vowed to play the season in his honor. In a speech to a weeping Staples Center crowd in their first game after the tragedy, James made a public pledge.

While the Lakers have dedicated this postseason to Bryant, many think of him daily for other reasons, particularly when they put on a pair of his Nikes.

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“I want to continue, along with my teammates, to continue his legacy ... because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want,” James intoned.

Promise kept.

Throughout a postseason run in which they lost just five times in 21 games, they broke their huddles chanting, “1-2-3-Mamba!” They wore his shoes. They wore his T-shirts. They affixed their signatures to signs that carried his credo “Leave a Legacy.”

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When Davis hit their postseason’s most memorable shot — a three-point buzzer-beater to devastate Denver in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals — he pounded his chest and shouted “Kobe!” That play will be forever known as “the Mamba Shot.”

“Kobe’s presence was magical,” said Tim Harris, the Lakers’ president of business operations and chief operating officer. “It was like we were playing six on five.”

This was especially apparent when they wore the snakeskin Black Mamba jerseys designed by Bryant himself. They were 4-1 in those jerseys. Davis hit that shot against Denver in those jerseys. They were devastated that they couldn’t clinch the title in Game 5 while wearing those jerseys. On Sunday, while wearing white, they vowed to make it right.
“We know we had to do this for Kobe and Gigi and the rest of Laker Nation,” forward Markieff Morris said. “This was a special one.”

Davis summed up Bryant’s effect with tears welling in his eyes.

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Highlights from the Lakers’ championship-clinching win over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

“We didn’t let him down. ... Ever since the tragedy, all we wanted to do is do it for him, and we didn’t let him down,” Davis said. “I know he’s looking down on us proud of us. I know Vanessa is proud of us. ... It’s a tough moment, man. ... He was a big brother to all of us, and we did this for him.”

It was a night not only of elation but also of relief, as the Lakers franchise has endured many wicked curves in a journey that began after the team’s last championship in 2010.

The Lakers thought they were headed back to greatness in 2011, when they traded for All-Star guard Chris Paul. But the deal was considered unfair and vetoed by former NBA Commissioner David Stern.

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They thought they had the answer a season later when they acquired All-Stars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. But their hopes were derailed by injuries and attitude and, oh yeah, Bryant suffered a torn Achilles tendon and was never the same.

The franchise’s direction eventually fell into such chaos, Buss had to fire her brother Jim to gain control. She then hired Magic Johnson to run their basketball operations, but barely two years later, he quit.

During these last 10 years, the Lakers missed the playoffs for a franchise-record six consecutive seasons while going through seven coaches and three regime changes. Only at its lowest point did the organization finally glimpse hope.

The Lakers' Anthony Davis dunks over the Heat's Jimmy Butler during Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
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That’s when future Hall of Famer James showed up. He signed in the summer of 2018 mostly because it was good for his fledgling entertainment business — he wanted to work in Los Angeles — but soon booing Lakers fans showed him more was expected. Thusly reprimanded after a detached first season, James went to work last summer on rebuilding his image and rediscovering a title.

First, the Lakers hired cerebral coach Vogel, the perfect curator for James’ intelligent style. Then James and his business associates helped recruit All-Star forward Davis, who demanded to be traded here from New Orleans, giving the Lakers a dynamo duo reminiscent of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

Then, after Pelinka, the general manager, surrounded them with valuable veteran role players such as Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo, who scored 19 in the clincher, James became a forceful but embraceable leader.

He enabled even the team’s most unheralded pieces — think Game 6 defensive whiz Alex Caruso — while empowering Vogel. He publicly led them through the pain of Bryant’s death and the uncertainty of the pandemic shutdown. He reportedly even held private workouts during the summer hiatus.

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By the time the Lakers entered the Orlando bubble in late July, they had the NBA’s second-best record and its absolute best chemistry.

And they had the strength of Kobe.

“It’s like they’ve got a super power,” Harris said. “They seem to be playing for something bigger than a championship. How can you watch all that’s happened and not believe he’s with us?”

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Today, in the wake of the sort of dominant NBA championship run that Kobe would have loved, a team and a city believe.

When Bryant retired in 2016, he famously ended his final Staples Center speech with, “Mamba out!”

Never.

Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.

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The Lakers won their 17th NBA Championship Friday night. Tell us what you’ll remember most about the 2020 season.


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