LOS ANGELES — For Kobe Bryant, basketball was his escape.
It was both his profession and his passion for the 20 years he played for the Lakers, but when Kobe wanted to get away from the challenges and pains life piles on everyone, he retreated to the basketball court and competed. Hard. That was his therapy.
Friday night, for the first time since Kobe died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven others, the Lakers took the court and tried to use the game as their therapy.
“It’s emotional, it’s tough, the entire [pregame video] memorial was tough for me to see, to hear his voice and realize he’s gone,” Anthony Davis said. “But basketball is kind of my stress reliever, and to get on the court with these guys that I know got my back… helped me out a lot…
“For me, it was just trying to play as hard as I can just knowing that’s what he would want me to do.”
"Tonight we celebrate the kid that came here at 18, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we've seen over the last three years.” pic.twitter.com/0sS7e91cuz
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) February 1, 2020
“I look at this as a celebration tonight,” LeBron told the sell-out crowd. “This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken-down body, the getting up and sitting down, everything, the countless hours, the determination to be as great as he could be.”
However, Los Angeles didn’t get its Hollywood ending. That’s because Damian Lillard — one of the most Kobe-like players in the league when it comes attitude on the court — scored 48 points, plus had 10 assists and 9 rebounds, to spark a 127-119 Portland win.
“[Kobe was] the toughest competitor to ever play the game,” Lillard said. “I think it was only right that we pay our respect pregame then honor him by going out and competing at a higher level, and I think both teams did that.”
For the Lakers, after an emotional week in the shadow of Kobe, this was about more than basketball, more than wins and losses. For the team, it’s fans, and the city of Los Angeles it was about starting the healing process. Outside Staples Center fans had created a massive memorial, filled with flowers, jerseys, basketballs with messages written on them, and so much more. There was a huge memorial banner where fans could write messages to Kobe. Before Friday’s game, that area was overwhelmed with people who had come to pay their respects.
Inside the arena, fans chanted ‘Ko-be” multiple times, but pregame there were also “Gi-gi” chants. The names and faces of all nine people who perished were shown on the jumbotron through much of the evening.
Still trying to process it all, the Lakers’ players looked for positives to cling to in their memories of Kobe. For LeBron, that means focusing on family.
“I think everybody was emotional tonight…” LeBron James said. “I was telling my wife a couple days ago, seeing Kobe play the game of basketball for 20 years, for the Lakers, from 18 to 38, I said, ‘You know what’s crazy?’ She was like, ‘What?’
“You know what, these last three years, out of all the success he had — five rings, multiple [Finals] MVPs, All-Star Game MVP, first-team all-everything, all-life, all-world, all-basketball — I felt like the last three years was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. I think we can all say that. The happiest I have ever seen him. Being able to just be with his daughters, be with his family.”
It’s a level of happiness the Lakers want to get back to after a rough week.
It will be a long process, but Friday night was the first step in getting there.