The Los Angeles Lakers paid tribute to retired legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others killed in a helicopter crash with an emotional speech by LeBron James, music and video during their first game since their deaths.
The approximately 20-minute tribute before Friday night’s 127-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center began with the Grammy-winning R&B singer Usher singing “Amazing Grace.” Yellow floral arrangements in the shapes of the numbers Bryant wore in his 20-season career with the Lakers, 8 and 24, were placed near mid-court.
Cellist Ben Hong of the Los Angeles Philharmonic then played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a video of Bryant discussing his much-acclaimed work ethic, career and marriage interspersed with highlights of his play was shown on the video board.
A 24.2-second moment of silence was held for all victims of Sunday’s crash in Calabasas, with their names shown on the video board. Bryant’s daughter Gianna wore No. 2 as a player with his Mamba Sports Academy team.
The national anthem was sung by Boyz II Men, the Grammy-winning R&B and hip-hop vocal group from Bryant’s home town of Philadelphia. All three of its members, Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman and Wanya Morris, wore gold T-shirts with Bryant’s last name and the first number he wore in the NBA, 8, on the front.
James, wearing a jersey with Bryant’s second number, 24, addressed the crowd, first reading the names of the nine people killed in the crash — Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna, John Altobelli, 56, longtime coach of the Orange Coast College baseball team, along with his wife, Keri, 46, and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna’s on Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy basketball team; Sarah Chester, 45, and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who also played with Gianna and Alyssa; Christina Mauser, 38, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Mamba Academy team; and Ara Zobayan, 50, the helicopter pilot.
After placing the piece of paper he had with their names on the court, he took out a piece of paper from his warm-up pants, then discarded it, saying, “I’ve gotten something written out. They asked me to kind of stay on course, or whatever the case might be, but Laker Nation, man I would be selling you all short if I read off this shit, so I’m going to go straight from the heart,” drawing cheers from the customary capacity crowd of 18,997.
“The first thing that comes to mind man is all about family. As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving, we’re all hurt, we’re all heartbroken. When we’re going through things like this the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.
“… I heard about Laker Nation before I got here last (season), about how much of a family it is. That is absolutely what I’ve seen this whole week, not only from the players, not only from the coaching staff, not only from the organization, but from everybody, everybody that’s here, this is really truly, truly a family and I know Kobe and Gianna and Vanessa and everybody thank you guys from the bottom of their hearts.
“At some point we will have a memorial for Kobe, but I look at this as a celebration tonight. This is a celebration of the 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 years of age, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we’ve seen over the past three years.
“Kobe is a brother to me. From the time I was in high school … watching him perform, to getting in this league at 18, watching him up close, all the battles that we had throughout my career, the one thing that we always shared is that determination to just want to win and just want to win.
“The fact that I’m here means so much to me. I want to continue along with my teammates to continue his legacy, not only for this year, but as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that is what Kobe Bryant would want.
“So in the words of Kobe Bryant, `Mamba out,’ but in the words of us, `Not forgotten. Live on brother.”’
Public address announcer Lawrence Tanter then introduced all five Laker starters as “No. 24, 6-6, 20th” year or campaign “from Lower Marion High School, Kobe Bryant,” just as he introduced Bryant in the 2015-16 season, his last in the NBA.
With a team coach Frank Vogel said was “teared up going into the jump ball,” Lakers center JaVale McGee won the opening tipoff and the team intentionally committed a 24-second clock violation to honor Bryant. Portland then committed an 8-second violation, both references to numbers Bryant wore.
In a rarity, Vogel played all 12 Lakers in the first half, when they outscored the Trail Blazers, 62-60.
“We’re a family and this current group has become a family very rapidly by NBA standards and we all shared this this week,” Vogel said of the team that consists of nine players in their first season with the team, while center Dwight Howard re-joined the Lakers after a six-season absence.
“We were all on that plane to hear that news and I wanted to give everybody an opportunity to contribute in this game.”
Vogel called James’ speech “just beautiful.”
“It was strong and it represented who he is and really who we are as a team and an organization,” Vogel said. “I thought the tribute was extremely well done by the people in the Lakers organization and the fan support was not surprising but it was off the charts.
“It was really a great night from all those standpoints. For Bron to be up there and speaking to Laker Nation with such strength, it really represents what we’re all about.”