LeBron James, Lakers 'celebrate' life of Kobe Bryant
Forward's pre-game speech part of tribute to Bryant, other victims of helicopter crash
LeBron James wiped his eyes as the national anthem ended. Wearing Kobe Bryant's No. 24 jersey, James wrapped teammate Anthony Davis, in a No. 8 jersey, in an embrace.
The Lakers' two current superstars were back on the court Friday night for the team's first game since Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash five days earlier.
"Everybody was emotional," James said after the Lakers lost to Portland 127-119.
Davis, who scored 37 points, added, "We wanted to make him proud."
Portland's Damian Lillard had 48 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in a Kobe-like performance.
"I don't think anybody walks away from this moment and this situation a winner," Lillard said. "The memories that we'll take away from it was just sad and just tough."
James paid tribute by wearing an oversized jersey, finger sleeve, wristbands and Bryant's shoes.
"Just showing that appreciation and love he gave us way before he knew us," said James, who had 22 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists.
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The crowd tried to rally the Lakers, breaking into chants of Bryant's name when the home team was down double digits.
In a ceremony before the Lakers' first game since the crash on Sunday, Usher stood at centre court of the darkened arena in front of No. 8 and No. 24 yellow rose arrangements to sing Amazing Grace. Cellist Ben Hong from the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed while video of Bryant talking about his life and career played.
Crowd stood for 24 seconds
Fans interrupted the silence at times with chants of "Kobe!" and "MVP."
Boyz II Men, from Bryant's hometown of Philadelphia, sang the national anthem.
LeBron James, wearing No. 24, wiped his eyes as the anthem ended. He and Anthony Davis, wearing No. 8, hugged.
The crowd stood for 24.2 seconds of silence as the shot clocks ticked off the time until the horn blared. Spotlights shone on the empty seats set aside for Bryant and his daughter. His had a black-and-white Mamba jersey and hers had a No. 24 jersey.
James stood at centre court and read the names of the nine victims, ending with Bryant. He told the crowd he had remarks prepared and pulled a piece of paper from his sweatpants. But then James tossed it to the floor.
"Laker Nation, I would be selling you short if I read off this shit, so I'm going to go straight from the heart," he said.
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"The first thing comes to mind is all about family. As I look around this arena, we're all breathing, hurt and heartbroken," James said. "The best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family."
He recalled watching Bryant from afar before joining the NBA out of high school, like Bryant did.
"Kobe is a brother to me," James said. "The one thing we always shared was that determination to just want to win. I want to continue his legacy, not just this year, but as long as we continue to play basketball."
James noted there will be a memorial at some point for Bryant.
In the couple of hours leading up to the game there was mostly silence in the arena. The electric atmosphere that surges through the arena before NBA games was nowhere to be felt. Media talked quietly among themselves without the usual music playing. Somber ushers took up their positions with black ribbons attached to their purple work shirts. Grief counselling was offered to arena staff and one female usher pulled tissues out of her pocket that had been provided.
Inside the Lakers locker room, Bryant's No. 24 gold jersey hung on a wooden hanger from a fire alarm next to James' locker. It was Bryant's locker when he helped the team win five NBA championships during his 20 years in Los Angeles.
'KB' patch on jerseys
"He's been really a tower of strength for all of us," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James. "We're following his lead."
Dwight Howard sat at his locker with earbuds in. None of the players spoke before the game.
Across the street from Staples Center, large crowds continued to gather for informal public mourning at a plaza loaded with flowers, balloons and hand-written messages, many on the pavement, honouring Bryant and his daughter.
Large poster boards covered in signatures and messages were moved to the middle of the blocked off street separating the arena and the LA Live entertainment district.
The Lakers will wear a "KB" patch on their jerseys while his retired No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys decorate the court. Fans on one side of the arena will wear shirts with No. 8 while the other side will wear No. 24.
The memorabilia will be collected, inventoried and given to the Bryant family at their request. The flowers will be composted and used in plantings around the arena.