Before the Los Angeles Lakers practiced on the final day before their first game since Kobe Bryant’s death, they played.
The players, their coaching staff and general manager Rob Pelinka took to the park across the street from the team’s headquarters Thursday to kick around a soccer ball and throw a pigskin.
The sight of these basketball big men straining to make saves in goal or loping underneath LeBron James’ 30-yard passes brought smiles and laughter to fans walking by. The excursion also seemed to lift the spirits of the players, who got a fun respite from a rough week.
“It’s a beautiful day out, and there’s always therapeutic benefits to sunshine and being outside in fresh air,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
The Lakers will return to the court Friday night at Staples Center to face the Portland Trail Blazers in their first game since Bryant’s death along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven more in a helicopter crash Sunday. A game earlier this week was postponed.
“We’re just going to put our heads down, pull our sleeves up and grind,” Los Angeles Lakers coach, Frank Vogel, told reporters Thursday.
He spoke as the team practiced in El Segundo, preparing for a Friday game that will be its first since Bryant’s death.
“The last two days has really been about the work,” Vogel said. “This is what we get lost in.”
The Lakers have been leaning on each another as they grieve.
“I do believe being around each other is good for all of us,” Vogel said. “We know it’s going to be a tough game, emotionally.”
The Lakers will hold a pregame tribute to the Bryants and the other victims, although the franchise wants the details kept private.
“I would imagine it probably makes it a little harder than an ordinary game with all the emotions and that stuff, but we shouldn’t do it any other way,” Vogel said. “It’s the right thing to do, and an important night for our franchise and for Laker Nation.”
Bryant retired in 2016 after a 20-year career with the Lakers. He remained a franchise icon and kept close connections to many team employees, all the way up to general manager Rob Pelinka — Bryant’s longtime agent — and owner Jeanie Buss, who posted a heartfelt letter to Bryant and his family Thursday on Instagram.
“My father loved you like a son, which makes us family,” Buss wrote before going on to describe a lunch with Kobe and Gianna in which she found inspiration and strength to become the franchise’s leader after the death of her father, Jerry.
Pelinka issued his own statement Thursday, saying his lost his best friend in Kobe death’s, and in Gianna’s his “sweet goddaughter.”
Pelinka remembered Kobe as both the “most inspirational athlete of our time” and “best friend anyone could ever imagine.” He called Gianna “pure joy” and said his own children “always left time with Gigi feeling better about life itself.”
“Last Sunday is not the end of the story. It’s just a new beginning,” he wrote. “Kobe and Gigi’s legacies will live on — and gain even more power and influence.”
.@Lakers GM Rob Pelinka issues heartfelt statement on Kobe and Gigi’s deaths: “I lost my best friend and my sweet goddaughter. With that, there has been an amputation of part of my soul.” https://t.co/t1EDn09wAs pic.twitter.com/OBMdxKdOi2
— KTLA (@KTLA) January 31, 2020
The loss is still painful for James and the players, who all decided not to speak to the media for the second straight day. Before Vogel coached his players through a workout to prepare for the Blazers, he got his players outside and across the street to loosen up.
“We are striking a balance of trying to make guys feel good,” Vogel said. “Laughter is always a good remedy for something like this when it’s appropriate. Today’s workout outside, it’s not the first time we’ve done that, but it does feel good to be out there.”
KTLA’s Marissa Wenzke and Erika Martin contributed to this story.