The Los Angeles Lakers ended practice with a few somber, almost plaintive laughs. As they left the court, they all passed under the oversized 8 and 24 outlined in white on the black wall above the door to their locker room.
Anthony Davis and several other Lakers paused and looked up at Kobe Bryant’s two retired numbers for a moment before they moved forward.
The Lakers are still grieving and mourning Bryant’s death Sunday in a helicopter crash along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others. Los Angeles’ players and coaches returned to work Wednesday at their training complex with a determination to keep Bryant and the victims in their thoughts while getting on with the business of basketball and life.
“We want to represent what Kobe was about, more than anything,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ve always wanted to make him proud, and that’s not going to be any different now.”
Vogel, who joined the Lakers eight months ago, was the only person to speak to the media after the workout. The loss apparently was still too raw for the players, including superstars LeBron James and Davis, who played in the Olympics with Bryant.
Although Bryant retired in 2016, he is still enormously important to his franchise and his sport. Ever since the Lakers drafted the 17-year-old guard from suburban Philadelphia in 1996, Bryant had been a face of this franchise and a basketball-mad city while he became a five-time NBA champion and his team’s career leader in points and games played.
The current Lakers are still grappling with the loss while they prepare for their next game Friday night at Staples Center against Portland.
“We’ve become a family in a very short time,” Vogel said of the Lakers’ roster, which features only one player who suited up with Bryant. “It’s something that we talk about in the NBA with your teams, but this group in particular has really grown to love each other very rapidly, and we understand the importance and the opportunity we have this year. This has just brought us closer together.”
Outside the Lakers’ training complex, a temporary wall of remembrance has grown to nearly the entire length of the building, bookended on either side by large photos and colorful memorials to the Bryants. Fans have streamed through the security gates and up to the wall throughout the past three days, using markers to inscribe their thoughts and prayers on the white surface.
Bryant’s death has temporarily overwhelmed an exciting season of rebirth for the Lakers, who have missed the playoffs for a franchise-record six straight years. The current Lakers are poised for a serious run at the franchise’s 17th championship, with James and Davis leading a burgeoning powerhouse to the Western Conference’s best record at 36-10.
But life and basketball have been put in a new perspective for everyone around the Lakers.
After their game against the Clippers on Tuesday night was postponed, the players and coaches gathered that afternoon to share stories and remembrances because it felt “therapeutic and beneficial,” Vogel said.
“It’s been something that has touched my family, being the father of daughters, and it’s been very emotional,” Vogel said. “It’s something that brings us together. I’m around the people who were closest to Kobe throughout his time here, and it’s been just a deeply saddening time for all of us.”
Indeed, Bryant still had close ties to dozens of employees of the organization for which he played his entire 20-year career. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss was quite close to his family, and general manager Rob Pelinka was Bryant’s longtime agent.
Only veteran Lakers center Dwight Howard played alongside Bryant in purple and gold, albeit briefly in their disappointing 2012-13 season. But almost everyone on Los Angeles’ rebuilt roster played against Kobe, and they all knew and respected the most prolific scorer in Lakers history.
“He was the most feared man in the league for an entire generation,” Vogel said. “His influence is found league-wide, in basketball league-wide, and the Lakers family worldwide.”
The Lakers’ two biggest stars had friendships with Kobe. James and Bryant were teammates on two U.S. Olympic teams, while Davis also was a young backup on the 2012 Olympic squad.
James wrote an emotional Instagram post about Bryant on Monday, saying: “I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here … and it’s my responsibility to put this (team) on my back and keep it going!!”
Lakers reserve guard Quinn Cook is changing his jersey number from 2 to 28 to honor Kobe, who wore No. 8 for the first half of his NBA career, and Gianna, who favored a No. 2 jersey in her youth basketball career. The University of Connecticut placed a No. 2 jersey on its bench this week in honor of Gianna, who hoped to play for the basketball powerhouse.
Gianna Bryant’s death clearly hurt the Lakers. Vogel and his wife have two young daughters.
“It’s what your life is about,” Vogel said. “Him being a father to daughters and being involved in their sports was the most enjoyable thing in his life from observation, and it’s the most important thing in my life. I love being the coach of the Lakers, but it doesn’t come close to comparing to my family time.”