EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – 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.
The Lakers will hold a pregame tribute to the Bryants and the other victims, although the franchise wants the details kept private until game time.
“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 Pelinka — Bryant's longtime agent — and owner Jeanie Buss. Pelinka issued a statement through the Lakers on Thursday, while Buss posted a heartfelt letter to Bryant and his family 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 was Gianna Bryant's godfather, and he referred to Bryant as his “best friend" while describing the tragedy as “an amputation of part of my soul.”
“For any of us who knew them, there is an irreplaceable void left behind," Pelinka wrote. “But I am also finding that there is a hope. For now, each new step for me will be full of deep love and prayers, as a heavy sorrow for Vanessa (Bryant and their daughters) Natalia, Bianka, and Capri, and all the families involved, is slowly redeemed into something healed and new.”
Spanish big man Pau Gasol, Bryant's most important teammate on two Lakers championship teams, also posted poignant thoughts on Twitter.
“I will be heartbroken for a long time, but I will forever be thankful for having had (and) shared so much together,” Gasol wrote. “You inspired me and pushed me to be a better version of myself everyday. As you have done with many others.”
The loss also still pains 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.”
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