LOS ANGELES, Calif. – LeBron James has only been a part of the Los Angeles Lakers for 19 months. The West Coast is a late stop on an NBA odyssey that already yielded rings, trophies and innumerable indelible moments in Cleveland and Miami.
Yet when this venerated franchise needed a leader to honor a legend during one of the most traumatic times in its history, James took the microphone and stood alone in a golden spotlight at Staples Center on Friday night.
Five days after Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, the simple eloquence of James' words left most of the arena cheering through tears.
In just four minutes, LeBron's speech captured the melancholy mood of a city while suggesting it's both possible and necessary to move on after unthinkable tragedy.
“As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving,” James said. "We’re all hurt. We’re all heartbroken. But when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.”
Cleveland might be James' home, but a part of him is now permanently purple and gold.
After James' heart, humor and empathy commanded the arena Bryant essentially built, he tore down any lingering skepticism among the Lakers' vast fan base about whether LeBron could truly be embraced by LA.
A fan-fueled, 13-year rivalry between Bryant and James for overall NBA supremacy left many Lakers lovers viewing LeBron's move west with skepticism, even after Bryant hailed the decision.
When James stepped forward and spoke on this dark day, he cemented his importance to his new team, even before they reach the playoffs together for the first time this spring.
James' leadership skills mattered this week well before the game. Frank Vogel, the first-year Lakers coach thrust into a leadership role at a terrible time, said James took the lead in the Lakers' first team meeting Tuesday after Bryant's death, stepping up to share his grief and his memories of a friendly rival.
“I think he’s been really a tower of strength for all of us,” Vogel said. “He’s really been a great leader in this difficult time for us, both by example and by just being a vocal leader, and we’re following his lead.”
The Lakers knew their first game back would be painful, and the pregame ceremony proved them correct.
After Usher sang “Amazing Grace,” Bryant's resonant voice echoed through the darkened arena while images from his life and career flickered on the scoreboard above. Images of Kobe with Gianna were almost too painful to watch.
Eventually, it was James' turn. He started by reciting the names of all nine victims of the crash in the foggy hills above Calabasas, California.
James had notes for a speech tucked into the waistband of his warmup pants, but he pulled them out and pointedly discarded them.
"They asked me to kind of stay on course, or whatever the case may be," James said. “But Laker Nation, man, I would be selling y'all short if I read off this ... so I'm going to go straight from the heart.”
Just six days earlier, James passed Bryant for third place on the NBA's career scoring list. He spoke at length after that game in Philadelphia about Bryant's influence on his game and his approach to life, praising Kobe for his everything from his superlative skills to his desire to be a strong father to his four daughters.
Bryant and James spoke by phone early that morning — as it turned out, only several hours before Bryant died.
“I know at some point, we will have a memorial for Kobe," James told Staples Center. "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 getting up, the sitting down, the everything. 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, man. Tonight is a celebration.”
After the game, James met with the media behind sunglasses and alongside Anthony Davis, the other heir to Bryant's throne atop the Lakers.
James' thoughts were clearly still running wild after the Lakers' 127-119 loss in which he missed 13 of his 22 shots and committed five turnovers. His desperation to play better was obvious in every mistake, but he still managed 22 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds while LA's comeback fell short of matching Damian Lillard's 48 points.
James and the Lakers had to leave for Sacramento immediately after the game, but he won't stop thinking about Bryant anytime soon.
LeBron had a conversation with his wife earlier in the week in which he came to a startling realization about Bryant, long known as a relentless competitor who would sacrifice nearly anything to be the best at his profession.
“These last three years, out of all the success he had — five rings, multiple MVPs, All-Star Game MVPs, first-team everything, all-life, all-world, all-basketball — it felt like these last three years was the happiest I’d ever seen him, being able to just be with his daughters,” James said of Bryant's retirement.
“When we’re playing this game of basketball, we give so much to it, and this is my 17th year, so I know. We give so much to it where, unfortunately, your family comes to the wayside at times. Because when you want to be great at something, and you want to be the best, and you become so driven that you won’t let nothing stand in the way of it. Not even your own family sometimes.”
James then identified a simple lesson from Kobe's life — and the unimaginable way it ended.
“Hug the (expletive) out of your kids."
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