The Los Angeles Lakers and grieving fans packing the Staples Center paid an emotional, pregame tribute to basketball icon Kobe Bryant on Friday night.
Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna "Gigi" Bryant, were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, an event that devastated the NBA and fans worldwide. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause, which will likely take months.
The other seven victims were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, 56, his wife Keri Altobelli, 46, and their daughter Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Sarah Chester, 45, and her daughter Payton Chester, 13; Mamba Sports Academy coach Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.
This was the first game the Lakers have played since Bryant's death, facing the Portland Trail Blazers. Their Tuesday game against the Clippers was postponed, as the sports world openly mourned the five-time NBA champion and 18-time All-Star.
Bouquets of red roses were placed on two empty, courtside seats. Bryant's yellow No. 24 Lakers jersey was pulled over one. Gianna's black No. 2 jersey from Mamba Sports Academy was pulled over the other.
The Staples Center held 24.2 seconds of silence in honor of the father-daughter pair and the other victims.
Usher began the roughly 25-minute ceremony, spotlit in center court, singing "Amazing Grace." Cellist Ben Hong of the Los Angeles Philharmonic accompanied a video montage, splicing together narration by Bryant through different moments of his career.
"I have four girls, so my mission is for women to have opportunities," Bryant's voice boomed across the Staples Center. The helicopter was en route to a youth basketball tournament at Mamba Sports Academy when it crashed in Calabasas.
The tributes were punctuated by the crowd's chants of "Kobe, Kobe!" and "Gigi, Gigi!" Commemorative No. 8 and No. 24 t-shirts, Bryant's numbers during his 20-season career with the Lakers, were draped on seats throughout the Staples Center for fans to take home.
A visibly devastated LeBron James tossed aside his written speech, opting to speak from the heart to "Lakers Nation."
"Tonight we celebrate the kid that came here at 18, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we've seen over the last three years. Tonight is a celebration."
James vowed that he and the Lakers would carry on Bryant's legacy. He closed by echoing Bryant's retirement speech. "In the words of Kobe Bryant, 'Mamba Out,' but in the words of us, 'Not Forgotten.' "
The enormity of Bryant's impact made his name ubiquitous that night. When the Lakers ran out for starting lineup, each player was announced the same way: "No. 24, 6 feet, 6 inches, 20th year from Lower Merion High School. Kobe Bryant."
Jubilant fans erupted, that tribute earning the biggest cheers of the night.
"I'm sitting next to total strangers. We're hugging. We're crying. We're high-fiving," fan Ebony Bryant (no relation) told NPR.
The Lakers were not victorious in the resulting game; Portland won 127-119. Lakers Coach Frank Vogel didn't fault his team, with grief over Bryant's loss permeating the night.
"It was very emotional. Guys were teared up, going into the jump ball. You want to give maximum effort, but, you know, we had a difficult week," he said.
Frank Vogel on the emotions of tonight’s game in LA. pic.twitter.com/M7sx07T8qw— NBA TV (@NBATV) February 1, 2020
Bryant's triumphant career and utter devotion to the game of basketball was the clear focus of the night, though the complexities of his legacy have borne out in public conversation. A 2003 sexual assault accusation ended in a settlement. His record of trash talking and lashing out at other players generated rivalries.
In 2018, two years after retirement, Bryant created Mamba Sports Academy and won an Oscar for his animated short, Dear Basketball. He focused his energy on supporting the next generation of players. This retirement chapter, and the basketball future of Gianna Bryant, was brought to an abrupt close.
"His daughter at 13, we did not see a full chapter. We barely saw a beginning. I'm thinking about the relationship that Kobe had with his daughter, and the support that he was showing for the WNBA. That's evolution from where he once was," Kevin Blackistone, sports columnist for The Washington Post, told NPR's Morning Edition.
In a post-game interview, LeBron James spoke little of losing to Portland. He spoke of Bryant's happiness in spending more time with his family.
"I didn't feel bad in Boston, when I went to go see my son two hours away in Springfield," James said. "We had a game that night. We got our ass kicked. And I didn't feel bad at all. In the name of Kobe, why not?"
NPR's Tom Goldman contributed reporting.