A spotlight illuminated Kobe Bryant’s retired Los Angeles Lakers jerseys – No. 8 and No. 24 – in the Staples Center rafters on Friday night. Fans briefly chanted, “Kobe! Kobe!”
The arena was cloaked in darkness, save for lights from fans’ cell phones, until a spotlight lit center court to reveal two large gold flower arrangements, one an 8 and one a 24, just before the Lakers played their first game since Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash Sunday in Calabasas, California.
Usher sang “Amazing Grace” surrounded by 19,995 fans – and two empty courtside seats for Kobe and Gianna, draped in their jerseys with bouquets of red roses – as a video montage played on the scoreboard.
It was a tribute to Bryant called “Remembering Kobe.”
Fans again chanted, “Kobe, Kobe,” then “Gigi, Gigi”.
Renowned cellist Ben Hong played at center court as a video of Bryant talking and playing basketball showed on the scoreboard. He spoke of his love of the game, his love of his wife, Vanessa, and his four daughters.
“The joy of the game just comes from being out there and playing.”
“What I’ve learned is to always keep going.”
“I just want to spend time with family, being a husband, being a father.”
The Lakers also paid tribute to the other people who died: John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; Sarah and Payton Chester; Christina Mauser; and Ara Zobayan. The group was en route to an AAU basketball game.
The public address announcer asked the crowd for a 24.2 second moment of silence – a nod to Bryant’s No. 24 and Gianna’s No. 2.
Boyz II Men sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” as LeBron James cried.
Reading from a piece of paper as he paced on center court, James said the names of each person who died. Then, he reached for a speech in another pocket, but tossed the paper and said he wanted to speak from the heart. James, like Bryant, joined the NBA as an 18-year-old out of high school. They won two Olympic gold medals together.
“The first thing that comes to mind,” James said, “is all about family. … This is truly a family. … I look at this as a celebration tonight. This is a celebration of the blood, sweat, tears. … Tonight we celebrate the kid who came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38 and probably became the best dad we’ve seen over the last three years. … In the words of Kobe Bryant, Mamba out. But in the words of us, not forgotten. Live on brother.”
James’ speech was moving and heartfelt, and if he hadn’t ingratiated himself to the Lakers fan base before Friday, he certainly did with his words about Bryant.
As the lineups were announced, each player was introduced as Kobe Bryant, from Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania. The Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers each took 24-second violations to start the game.
Before the pregame ceremony, the Lakers, each player wearing a No. 8 or No. 24 over their warm-up gear, participated in an extended huddle before taking the court about a half hour before tip-off.
ESPN’s pregame show “Remembering Kobe” featured Maria Taylor, Michael Wilbon, Stephen A. Smith, Jalen Rose and Paul Pierce, who all offered their thoughts on Bryant the player and person. Rose and Pierce recalled the games against Bryant. Wilbon and Smith each revealed personal moments – such as when Bryant called Smith after Smith’s mom died and when Bryant implored Wilbon to take care of himself after Wilbon suffered a heart attack.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.