Several times during last season’s victorious playoff and NBA Finals run, the Lakers wore their ‘Black Mamba’ jerseys to commemorate Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died in a helicopter crash alongside seven others on January 26 last year.
The jerseys were designed by Bryant — who gave himself the ‘Black Mamba’ nickname during his career — and worn for the first time in the 2018 season. The Lakers would go on to win their first Larry O’Brien Trophy since Bryant’s last title in 2010.
After the conclusion to last season was played in the Disney World bubble, the Lakers are back playing their home games at Staples Center where the two jersey numbers — eight and 24 — that Bryant wore during his 20-year Laker career are hanging in the rafters.
“As devastating and as tragic as it was — and still is — to all of us involved with it, only time. And it takes time. Everyone has their own grieving process,” James said.
“Us being able to remember him, wearing [Mamba] jerseys during the postseason and have the postseason we had … we have a lot of guys wearing his shoes, I’m able to wear the two-four on my finger every night and then when we play at Staples Center you see the eight, two-four in the rafters to live his legacy on.
“It’s a lot of things that die in this world, but legends never die, and he’s exactly that. So it’s all about representing that.”
Bryant was James’ boyhood idol and the pair went on to become close friends. James naturally struggled following Bryant’s death and admitted it was a mental challenge being the leader of the Lakers organization during that time.
“I try not to put myself back in that head space because it’s just too dark, for not only myself but for our organization and for everyone that’s involved in it,” he recalled.
“As a leader of the ballclub, it was my job and my responsibility to take it all on and represent our team with the most strength that I could. I wanted to let everyone inside this organization know that I was okay doing that.”
‘I still have trouble’
Anthony Davis, the Lakers co-captain alongside James, admitted that he still struggles to come to terms with Bryant’s death.
The 6-foot-10 big man has helped James shoulder much of the responsibility that comes with being an organization’s leading figure — both on and off the court — including leading the team to win last season’s title in Bryant’s memory.
“As we approach his one-year anniversary, it saddens our hearts to actually come to the realization that he’s gone,” Davis said. “I know I still have trouble with it, you still just can’t believe it, especially when you were really close to him.”
Davis’ dominant performances in that victorious postseason elevated him to another plane and established his place among the league’s best players.
Part of what drove him to find another gear was the determination to win the title as a dedication to Bryant. Davis said the entire team was immediately aware that a championship would take on a greater significance in the wake of Bryant’s death.
“It was January 26 of last year when it happened. From that point on, we were like: ‘We have a purpose,'” he recalled. “To this day, ‘Mamba on three!’ anytime we bring it in because we still want to recognize that he’s a part of our organization. And ever since the tragedy happened, we had a mindset that this is bigger than, you know, ourselves.”
“When the tragedy happened, it was more so, you know, ‘Let’s do it for him’ and that’s what we ended up doing all last year. Even when we play now, it’s in the back of our mind that we are still playing for Kobe, his family and to help the city of LA, and I think we brought a ton of joy to our city when we won.
“We know we fought to the end for a purpose, and it wasn’t just for ourselves. It was for the Bryant family and we were able to get that accomplished.”
On the court, Bryant and Pau Gasol formed a devastating partnership and would win two NBA championships. Off it, they became brothers. Gasol and his family have spent a lot of time with Bryant’s wife Vanessa and their three girls since his death.
Pau’s younger brother, Marc, joined the Lakers during the offseason and hopes to emulate his sibling’s achievements with the franchise. He still struggles to open up on the incident that took Bryant’s life, but says his presence is keenly felt within the organization and is still used as inspiration to achieve the team’s goals this season.
“I’m not comfortable talking about it. I’m sorry. Still to this day, I have never really talked about it,” Marc said.
“He will be a part of not only the team, the franchise, the city … it’s very emotional … he’s obviously someone that we looked up to.”